Frank McNally on the links between Ireland and John Ruskin, who was born 200 years ago today

More than 20 years before his nightmare in Reading Gaol, Oscar Wilde had a rather happier experience of hard labour in England.

For two months in 1874, like many an Irishman before and since, he worked as a road builder there, digging earth and pushing wheelbarrows.

But this was no ordinary construction project. It was an exercise in educational philanthropy, aimed simultaneously at broadening the mind of the diggers while improving the lot of mankind.

The "ganger" on the scheme was John Ruskin, the great art critic and social thinker who was a professor in Oxford University, where the 19-year-old Wilde had recently arrived.


Being "a good deal moved" (Wilde's words) by Ruskin's lecture, the unlikely builders duly set to work

One day the young Dubliner and a group of friends met Ruskin on the street, where he invited them back to the lecture hall to discuss something that was troubling him.

As they learned there, his problem was the fact that so many young men in England then were wasting their energies on cricket and rowing, when they could be doing something more useful.

In general, Wilde and his friends were urged to take on a task “by which we might show that in all labour there was something noble”.

In particular, Ruskin suggested they construct a road between two nearby villages, Upper and Lower Hinksey, across a swamp that had hitherto forced locals into a long detour.

Being “a good deal moved” (Wilde’s words) by Ruskin’s lecture, the unlikely builders duly set to work on the scheme, defying the onset of winter and the mockery of onlookers. Then their foreman went off on one of his many art-related travels, to Venice, and for that and other reasons, the project lapsed.

The labourers had also included Arnold Toynbee, the future economic historian who would coin the term "industrial revolution". But as in George Bernard Shaw's quip about laying all the economists in the world end to end, the road never reached a conclusion. It was eventually abandoned, mid-swamp.

Some years before that episode, Ruskin had briefly contracted the services of two other colourful Irishmen, the O’Shea brothers from Cork, who also went to Oxford for a time, although not to attend lectures.

As with Wilde, the subject of sexuality has loomed large in writings about Ruskin, although for different reasons

The O’Sheas were stone carvers, and are best known – perhaps wrongly – for one of Dublin’s quirkier pieces of public sculpture: the billiard-playing monkeys on the front of the former Kildare Street Club.

The monkeys’ authorship was the subject of a long-running debate in this newspaper back in the 1970s, where it was plausibly argued that they were instead the creation of an Englishman, CW Harrison, who also worked on the building at the time.

But the O’Shea brothers were satirists in stone too, and when Ruskin gave them a free hand to decorate the new Oxford Museum of Natural History, some of the results were too free for the university’s liking. After disputes about payment for the work, one of the O’Sheas took to carving caricatures of the governors in the form of owls and parrots. He was later ordered to remove the offending heads, leaving them literally defaced.

Ruskin was a man of fierce opinions, especially about art and architecture. He rhapsodised the Augustinian church in Dublin's Thomas Street, for example, as a "poem in stone". By contrast, his savaging in print of a painting by James Whistler led in 1878 to what has been called Britain's "second most infamous libel trial of the 19th century". Only the later one involving Wilde would exceed its notoriety.

As with Wilde, the subject of sexuality has loomed large in writings about Ruskin, although for different reasons. The love of his life was a young Irish woman, Rose La Touche, from the wealthy banking family.

He first met her when she was only nine, becoming her art tutor and eventually, despite a 30-year age difference, proposing marriage, which she turned down.

His first marriage was unconsummated – his wife later wrote of finding out on their wedding night that she “disgusted” him.

It is widely suspected that he was a life-long virgin. One of the many theories advanced on the subject, by the writer Mary Lutyens, was that he had first encountered the female form in Greek statues, and thereafter couldn't cope with such realities as body hair. That debate continues in some quarters.

Ruskin’s work endures, meanwhile, swamp roads aside.

It will be the subject of many talks and exhibitions in Britain and elsewhere today, the 200th anniversary of his birth.