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John Ruskin in the Movies


John Ruskin wrote the book Praeterita, from which I took the title for this blog when I started it at the end of 2009. Ruskin was one of the pre-eminent writers in England in the second half of the nineteenth century, equivalent to ... well, it's hard to think of an equivalent in today's culture. It would have to be someone of extreme erudition and massive, uncompromising intellectuality, such as one only finds perhaps in the narrow world of academia now. It would also have to be equally someone who was as famous as, say, the author of Fifty Shades of Grey. Those worlds diverged some time in the last century, so it's inconceivable that such a person could exist nowadays who combined fame and elitism to that extent. But you have to imagine that sort of combination to get a feeling of how Ruskin was regarded in his time.

And how times have changed. He is so little read now, that it's almost comical to imagine him being even a minor subject of a movie. And yet, when I watched Mike Leigh's film Mr Turner, which is mainly precoccupied with the English painter JMW Turner, there is Ruskin in a few scenes, in a priceless cameo performance by Joshua McGuire. McGuire plays Ruskin as a pushy fop who relishes the sound of his own voice, with a childish desire to impress that makes him seem like the eternally precocious child, always desperate to impress a roomful of adults even after he himself has grown up. A writer in the The Guardian newspaper takes umbrage with this portrayal, but I found it very amusing. There's no reason to believe that Timothy Spall as Turner was any more accurate in portraying the great painter. I thought it was at least remarkable that John Ruskin got into any film at all, given the almost wilfully exclusionary tone of his writing sometimes, as he goes about explaining the great masterworks of European architecture for the edification of the emerging English middle classes while at the same time complaining that they will never understand their true majesty no matter how hard he tries.

What's my point here?

Film is film. Words are words. Film can include words, but the succession of images in time is what gives them meaning. Ruskin's words are still in print and can be found by those that can find a use for them. The portrayal of Ruskin in this recent movie is a caricature, but I'm all for it if it causes people to pick up one of his books and rediscover his delightful combination of discernment and snobbery.

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