On the one hand, preach it, Brother Ruskin! So true, so true. On the other, this sentiment is buried by John Ruskin in a footnote on page 93 of the fifth volume of Modern Painters (1860), meaning somewhere around the 1,850th page of the entire monumental work, about 2,300 pages in the 19th century edition I read.
The first volume of Modern Painters was supposed to be the only one. The 24 year-old Oxford punk meant the book to be a defense of the reputation and artistry of J. M. W. Turner, 68 at the time, but he soon discovered that it was impossible to understand Turner’s paintings - really, really understand them – without exploring taste, truth, beauty, perception, geology, botany, atmospheric science, and to a limited degree art history, among many other topics. The subtitle of the third volume (1856) is “Of Many Things,” a title both accurate and useless, but perhaps more inviting than that of the fourth volume (also 1856), “Of Mountain Beauty,” 497 pages on just what it says.
So I detect irony, that is what I am trying to say. “No use to write them.” I will come back to this idea.
During the seventeen years it took to write Modern Painters, Ruskin also wrote the three volumes of The Stones of Venice (1851-3), masterful 1,500 page sequel or supplement or appendix to Modern Painters (or vice versa) and several other works that I have not read. His final delay came from a request by the National Gallery to organize and catalogue the huge mass of Turner drawings the artist had bequeathed to the nation.
In seven tin boxes in the lower room of the National Gallery I found upwards of nineteen thousand pieces of paper, drawn upon by Turner in one way or another. Many on both sides; some with four, five, or six subjects on each side (the pencil point digging spiritedly through from the foregrounds of the front into the tender pieces of sky on the back); some in chalk, which the touch of the finger would sweep away; others in ink, rotted into holes; others (some splendid colored drawings among them) long eaten away by damp and mildew, and falling into dust at the edges, in capes and bays of fragile decay… (Vol. 5, Preface)
How I would love to continue that quotation. Ruskin should have been offered a baronetcy for his efforts.
Over the last six years, I read Modern Painters, The Stones of Venice, and a couple of shorter Ruskin books, which would feel like an accomplishment if moving one’s eyes across a page of text and flipping pages were in and of itself so difficult. I have written about Ruskin in fragments over that time, as needed, as useful, but never in a concentrated burst, which is what I will do this week, without argument or goal, but simply as a pleasant rummage through the book in front of me, the fourth and fifth volumes of John Ruskin’s Modern Painters.
I’ll get this out of the way here: reading all of Modern Painters and The Stones of Venice is Much Too Much, certainly, but the abridgements I looked at were Not Nearly Enough. Much great writing is omitted. I do not have an answer. The Stones of Venice is the more interesting of the two books.