Bogie and the Professor by David Wootton

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Bogie and the Professor

by David Wootton

Published on 1 January, 2008

Thoughts on Ruskin and Goodwin

John Ruskin's passion for contemporary art was quirky and parochial, but his taste for the modern painters of England was, at least initially, broad. While donning the persona of Turner's apologist, he also championed the younger Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Through his association with the Pre-Raphaelites, he came to know both Arthur Hughes and Ford Madox Brown , and so met their pupil, Albert Goodwin , at the end of the 1860s. Ruskin was then an established, if man of letters at the height of his powers, just embarking on a new career as Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University. Goodwin was a shy, young, if brilliant, artist of lower-class background and Methodist persuasion. Despite, or possibly because of, this contrast, Ruskin immediately perceived Goodwin's qualities.

"Ruskin did me the honour", Goodwin wrote in 1909, "soon after I knew him, to ask me to come and give him a lesson in water-colour painting. It was a flattering way of inviting me, and I went". Himself a talented watercolourist, Ruskin would draw on the specific skills of young, professional artists to produce examples for his lectures and the classroom, and record, with increasing urgency, European buildings threatened with neglect or insensitive restoration. These artists were thus not only given the opportunity to learn from Ruskin, but to do so in the context of Continental travel.

To stay with me at a nice country inn about which I find the loveliest of subjects: but I can't paint them unless you are able to come ... I will give you what price you think right for your drawings as fast as you can make them, and you will get used to me a little before we start for Verona.

At Abingdon, Goodwin produced two views for the Rudimentary Series of the Ruskin Art Collection at Oxford. But Ruskin distinguished Goodwin from the more antiquarian of his disciples, and did not employ him as a copyist. In the Catalogue of a Series of Drawings made for the St George's Guild (1886), Ruskin later elucidated this distinction as one of kind rather than quality:

I cannot guess whether in the association of these elaborately finished drawings with Mr. Albert Goodwin's often literally flying memoranda, my Guild drawings will suffer from looking too literal, or Mr Goodwin's from looking too imaginative. But the same spirit of truth is in both.

However, he then enthused that,

for pure aesthetic delight an untouched sketch of Albert Goodwin's on the spot is better than any finished drawing.

When Ruskin took Goodwin abroad, he expected him to produce work of imagination and delight but, more than that, Goodwin himself was almost literally enchanted. 1864
Trip to Jersey
The furthest limit of his experience had then been Jersey (visited in 1864), and his conception of the world was permanently coloured by his tour with Ruskin, despite the extensive journeys he would later undertake far beyond Europe. "When I first went to Italy", he wrote excitedly in his diary in 1909, "it was my firm that I should never be able to afford to go again, and here I am once more taking the family not only to Switzerland but Italy!""

April 1872
Trip to Italy
After what might be called a dry run, to Matlock Spa, in June 1871, Ruskin and Goodwin departed for Italy on 13 April 1872. They were accompanied by Joan and Arthur Severn , who had also been present at Matlock, and by the wife and daughter of the Reverend J. C. Hilliard; Ruskin's servant, Crawley, was in attendance. The three month itinerary followed the general shape of the eighteenth-century Grand Tour. However, it was reorientated in order to refuse Rome the Augustan distinction of ultimate goal. Ruskin had never liked Rome, and from early on had thought its architecture 'heathenish'. The longest periods, of a fortnight each, were spent instead in the and spiritually safer environments of Florence and Venice.

The trip was not a holiday; Ruskin would begin work at six almost every morning, preparing lectures, writing the monthly numbers of Fors Clavigera and correcting proofs of forthcoming books. Goodwin and Severn would thus have been the first to have heard, for example, the thoughts on early Italian art that went into Val d'Arno, the series of lectures he would later give at Oxford in 1873. The first of those lectures made a point concerning the continuity of European culture — from Ancient Greece to Mediaeval Italy and beyond — that Ruskin tried to convey to Goodwin. The imparting of such knowledge often took the form of sympathetic and encouraging dialogue, here instanced by one of Ruskin's less successful moments. As chronicled by Arthur Severn, Ruskin asked Goodwin for his impression of St Mark's, Venice:

Goodwin looked a little shy, as we all knew him to be a singularly honest and straightforward man, we felt there was something he was afraid to tell out. The Professor, it too, said, "Don't mind my dear Albert, say whatever you like. Your opinion is sure to be worth having". At last Goodwin said, "Well Professor, if you really me and won't mind what I say, my first impression of the church and the domes above, and all the flags, was that it looked very like a travelling show". The Professor burst out into a roar of laughter, in which we all joined. When he could speak, he said, "Never mind Albert, I know perfectly well what you mean, but you soon get to like it".

And if Goodwin failed to appreciate individual sights, he certainly succeeded in understanding the broader lessons of Ruskin's idiosyncratic interpretation of the Grand Tour.

