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Discuss the sort of society Ruskin implies he would like to see created (or recreated) in ‘The Nature of Gothic’ Wayne Barry


Although Ruskin started out as an art critic, before eventually becoming a social critic, he used art and architecture as metaphors to describe the state of British society in the nineteenth century. This was perhaps more eloquently and profoundly expressed in his work: ‘The Nature of Gothic’1, so much so that William Morris’ Kelmscott Press published it as a single book thirty-eight years later and was to inspire a generation of people whose allegiances were leaning towards that of socialism. In ‘The Nature of Gothic’, Ruskin sees Venice as being analogous of British society. Venice is portrayed as a mythical, romantic and enchanting utopian city cloaked in the mists of time. The reality, of course, is that Venice has long been in a state of decay; and this Ruskin uses to warn England of its’ own potential decline; that society has become overburdened and overly complicated; that the peoples have become fragmented and depressed . ‘The Nature of Gothic’ is more than just a warning, it gives Ruskin an opportunity to provide a template for a more balanced and ordered society; a return to basics; and so he looks to the medieval (Dark) ages for his inspiration and makes the following declaration:

‘I believe, then, that the characteristics or moral elements of Gothic are the following, placed in the order of their importance: 1. Savageness. 2. Changefulness. 3. Naturalism. 4. Grotesqueness. 5. Rigidity. 6. Redundance.’ 2 It would seem that Ruskin’s main focus of ‘inspiration’ comes from the natural world, which he considers to be ‘peculiar to the Gothic itself’, and best employs it to describe the essence of ‘gothicness’. This ‘gothicness’ is merely a metaphor for the sort of society Ruskin implies he would like to see created (or re-created). He uses such symbolic language as: ‘minerals’; ‘atomic forms’; ‘the foxglove blossom’; and ‘the seawaves’ to assert his opinion:

‘...that the original conception of Gothic architecture had been derived from vegetation, - from the symmetry of avenues, and the interlacing of branches’ 3

1 2 3

The Stones of Venice Volume II: The Sea-Stories, 1853 ‘The Nature of Gothic’ in: Unto the Last and other Writings, p. 79 Ibid, p. 104


Since we lived in a ‘natural’ world, it is, therefore, essentially imperfect. Nature, in Ruskin’s view, was neither symmetrical nor regular. He despised Man’s continued obsession with perfection, man had become a slave to it. Absolute perfection was now considered to be against the natural order of things; it had, also, defiled natural beauty. He argued that:

‘...imperfection is in some sort essential to all that we know of life. It is the sign of life in a mortal body; that is to say, of a state of progress and change. Nothing that lives is, or can be, rigidly perfect; part of it is decaying, part nascent.’ 4 This love of nature and the natural world brings with it a set of qualities that one wouldn’t expect of a Gothic culture, and it is these qualities that Ruskin finds irresistible and essential for the wellbeing of the society:

‘... to the Gothic workman the living foliage became a subject of intense affection ... indicative both of higher civilization and gentler temperament ... the sure sign of a more tranquil and gentle existence.’ 5

From this essence of ‘gothicness’, Ruskin alludes towards an ‘organic society’; similar to those ideas expressed by Edmund Burke6; where differing classes are bonded together by mutual respect and sympathy. Ruskin visualises an ‘organic society’ that is similar to that of a hive-type unit. Everyone has a place, everyone performs a function, everyone works for the good of the community, there is a clear hierarchy of classes. However, it is against the back drop of industrialisation (capitalism) and utilitarianism, Ruskin’s twin evils, and the fear of anarchy and mob rule; that the workers are seen as nothing more than slaves, to Ruskin this was morally wrong, and issues the following warning:

‘You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. ... If you will have that precision out of them, and

4 5 6

Ibid, p. 93 Ibid., p. 103 Reflections on the Revolution in France cited in: Culture and Society


make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them.’ 7 The worker, in Ruskin’s mind, is seen as an individual who should have the right of freedom to express their imagination and in doing so realise their sense of humanity and humility. To Ruskin, ‘work’ and ‘art’ are virtually synonymous. Moreover, Ruskin was concerned with the erosion of the employer-employee relationship:

‘We are always in these days endeavouring to separate the two; we want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass society is made up of morbid thinkers, and miserable workers.’ 8 Such condemnation was equally espoused by the likes of such social thinkers as: Thomas Carlyle, who declared that:

