Nobody reads Ruskin these days and looking at this book one can see why. Even in its abridged form it is almost totally unreadable – a chaotic mixture of cloudy philosophy, reflections on literature and politics, a great deal of art criticism (of highly erratic quality), the whole lit up by occasional shafts of prophetic insight and descriptive passages of great rhetorical power. It is hard to understand why it was so esteemed by the Victorians in its original five volume form.
The fact has to be faced, even by his defenders (of whom I count myself one) that Ruskin was more than a little barmy. This may have had something to do with the fact that his parents were first cousins. But whatever his genetic handicaps, they were heightened by the peculiar circumstances of an upbringing which warped his nature. As an only child, he was smothered with attention by both parents. His mother was an especially baneful influence who indoctrinated him with her own repellent version of Calvinism. It was not to be wondered at that when Ruskin grew up he found it almost impossible to form normal healthy relationships with anyone. He could not consummate his marriage; after it was dissolved, he spent many years in profitless adoration of an affected little girl called Rose la Touche, young enough to be his grand-daughter.
Art critics, even the famous ones, are on the whole people of this type. Uncomfortable with human beings – in many cases homosexualists – they lavish the affection which they ought to bestow on their fellow men and women on works of art. Their passions are aroused, not as they