The observant amongst you will remember that back at the end of May, I posted a *lot* of pictures of piles of potential reads; the post was a popular one, for some reason, and I have to admit that the possible choices were very tantalising. Typically, however, I have so far only read *one* book from all of those; which is very me, and also why I don’t as a rule take part in things like “20 Books of Summer”, much as I’d love to. The one book I *have* read from the piles, however, was a real joy: “To See Clearly: Why Ruskin Matters” by Suzanne Fagence Cooper. I picked it up on a whim after seeing an image on Twitter (I think) and I’m really glad I did.

Fagence Cooper is by training an art historian, lecturing widely for Cunard and the Arts Society. She’s written extensively on the Pre-Raphaelite movement and also Victorian Women, as well as curating exhibitions; and is an honorary visiting fellow of the University of York. It seems, too, from reading this book that she has been strongly influenced by the writer and art critic John Ruskin; and her book sets out to remind us just how visionary his writings were, and how ahead of his times he was in many ways.

Ruskin is a complicated figure; his influence during his lifetime was immense, yet nowadays he’s much less remembered for his writings than his problematic personal life. Fagence Cooper acknowledges this, but in her view his work is more important than the personal. “To See Clearly” is a small, beautifully produced hardback, illustrated with some of Ruskin’s lovely pencil drawings, and is just over 200 pages long; yet it makes a passionate and compelling case for us to remember Ruskin as a pioneer.

I should confess up front that John Ruskin is an author I’ve been aware of since my teens, always intending to read but simply never getting round to it. I became aware of him when I watched the old BBC TV series “The Love School”, all about the Pre-Raphaelites, where he was portrayed most excellently by the late actor David Collings; and there was plenty of the personal scandal in that series! However, Ruskin’s beliefs and writings were wide-ranging, and Fagence Cooper divides her book up into chapters which look at different aspects of Ruskin – with titles like “Seeing”, “Loving” and “Learning”, she has the freedom to look at Ruskin’s life from different angles, which gives a refreshing and new vision of the man and the thinker.

He is the master of interdisciplinarity, a man whose mind could dart about, from now to then, from here to there, from text to image to building to rock formation, with marvellous felicity. And he draws us in his wake, opening up fresh visions and calling us to action with his constant questions and explanations. He never expects us to know as much as he does. But he never talks down to us either. As long as his mind holds firm, he is an excellent guide, saying time and again, ‘Have you seen this? Have you thought about this? Because I have, and I think you should too. I’ve found something important, and no one else seems to have noticed.’

And there does seem to be much to learn from Ruskin. He was a man living through the latter part of the Industrial Revolution and its after-effects, and he was already aware of what these changes were doing to our world. He detested the speed of train travel, arguing for a slowing down of pace and for us to really look at something so that we did indeed see it clearly. The emphasis is on our vision of the world, perhaps something which influenced John Berger; and nowadays, with our short attention spans and our rushing about, the ability to look properly at what’s around us so that we can understand it, is a tendency we need to encourage.

All lovely architecture was designed for cities in cloudless air; for… cities built that men might live happily in them, and take delight daily in each other’s presence and powers. But our cities, built in black air which, by its accumulated foulness, first renders all ornament invisible in distance, and then chokes its interstices with soot… cities in which the object of men is not life, but labour; and in which the streets are not the avenues for the passing and procession of a happy people, but the drains for the discharge of the tormented mob, in which the only object in reaching any spot is to be transferred to another; in which existence becomes mere transition, and every creature is only one atom in a drift of human dust, and current of interchanging particles, circulating here by tunnels underground, and there by tubes in the air; for a city, or cities, such as this no architecture is possible – nay, no desire of it is possible to their inhabitants. (Ruskin; from “The Study of Architecture in Our Schools”)

What was also fascinating to learn was of Ruskin’s early ecological concerns. At the time he lived, the massive increase of industry in the UK was already poisoning the environment; the ‘dark satanic mills’ of Blake were wreaking havoc with the landscape, and the smog and pollution was having a terrible effect. Ruskin recognised this, and warned against it, though I got the impression from this book that he was a lone voice crying in the wilderness. It’s shocking that 200 years on from his birth we haven’t learned our lesson and still seem intent on destroying our planet. Interestingly, Ruskin also attacked capitalism, seeing its pernicious effect on the poor, and this didn’t do his reputation a lot of good at the time…

It has to be said up front that Fagence Cooper is very partisan when it comes to Ruskin, and makes no secret of her admiration for him and the influence he’s had on her life and work. Ruskin was responsible for her deciding it would be possible to become an art historian, and it *is* a fascinating discipline; decoding the art of the past can tell us so much about people and their times. So I did worry that perhaps she would ignore the more difficult aspects of Ruskin’s life and beliefs (you can check out his Wikipedia page if you want to explore them more fully). In short, his attitudes to women were complex and problematic; and he often lapsed into madness or religious fervour. I wondered whether the author would choose to ignore these aspects, but to her credit she doesn’t; instead, she looks at causes for these. Ruskin had a difficult childhood, as the only child of ridiculously over-protective and restrictive parents who also seem to have lacked warmth or empathy; and his mother’s intense Evangelical Protestant principles don’t seem to have helped. Giving this background does help to add balance to our knowledge of Ruskin.

David Collings as John Ruskin in the BBC’s 1975 series “The Love School” (c. BBC)

“To See Clearly” ended up being a compelling and excellent read. Ruskin is probably best remembered for his writings on art and architecture, particularly his “Stones of Venice” (which had a negative effect on the place because of the number of visitors it drew there – a situation he decried). However, he was also active in conservation of old buildings, producing fine drawings to record places before they were lost forever, and taking an active part in stopping the poor restoration of ancient buildings. “To See Clearly” reveals a man of passions (albeit never really in the personal sense) who tried to improve the world around him, observe it in all its glory and preserve the beauty in it. His influence is long (William Morris, Gandhi and the founders of the British Labour Party reference his work) and in fact the list of those acknowledging their debt to him in his Wikipedia entry is wide-ranging. But perhaps not surprising; the quotes from his work included in this little treasure of a book are compelling, and I really will have to get on to reading some of his actual works soon!