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John Ruskin: History’s greatest art teacher

Stepping through the live-lesson looking-glass and into a real world of bubbles and distances will not be an unmixed blessing for many of us. The early twenties have been an attack on the feeling that being a teacher means anything real at all. Protecting the NHS means clapping as is being prepared for market, fish are a symbol of national pride as they rot in docks and our students are facing higher hurdles to working the other side of newly imagined barriers: this means freedom. Last summer awarded grades by an algorithm that favoured the rich, and then not, because it displeased the rich because that was “realistic”

All of us who became teachers because we believed that art made children powerful have faced the hokey-cokey of lockdowns with an attenuated grip on what it’s really all about. As I prepare to watch a real child’s hand make real marks on paper again I am trying to remember history’s greatest art teacher, someone who believed that it was worth looking at what was real. On the roughest days I have the very great privilege of being able to see white space becoming something undeniably real and valuable and I need him to  teach me, again, to see it.

John Ruskin the art-critic is best remembered for championing JMW Turner. Turner himself got to be on the twenty because his paintings are now a viable investment vehicle. In his life he once failed to get a knighthood because a commission to paint a battleship as a potent symbol of British sovereignty depicted actual casualties. 

The signature photoshopped onto money is the one that Turner signed his will with; the will that left a vast collection of his work to the people of Britain. Ruskin was executor for that will and it remains contentious today because giving stuff to people was a weird idea. The stipulation that some of the money should go to starving artists remains unfulfilled: maybe that’s why our government is creating more of them, the Tate family having made quite enough money from all that slave sugar. 

Ruskin is claimed by more than the rarified world of art criticism though; the environmental movement, the welfare state, Christian socialism, the early labour party and Ghandi all claim him as an influence. So did Cecil Rhodes but that is, as we say today; problematic. 

Ruskin is not unproblematic himself. It will be hard to recruit him to either side of the new entirely made-up War on Woke. He wrote extensively that equality for women meant that the Sphere of Female Power (the household) deserved the same respect as Male Power (everything else). On the other hand he believed that the richness of a people was embodied in its stone, cut and raw, and that statuary was a repository of history: hard to imagine he would support the idea that the plaques no-one reads in national trust properties should be free of the discomfort of the truth. His feelings on a potato’s gender can only be guessed at. 

He leaves us a prolific body of work and, forgive me John, hated quotation out of context. The early passages on Turner need to be read in full to appreciate; you can feel him grappling with Turner’s genius, he almost grudgingly accepts that yes, that isn’t realistic but it’s the truth. The truth of what light does when you know how to really look. 

In a later review Ruskin would savage the work of James Abbott McNeill Whistler for being technically brilliant but disinterested in saying anything true. Whistler sued and Whistler won but it’s Ruskin I need now.

“I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw.” 

It is for that respect for truth that I claim him, as I look forward to seeing children fill white space, as an art teacher. He gave his lectures twice: once to a paying audience and again for free. He was once asked, at a paid version, what the point was in his extensive travels teaching miners to draw. Miners were never going to make money as artists after all, that would be silly. Ruskin replied that missed the point: he gave free art lessons to make happier miners, that it was always better to learn how to really look. We used to indulge ideas like that if you lectured at Oxbridge and had a beard like Noah. 

I will quote John once. As welcome my dazed, baffled, stir-crazy and Zoom-stunned students back into my classroom: “I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw.” 

That is not to say that I do not derive the joy of my work from seeing a child look at a drawing and almost disbelieve that they have made that come into the world. Those words will not make it any easier to smile when my students tell me they want to make a living as an artist, knowing that this government has thrown their prospects aside like so much unsold fish. But I will come to this last: John Ruskin believed that some things were real. 

No, one more and last “The highest reward for a person’s toil is not what they get for it, but what they become by it” that’s the job. That’s a real thing. 

Best art teacher ever.