‘Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand. They have lost faith in individual endeavour, and in natural force, of any kind.’ 9 Karl Marx10 and his concept of ‘alienation’, and William Morris, who stated:

‘Thus worthy work carries with it the hope of pleasure in rest, the hope of the pleasure in our using what it makes, and the hope of pleasure in our daily creative skill. All other work but this is worthless; it is slaves’ work - mere toiling to live, that we may live to toil.’ 11 He saw that the key to prosperity and harmony laid in a different kind of relationship that existed between an employer and their employees; one that was built on mutual respect and fostered individuality:


‘The Nature of Gothic’ in: Unto the Last and other Writings, p. 84 Ibid, p. 90 9 Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, Signs of the Times, cited in: Culture and Society, p. 73 10 The Communist Manifesto, 1848 11 Useful Work Versus Useless Toil cited in: Culture and Society in Britain: 1850 - 1890, p. 143 8


‘...the great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast, is all in very deed for this, - that we manufacture everything there except men; ... And all the evil to which that cry is urging our myriads can be met only in one way: not by teaching nor preaching, for to teach them is but to show them their misery, and to preach to them, if we do nothing more than preach, is to mock at it. It can be met only by a right understanding, on the part of all classes, of what kinds of labour are good for men, raising them, and making them happy.’


Within this ‘organic society’ is a sense of robustness or ‘savageness’, this does not imply those qualities found in ‘barbarism’, but that of being ‘stern’, of laying down a firm and solid foundation. Ruskin, therefore, considered this ‘savageness’ to imply:

‘...all dignity and honourableness ... wildness of thought, and roughness of work; ... this magnificence of sturdy power, ... this outspeaking of the strong spirit of men ... [it] may be considered, in some sort, a noble character, it possesses a higher nobility still, when considered as an index, not of climate, but of religious principle.’


As this aspect of ‘gothicness’ was seen to be ‘natural’; nature is, in itself, seen to be tangible evidence for the existence of God. This leads us to another dimension of ‘gothicness’, that is it’s close proximity to Christendom and spirituality; and in particular its’ closeness to God. As God created the earth and the natural world, so the gothic cathedrals and churches are built in His honour - using all the imagery and symbolism of the natural world - a testament to His skills as an architect on a grand scale. Gothic architecture, therefore, represents all the awe, power, majesty and beauty that can be found in nature itself and, ultimately, God Himself. As Ruskin says:

‘...the term ‘Gothic’ ... is indeed, when rightly understood, one of the most noble characters of Christian architecture, and not only noble but an essential one.’ 14

12 13 14

‘The Nature of Gothic’ in: Unto the Last and other Writings, p. 87 Ibid, p. 82 Ibid, p. 91


Enshrined within this Christendom lies another facet of ‘gothicness’ that of ‘rigidity’. This does not imply something that is restrictive and unyielding but is seen to promote a ‘Protestant spirit of self-dependence and inquiry’. Ruskin elaborates further on the usage of ‘rigidity’:

‘Strength of will, independence of character, resoluteness of purpose, impatience of undue control ... the habits of philosophical investigation, of accurate thought, of domestic seclusion and independence, of stern self-reliance and sincere upright searching into religious truth...’ 15 He closely associates the notion of ‘rigidity’ with that of self-help, strong moral character and religious inquiry. These characteristics reveal themselves as being basic tenets that belong to an ‘organic society’. Ruskin was also conscious that society should not enforce change or society change for the sake of it. A ‘diseased love of change’ he says, simply destroys. He saw that a ‘healthy love of change’ and ‘monotony’ had its’ uses:

‘ darkness and light, and the one incapable of being enjoyed without the other: change being most delightful after some prolongation of monotony, as light appears most brilliant after the eyes have been for some time closed.’ 16 He elucidates further that the relationship between change and monotony can be found in the form of music, where there is a ‘sublimity and majesty in monotony’ which is not evident in the ‘rapid or frequent variation’. He considers this to be ‘true throughout all nature’. However too much monotony becomes ‘uninteresting or intolerable’ and so it is necessary for some kind of change to take place. This notion of monotony and change fits beautifully and eloquently within Ruskin’s vision of a natural ‘organic society’. The belief that society is sufficiently flexible enough to nurture, grow, die (or possibly hibernate) then regenerate (and sometimes it is necessary to weed out those undesirable elements that stunts society’s growth). Change can only occur because it is necessary and life-enhancing, not for change’s sake.

