John Ruskin was a Victorian polymath and genius. Renowned during his own lifetime he was a leading English art critic, draughtsman, watercolourist, social thinker and philanthropist.
Celebrated for his lectures at Oxford he wrote on subjects ranging from geology, architecture, myth, ornithology, literature, education, botany and political economics.
Ruskin penned essays, poetry, travel guides, letters and even a fairy tale. In all of his writing, he emphasised the connections between nature, art and society.
He also made detailed sketches and paintings of rocks, plants, birds, landscapes, and architectural structures and ornamentation. He argued that the principal role of the artist is “truth to nature”.
He also championed the Pre-Raphaelites who were influenced by his ideas.
His work later focused on social and political issues and he founded the Guild of St. George, a cratfsmans guild that endures today.
However, Ruskin was unhappy in love.
He married 19 year old Effie Gray in 1848 and she filed for anulment of their marriage only 6 years later on the grounds of non-consummation.
In a letter to her parents she wrote:
He alleged various reasons, hatred of children, religious motives, a desire to preserve my beauty, and finally this last year he told me his true reason… that he had imagined women were quite different to what he saw I was, and that the reason he did not make me his Wife was because he was disgusted with my person the first evening 10th April .
The Ruskin’s marriage is portrayed in the 2014 film, written by Emma Thompson Effie Gray.
Ruskin is portrayed as a stiff and absent husband, coddled by overbearing parents, who only cares for his books and lectures, and uncaring of his young, vivacious and pretty wife.
Other theories suppose Ruskin was only acquainted by the nude bodies of Greek and Roman statues and so horrified by the reality of his wife’s nakedness and pubic hair.
Other accounts tell of his love for young girls between the ages of 9-17 years. Indeed in a letter to his doctor he wrote:
I like my girls from ten to sixteen—allowing of 17 or 18 as long as they’re not in love with anybody but me.—I’ve got some darlings of 8—12—14—just now, and my Pigwiggina here—12—who fetches my wood and is learning to play my bells.
Nevertheless, Effie left him and married Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais, a disciple of Ruskin’s. They had 8 children together.
Ruskin never remarried.
Perhaps Ruskin’s life was one of profound and deep sorrow. The genius of the Romantic era, a man full of admiration for beauty, truth and nature, had no success in love.
Or perhaps he loved ideas more than he loved the reality he lived.