At every turn in his later diary, Goodwin measured new geographical experiences against the distinct aesthetic developed in the company of Ruskin. For instance, during his first voyage through the West Indies in 1902, Goodwin gave a very Ruskinian gloss to Dr Johnson's belief that 'the object of travel is to visit the Shores of the Mediterranean':

Certainly, though [Johnson] cared nothing for the pictorial, no land is so fair as that land I have looked on holding that is beautiful both of man's work and Nature's... Man's work here is vile, save in his sugar growing and cocoa cultivation... All that can be seen (save of the tropical foliage, and this is a very great exception) can be infinitely better seen in Switzerland and Italy, with all the added beauty of history and people. (28 February/15 March)

While Goodwin recognised the specifically painterly potential of tropical landscapes, he realised that the human dimension of such places was antithetical to Ruskin's Eurocentric reading of culture and religion.

More profoundly, though less perceptibly, Goodwin was affected by the language of Western thinking and feeling that underpinned Ruskin's teaching. Quoting Ruskin's response to a favourite landscape, that "one has not being enough for it", he followed his master in retreating from direct engagement with his environment to recollection of it. On his journey to India in 1917, he wrote:

How much more pleasant though Benares is in retrospection...To me this method of work is one of the happy things of the Art I practise, for I get the realization of a place twice over, and often the memory makes the scene a better one than the first experience. (1 December)

Only by distancing themselves from an object of concern were Ruskin and Goodwin able to reconcile themselves to the power of landscape. Wordsworthians to a degree, they would both have applauded the potent advice of the Romantic poet to recollect "emotion in tranquility".

Goodwin had set out to establish himself as a Romantic evangelist who, through painting, would unlock the sealed book of nature and reveal the spiritual world:

The whole natural world down to the smallest detail, is one great allegory, typically of the spiritual world... Beauty — the Beauty that is in the landscape — is a sealed book to many, hence in a degree the landscape painter may magnify his calling. (Christmas 1888)

At the same time, he still insisted on his own humility, and always attempted a balance, or compromise between the dogmatic positions of others, and even between the elements of painting.

This role of visual interpreter, and the tempering compromise that decided the look of his interpretations, both derived from Ruskin. The early Ruskin, in particular, was fond of parallelling The Bible and the Book of Nature. And Goodwin praised Ruskin in his diary for, "ballyragging...me into love of form when I was getting too content with colour alone." Following Ruskin's advice, Goodwin would "magnify his calling" by attending as much to line and form as to colour, and by generally balancing the elements of painting. Yet in order to develop a position of such confidence and independence, Goodwin found it necessary to censure Ruskin's own excessive love and use of colour.

Goodwin blamed his own artistic failings on the emphasis that had been placed by Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites on the use of bright colour. Overcoming any guilt he felt at criticising Ruskin, he wrote with condescension that the older man had "loved with the love of a child bright colour", as if he were ignorant, or innocent, of visual reality. He even implied that Ruskin suffered from delusions:

[Ruskin's] marble pillars that he painted of St Mark's, I used to look at in wonder! I think he thought he saw the colour he put on; but to me the actual reticence would have been far more subtle and beautiful. (1 December 1918)

Inevitably for a late Victorian landscapist such as Goodwin, reticence and subtlety suggest the work of Whistler as a contrast to that of Ruskin, as a result of their legal case in 1878:

Ruskin's strong point was never colour. He was a safe guide in all matters of form or sentiment, but as to any interest in tone-values or greys, "he cared for none of these things"... it was this feeling that made him look at Whistler's work with the contempt he did, and doubtless prompted the criticism which led to the law suit for libel that Whistler brought against him... Neither of these two schools could appreciate or understand eachother. There's the pity of it, and both sides lack the charity that thinketh no evil.

Goodwin praised Whistler's use of colour as restrained and economical, suggesting that, in the act of painting, a positive emphasis had been placed on other, perhaps more formal, considerations. And in purely aesthetic terms, Whistler's palette appealed to Goodwin. "Turner's favourite colour was yellow", Goodwin wrote on 9 January 1912. "It's curious, of the three it's the one I care least for". Whistler, too, cared little for yellow, for he could more easily integrate red and blue into his extensive use of tonal greys.

However, Goodwin eventually chose loyalty to Ruskin over his attraction to Whistler, because Ruskin's interests were less self-centered:

The plane on which Ruskin stood was immeasurably higher than the other and in its way the upward. Whistler's tended downward. Ruskin with all his seeming arrogance in his writing was in Art and in feeling humility itself, while Whistler's thought was mostly, see how dextrous I am, who can do it like this? And with that thought taking lead always the man's way is the way of deterioration. The vale of humility is the only safe place in Art as in life. "He that is down need fear no fall".

Goodwin praised Whistler's use of colour as reticent and economical, but also as subtle. To a mind as Bible-soaked as that of Goodwin, 'subtle' was an epithet descriptive of the serpent, the origin of sin. "He that is down need fear no fall" indeed! Behind Ruskin was that "horrible German spirit" embodied in Britain by Carlyle, but behind Whistler was Oscar Wilde, and Goodwin despised Wilde as a degenerate. If the mature Goodwin failed to appreciate Ruskin's strictly visual judgement , he continued to value his introduction to a wider world charged with moral meaning.

David Wootton is Anniversary Professor of History at the University of York. He works on the intellectual and cultural history of the English speaking countries, Italy, and France, 1500-1800. He is currently writing a book entitled Power, Pleasure and Profit based on his Carlyle Lectures at the University of Oxford in 2014.  His most recent book is The Invention of Science, published by Allen Lane.