15 16

Ibid, p. 107 Ibid, p. 96


Finally, the last traits of ‘gothicness’ is ‘redundance’. Here, Ruskin implies that society should be ‘simple’ and given over to ‘humility’; because it is here that redundance ‘disguises the failure of the feeble, and wins the regard of the inattentive’, but more importantly it gives rise to a more nobler set of traits, where materialism and excessiveness are shunned, he sees these traits including:

‘...a magnificent enthusiasm, which feels as if it never could do enough to reach the fulness of its ideal; an unselfishness of sacrifice, which would rather cast fruitless labour before the altar than stand idle in the market; and, finally, a profound sympathy with the fulness and wealth of the material universe...’ 17 Ruskin, like so many social critics before and after him, alludes towards a period of human history that appears to hold for him those very ideals that seem to be missing from his society, though he is acutely aware of its’ inadequacies:

‘We don’t want either the life or decorations of the thirteenth century back again; ... beautiful as it sounds in description ... it was in reality ... supported itself by violence and robbery, and led in the end to the destruction both of the arts themselves and the States in which they flourished’ 18 As a consequence of Ruskin’s predilection towards the Gothic ‘way of life’, it could be argued that he had been stating the case for socialism, if it were not for his Tory upbringing, indeed his autobiography, Praeterita, actually begins with the line:

‘I am, and my father was before me, a violent Tory of the old school’ 19 The kind of ‘old school Toryism’ that Ruskin belonged to was one based on cooperation, rather than any notions of a laissez-faire society, hierarchies, law and order, obedience to an inherited authority and that of ‘paternal government’, or state intervention. It is here that Ruskin’s contemporaries criticised him for not only being ‘stupendously and arrogantly absurd ... on some economical points’20, but also attempting to undermine and alter the economic system through his writings.

17 18 19 20

Ibid, p. 108 cited in: Culture and Society, p. 148 ‘Introduction’ by Clive Wilmer in: Unto the Last and other Writings, p. 23 cited in: Culture and Society, p.133 (in a letter by George Eliot) and 145


Although Ruskin was quite clear with what was wrong with society, he was unable to produce, successfully, a set of detailed reforms and analysis that could be readily adopted. ‘The Nature of Gothic’ gave Ruskin the opportunity to deliver a template that could, he believed, bring about the sort of society that he would have liked to have seen created (or re-created). Ruskin was the innovator here, but not the implementor. The implementation would have had to been taken on by someone else with clarity of vision, nerves of steel and powerfully positioned in Government. Unfortunately, the seductive lure of industrialisation, mass production and instant wealth generation coupled with a cheap labour force made such a vision unattractive to the wealthy ruling classes. His ideas on the other hand would be taken up by the socialist cause of the time and by those who saw the injustices of the materialistic world. Today, New Labour have literally abandoned those philosophies and tenets that Ruskin had originally formulated, and they had made their own, in favour of those values and ideologies that Ruskin so despised.


Bibliography Aldrich, M.


Gothic Revival

London: Phaidon Press Ltd.

Burke, E.


Reflections on the Revolution in France, cited in: Williams, R., Culture and Society, p. 12

London: The Hogarth Press

Carlyle, T.


Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, Signs of the Times, cited in: Williams, R., Culture and Society, p. 73

London: The Hogarth Press

Clark, K.


The Gothic Revival, Third Edition.

London: John Murray

Golby, J.M. (ed.)


Culture and Society in Britain: 1850 1890

Oxford: Oxford University Press

Marx, K. & Engels, F.


The Communist Manifesto

Harmondswort h: Penguin

Morris, W.


Useful Work Versus Useless Toil, cited in: Golby, J.M. (ed.), Culture

Oxford: Oxford University Press

and Society in Britain: 1850 - 1890, p. 143 Ruskin, J.


“The Nature of Gothic�, In: Ruskin, J., Unto This Last and Other Writings, p. 77-109

London: Penguin

Williams, R.


Culture and Society

London: The Hogarth Press


Discuss the sort of society Ruskin implies he would like to see created in ‘The Nature of Gothic’  

Although Ruskin started out as an art critic, before eventually becoming a social critic, he used art and architecture as metaphors to descr...

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