Ruskinian Architecture

By Martin, Floyd W. | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Winter 1988 | Go to article overview

Ruskinian Architecture


Martin, Floyd W., Nineteenth-Century Prose


Michael W. Brooks. John Ruskin and Victorian Architecture. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 1987. 364pp.

   I always advise my pupils to read, as I did, The Seven Lamps of
   Architecture and The Stones of Venice, though I am obligated to
   warn them that they will not learn architecture from Ruskin, as he
   considered architecture from a fallacious and unpractical
   standpoint; but it puts them into a receptive and reverential
   mental attitude and that, as I found in my own case, is the proper
   one in which to approach your art." (74)

These words, written by Thomas Graham Jackson (1835-1924) in the early twentieth century, summarize an attitude towards John Ruskin's major writings on architecture. It is a view--minus the "fallacious" part-that we also will come to hold under the guidance of Michael W. Brooks, whose John Ruskin and Victorian Architecture succinctly summarizes and analyzes writings and attitudes held by Ruskin and others. The Seven Lamps of Architecture, first published in 1849, and The Stones of Venice of 1851-1853 are the main sources for Ruskin and architecture. Upon completion of Brooks' book, the reader has an understanding of not only what Ruskin said, but also how others understood and interpreted his writings, and how Ruskin himself changed ideas over his long career. Furthermore, the reader becomes acquainted with the major architects and architectural issues in Great Britain in the third quarter of the nineteenth century.

Brooks first chapter, "An Architectural Education," shows how Ruskin's approach to architecture is a visual, associational one rather than a functional, mechanical one. Thus he was more concerned with color, texture, shapes, and settings than with the practical aspects of building. In the second chapter, Brooks contrasts Ruskin's attitudes with those of Charles Robert Cockerell, the leading British architect of the classical tradition active in the second quarter of the nineteenth century.

"Chapel and Church: The Religious Background to Architectural Theory" briefly presents the complicated theological debates in the 1840s, and how they affected Ruskin as writer and as designer of church windows. The following chapter examines Ruskin in another context: "Describing Buildings: Ruskin and Nineteenth-Century Architectural Prose." Brooks' comparison of Ruskin's prose with that of other writers is most interesting and verifies that Ruskin created "a style that not only conveyed information and crushed opponents, but also captured the emotional complexity of great architecture" (61).

The fifth and sixth chapters are key ones. In "Ruskinism: Its Visual Content," Brooks shows how Ruskin's words were never specific as far as plans or function,, but wonderfully described such characteristics as mass, color, and ornament. "Ruskininism and the Spirit of the Age" presents information about ways in which Ruskin's ideals were used by others. Thus the adjective "Ruskinian" is often used to describe qualities that are not specifically defined in Ruskin's prose.

The next six chapters (VII through XI) are organized in a more chronological fashion as a brief history of mid-century British architecture, particularly as related to Ruskin's writings (both the earlier Seven Lamps and Stones, and later material). Benjamin Woodward, whose Oxford Museum (1855) is usually considered the purest "Ruskinian" structure, George Gilbert Scott, George Edmond Street, John Pollard Seddon, Alfred Waterhouse, William Burges, E. W. Godwin, and John Henry Chamberlain are all architects prominent in the third quarter of the century. These chapters provide excellent summaries of the careers of each; this is particularly noteworthy in this case of Chamberlain, a leading figure in Birmingham, since there is no published monograph of his work. …

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