Unto This Last – An Irishman’s Diary on John Ruskin, Venice and Ireland
The writer, watercolourist and influential art critic John Ruskin
Comprising paintings, drawings and prints, the Canaletto exhibition “The Art of Venice” at the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin provides an insight into the artist’s life and work.
Born Giovanni Antonio Canal in Venice, he was better known under the mononym Canaletto. After working in Rome he returned to live in Venice 300 years ago. The exhibition, which runs until March 24th, includes his dramatic spectacles A Regatta on the Grand Canal and The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day.
One hundred years on from Canaletto’s return to Venice saw the birth in London – on February 8th, 1819 – of the writer, watercolourist and influential art critic John Ruskin who was also drawn to the city.
He arrived in Venice with his wife, Effie, in the grey days of November 1849, taking rooms at the Danieli Hotel.
In 1858, nearing 40, Ruskin was attracted to a beautiful young Irish girl, Rose La Touche
Many of the institutions which are familiar to modern visitors to the city were already active then, including opulent cafés such as Florian’s and Quadri’s on their respective sides of the Piazza San Marco, the Marciana Library and the Accademia Art Gallery.
A prolific writer, Ruskin’s range of interests covered travel guides, essays and poetry, but he is best-known for his masterpiece The Stones of Venice (1851-53).
Richly detailed with architectural history, it was a popular success and drew crowds of tourists to the city who used Ruskin’s work as a handbook. In some of the most provocative prose of the 19th century, he described the three main styles of Venetian architecture – Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance.
Some of the buildings he inspected were restored, a few have since been demolished but the majority are much as they were in his time.
An expert draughtsman, Ruskin spent his time climbing ladders and scaffolds, scrambling over monuments, measuring and sketching. He studied tombs and the mosaics on the columns of the Doge’s Place and the most famous of the city’s churches, the Basilica.
In his youth, he had paid little attention to girls. Some commentators said that he was “more interested in the shapes of mountains than of girls”. But in 1858, nearing 40, he was attracted to a beautiful young Irish girl, Rose La Touche. A wealthy family of Huguenot descent, the La Touches had established themselves in Ireland as cloth dealers and later bankers, building a mansion on St Stephen’s Green, Dublin.
Ruskin met the family through Maria La Touche, a poet and novelist who asked him to teach her daughters drawing and painting. Rose was a high-spirited child, and his interest in her grew into adoration.
When she reached 18 he proposed; she requested that he wait for an answer until she was 21 but later rejected him, although they met a few times afterwards.
His love for her was said to be a cause of both great joy and deep depression for him. After a long illness, Rose died in 1875 at the age of 27 in a nursing home in Dublin where she had been placed by her parents.
Launching into the work with verve, the O’Sheas carved monkeys, birds, bats, fruits, vegetables and flowering bulrushes
Her death, according to various writers, was caused by either madness, anorexia or hysteria. It also triggered the first of Ruskin’s descents into mental illness, and although he continued to write and lecture, he had a number of breakdowns.
Another Irish connection to Ruskin came during his time in Oxford. In the late 1850s a family of Irish sculptor-masons, the O’Sheas, was invited to carry out decorative work on the new Oxford University Museum.
The brothers, James and John O’Shea from Cork, had already sculpted floral carvings at Trinity College Dublin and at the Kildare Street Club, where the famous exterior window piece still shows to this day monkeys arguing over a game of billiards.
The O’Sheas were asked by Ruskin to carve freehand flora and fauna on the column-heads as the spirit moved them. They were not to work from designs but to draw on the examples of nature just as he had imagined the masons of the Middle Ages working on the Doge’s Palace. This was all part of Ruskin’s campaign for the revival of Gothic craftsmanship and a recognition of the labourer as a creative member of society.
Launching into the work with verve, the O’Sheas carved monkeys, birds, bats, fruits, vegetables and flowering bulrushes.
In a burst of exuberant playfulness they produced controversial stone caricatures of university worthies in the form of parrots and owls but these were considered impertinent and were decapitated.
The work was never finished, partly because the money which had come from donations ran out, and the O’Sheas were angered by interference from dons. Depending on which account is true, the brothers either walked off the job in a huff or left in disgrace.
While extremely talented and completing compositions of exquisite harmony, the masons were unpredictable, and because of the wrangle over their carvings they became known as the “infamous O’Sheas”.