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date: 23 January 2018

Ruskin, John

The Oxford Dictionary of Architecture

James Stevens Curl,

Susan Wilson

Ruskin, John (1819–1900) English academic/critic, 

who had an enormous influence not only on architectural style but on the ways in which standards of aesthetics were judged. He used an Evangelical/polemical tone in his writings that not only reached a mass audience but received Ecclesiological approval. He contributed to Loudon’s earlier publications, but his key works date from the late 1840s and 1850s. The Gothic Revival was well-established when Ruskin published The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849): an immediate success, it encapsulated the mood of the period rather than creating new ideas. He argued that architecture should be true, with no hidden structure, no veneers or finishes, and no carvings made by machines, and (absurdly) that Beauty in architecture was only possible if inspired by Nature. As exemplars worthy of imitation (he argued that existing styles were quite sufficient, and that no new style was necessary) he arbitrarily selected Pisan Romanesque, early Gothic of Western Italy, Venetian Gothic, and English early Second Pointed as his paradigms. In the choice of the last, the style of the late C13 and early C14, he was echoing A.W.N.Pugin’s preferences as well as that of most ecclesiologically-minded Gothic Revivalists. The Stones of Venice (1851–3) helped to promote that phase of the Gothic Revival in which Continental (especially Venetian) Gothic predominated. Deane and Woodward’s University Museum, Oxford (1854–60), is an example of Venetian or Ruskinian Gothic. In particular, structural polychromy, featuring colour in the material used, rather than applied, was popularized by Ruskin’s writings. The Stones also contained a section on the nature of Gothic in which Ruskin argued that the admirable qualities of medieval architecture were related to the commitment, creative pride, and freedom of the craftsmen who worked on the buildings. From this idea Morris developed his theories, and the Arts-and-Crafts movement began to evolve.

Ruskin found certain styles (e.g. Baroque) unacceptable because they exploited illusion, and therefore were not ‘truthful’. This moral disapprobation to justify an aesthetic stance has been a dangerous weapon in the hands of International Modernists: Gropius, for example, claimed to have been influenced by Ruskin’s writings, something which would have surprised, even shocked, the man himself.


Batchelor (2001); Bell (1978); Blau (1982); M.Brooks (1987 ); J.Curl (2007); R.Daniels & Brandwood (eds) (2003); Hewison (1976); Hi (1954); ODNB (2004); Pe (1969, 1972); Ruskin (1903–12); Sw (1989); D.Wa (1977); Mi.Wheeler & Whiteley (eds) (1992)