Ruskin’s warning to the industrial world

Two Figures in a Storm: they bend a little into the wind, almost overwhelmed by the chaos of watery blue around them. But the figures, painted by J. M. W. Turner when he was in his sixties, push on towards the sun at the centre of the work. This watercolour, on loan from Tate Britain, is one of the highlights of the exhibition ‘Ruskin, Turner & the Storm Cloud’ at York Art Gallery (until 23 June, then at Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, from 12 July to 5 October 2019). Some visitors have seen, in this picture, Turner and Ruskin themselves beating a path through the criticism and anxieties of their careers.

Many of the pictures in the exhibition were not intended for public display. Throughout their overlapping artistic lives, both Ruskin and Turner turned to watercolour to document the fleeting and the personal nature of their experiences. The medium offered a way of recording a brief passage of weather, a walk, a sunrise. The spontaneity of these works on paper is now what makes them so thrilling, and so urgent. In their studies of the skies above Coniston Water in Cumbria, or their records of the glaciers around Mont Blanc, Turner and Ruskin were both observing and documenting environmental change.

Ruskin was acutely aware of this. In 1884, when he delivered his lecture about ‘The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century’ and the evils of pollution, he could speak with authority. He had been watching the skies darken since the 1840s. He wrote to friends in despair about ‘Our Geneva – our Como – our Verona – twice dead and plucked up by the roots’. He mourned the arrival of a ‘deadly fog’ above his home in the Lakes: ‘Manchester smoke, with the usual devilry of cloud, moving fast in rags’.

When he travelled to the Alps, following in Turner’s footsteps though the vertiginous paths of the St Gotthard Pass, Ruskin’s fears followed him: ‘I never was so persecuted by the storms and clouds.’ And the problems were not just overhead. Ruskin had always been fascinated by geology, by mountain tops and river beds. He wanted to know how glaciers formed and flowed. His close looking at the Glacier des Bossons, from his early visits in the 1830s to his later travels, convinced him that the ‘rivers of ice’ were in retreat. In the summer of 1874 he wrote, ‘I was able to cross the dry bed of a glacier, which I had seen flowing, two hundred feet deep, over the same spot, forty years ago.’ If we stand in the same place today, as artist Emma Stibbon RA has done for this exhibition, the Glacier des Bossons and the Mer de Glace are sadly diminished.

Mer de Glace cyanotype, June 2018, Emma Stibbon. Cyanotype is an early photographic printing process made by coating the paper in a light-sensitive iron based solution and exposing it to the sun or UV light.

Using Turner’s watercolour studies as his starting point, and creating his own visual record of clouds, rocks, and moving water, Ruskin drew attention to the impact of industrialisation on nature. He sounded an early warning about unsustainable development. He was clear about the damage done by burning fossil fuels. Ruskin’s fears affected his mental health. He felt that no-one was listening to his concerns about the beauties that were being lost. He saw the destruction in apocalyptic terms: ‘blanched sun – blighted grass – blinded man.’ But perhaps now, 200 years after his birth, a new generation is ready to listen.

Dr Suzanne Fagence Cooper is Research Curator for ‘Ruskin, Turner and the Storm Cloud’. The exhibition is at York Art Gallery until 23 June 2019, then at Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, from 12 July to 5 October 2019.