John Ruskin


Dear Artist,

On the value and importance of drawing, teachers often ask, “Why is it most people don’t sign up for drawing classes? Painting classes are always more popular.” Also asked, “Is it true that John Ruskin used to run drawing classes for factory workers?”


“View of Amalfi” 1843
pencil, ink, watercolour
by John Ruskin (1819–1900)

He did. Ruskin believed in drawing. He thought it was part of the informed life and good for everybody. One of the most eloquent art advocates and critics of all time, Ruskin himself made thousands of fine and sensitive drawings. He carried drawing into his utopian politics. He endowed drawing museums and drew model tea shops. He set up lodgings for the poor and had his pupils design and build roads for the betterment of the country. He promoted model industries and pride-filled workshops along socialist lines. His four goals of art and life were “truth, nature, purity and earnestness.” In the face of the Industrial Revolution, craftsmanship and traditional modes of creativity were to be mankind’s salvation. Ruskin Societies sprang up all over England as well as overseas. His curious energy, soon sullied by the arrival of creative meatballism, is with us yet.


Torcello, Venice sketch
by John Ruskin

John Ruskin (1819-1900) felt that artists had a calling to be inspired as prophets and teachers. He demanded a freely accessed, naturalistic style and a grounding in love of nature and mankind. This led to questions of social morality and reform that occupied his middle years. He attempted to link art with the daily lives of working men and women. To him, the arts were a visible sign of national virtue. “Life without industry is guilt,” he said, “and industry without art is brutality.”

Precocious and almost unbelievably prolific in his youth, (the first volume of Modern Painters was written and published when he was 24) Ruskin later suffered from bouts of mental illness. After years of active travel, professorships, lectures and countless publications, he withdrew to Coniston in the Lake District of Northern England, where he wrote little and spoke hardly at all. It seems his mind was forever sharp. Perhaps this was for him a time of recapitulation: to review the brash endorsements of youth, and to quietly welcome the wisdom that the fortunate may gain with age.


“Zermatt” 1844
watercolour by John Ruskin

Best regards,


PS: “What distinguishes a great artist from a weak one is first their sensibility and tenderness; second, their imagination, and third, their industry.” (John Ruskin)

Esoterica: There is a bit of Ruskin in all of us. He bears the invitation to slow down and smell the honeysuckle. He told us, “There was always more in the world than men could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace.” To be like Ruskin requires a sense of awe and a profound realization of ignorance. These qualities have us all holding hands with the Romantics. “I would rather teach drawing that my pupils may learn to love nature,” said Ruskin, “than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw.”

This letter was originally published as “John Ruskin” on August 4, 2006.


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“The art of drawing which is of more real importance to the human race than that of writing… should be taught to every child just as writing is.” (John Ruskin)



  1. ruskin was a moralist .. yes .. the story is he took the last drawing books of turner and burned them …. turner lived in a whorehuse his last years and the books were filled with his drawings of these friends as models .

    • “The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace”.
      Unfortunately I learned pace later in life. Starting in my teen years I began to rush everything. I rushed my work, I rushed when driving, I rushed into decisions, I rushed out of relationships. It took me decades to identify the problems it caused and stop living like that. I do pretty well most of the time now! I stop and linger when I see a cloud or think of the miracles of life around me. I look and look and look at the beauty of nature. It is an endless source of joy and wonder. I do wish that all schools would teach drawing and along with it painting the landscape outdoors. It is of great benefit to study nature and to see the very subtle rhythms that occur in light and pattern and color. It develops the soul and would change our world if kids learned to connect with life through art.

  2. John Ruskin’s writings heavily influenced Willam Morris who in turn is credited with starting the Arts and Crafts movement as a way to honor individual craftsmanship over the mass production of the industrial revolution and the over worked decoration of the Victorian Age. Focused on the beauty and simplicity of natural forms and materials, The Arts & Crafts movement flourished in Europe and the U.S. into early 1900’s.
    “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful” William Morris
    My belief is that this quote serves well not only as a guide to living/decorating but also to painting.

  3. Steve Clement on

    Sara, this is another one of many columns with so much profound thought and helpful information; and not being a subscriber until long after it first appeared, I never would have seen had you not taken the time to re-publish it for us. Thank you so much for continuing your father’s amazing legacy!

  4. Ruskin’s final home at Brantwood on Coniston in the English Lake District is worthy of pilgrimage; there you can get a taste of what inspired a great mind even though it was sadly in decline towards the end of his life.
    For many years I have had one of his quotes pinned up in my studio:

    ‘Today Today Today – For the night cometh when no man can work.’

    And no woman either, needless to say.

  5. Ruskin’s writing style is as lush and expressive as any style ever has been. Marcel Proust studied Ruskin’s work for seven years and wrote a book about him in French. Ruskin’swriting style is reflected in Proust’s masterpiece Remembrance of Things Past. In fact, if there hadn’t been a Ruskin we might not remember Proust.

  6. At a degree show in the Ruskin School, Oxford, some years ago, my wife and I overheard one of the lecturers proudly proclaim that they no longer taught drawing at the Ruskin School. The old boy must have been spinning in his grave. It is after all properly called the ‘Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art’. Sad to report that Ruskin’s beliefs and standards have not withstood the tests of time and Oxford University. He was a rare genius.

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