24 JANUARY 1964, Page 18

Seer of Oxford

IF any student bemused by the rhetoric of The Seven Lamps of Architec- ture asked me if there were a mind of comparable complexity I might sug-

gest, surprisingly, the author of The Seven Pillars. The repressions and deep disturbances of a narcissistic nature which, in differing circumstances, racked both John Ruskin and T. E. Lawrence were curiously joined by a like particularity of observation and involution of literary style. Ruskin shaped his into a unique instrument of evocative prose. Both scholars are largely unread today, while each attracts his critical inter- preters. The best possible introduction to Ruskin's thought and work and associations is afforded now by the Arts Council's exhibition at 4 St. James's Square.

Manuscripts, photographs and many pictures illustrate the interests, the favourite places, the work at Oxford and abortive social experiments of this melancholy and passionately opinionated genius. He had no humour. Whimsicality of a warmish sort might be elicited by his tenderness for Kate Greenaway, a frequent visitor to Brantwood, whose pretty art Ruskin admired while prudently dissuading her from illustrating his Praeterita. Any irony in his copious writings is, I believe, unpremeditated. Consider this pas- sage (from The Art of England, 1883) on Tur- ner's quelling effect on any aspirations of his contemporaries.

Stanfield might have sometimes painted an Alpine valley, or a Biscay, storm; but the moment there was any question of rendering magnitude, or terror, every effort became puny beside Turner, and Stanfield meekly resigned himself to potter all his life round the Isle of Wight, and paint the Needles on one side, and squalls off Cowes on the other. . . .

So it rails on in a vein suggestive of the elaborate mockery Lytton Strachey was to cul- tivate. In fact, it is the flow of an intoxicated stylist moved to pour scorn on the dwarfs around the giant, and increasingly enamoured by his own cadences. Moral fervour, and a passion for the natural world, motivated Ruskin.

His belief that beauty was an expression of divinity, as much as his minute way of vision, brought Ruskin in 1851 to the defence of the young Pre-Raphaelites, recognising in their in- tensest art a single-hearted unity of expression as in mediaeval illumination. It is fascinating to re-examine some paintings here, remembering his opinions. The glacial precision of Brett's Val d'Aosta he rightly found wholly emotionless. His affective sensibility responded ecstatically to Hunt's Light of the World—the highly wrought, emasculated Christ appearing 'the most perfect instance of expressional purpose with technical power which the world has yet produced.' Religi- osity was his pitfall. Yet how often original in- sight flashes through the eloquence of Modern Painters when the assessment of artistic values is not clouded by a moral element. On the sculptural qualities of deep-cleft, shadowy French architecture he is superb.

His own delicate, researchful drawings arc, of course, included in this homage to Ruskin and his circle. His elaboration of the detail of the flamboyant porch of Rouen Cathedral is an ex- quisite demonstration of his sermons in stones. But more affecting as intimate souvenirs are, naturally, his drawing of his wife Effie, and Millais's portrait of his estranged and sombre friend at the waterfall. Carlyle and many others crowd into this extraordinary and ill-fated life spreading influence which touched Shaw and Gandhi, Hopkins and Proust. London has seen nothing so revealing of a genius and his time since the Proust exhibition in 1955.