A Conservative British Childhood Two Hundred Years Ago John Ruskin and his Parents

John Ruskin 1819-1900

John Ruskin 1819-1900

Ruskin born in February 1819 was five years old when his parents took him to visit the field of Waterloo. It was a moment in an heroic Tory childhood he might like to have remembered better. His autobiography Praeterita records his parents crossed the Channel to Paris to experience the buzz surrounding the coronation of Charles X. They detoured to spend some nights in Brussels, and from there found their way to the Belgian village that was the site of Napoleon’s final defeat. Wellington, the victorious British general at the head of a grand alliance, didn’t rate a mention in Praeterita in his own right. Ruskin’s boyhood heroes were the far more romantic figures of kings in Homer and Walter Scott. But John was in tow as Waterloo passed into British history as an object of middle-class pilgrimage, something we’re being much reminded of in this bicentenary year of 2015. That, one might surmise, was also Ruskin’s unconscious reason for mentioning it. For me Ruskin (not) at Waterloo is a way to understand the history of British small c conservatism:  a tendency that doesn’t apply to voting, but is a guide to living. References below are to sections of Praterita.

Wellington's March ...

Wellington’s March …

Ruskins’ father John James was a shy, romantic man in the sherry trade, a partner in’Ruskin, Telford and Domecq’, and devoted to his wife. They were engaged for nine years before they married and gave their son a gentle, considered upbringing.

He looked always, in the matter of what he read, for heroic will and consummate reason; he never tolerated the morbid love of misery for its own sake, and never read either for his own pleasure or my instruction…any other rhyme or story which sought its interest in vain love or fruitless death.’ [68]

John James may also have felt his son should do better than him, for he was determined not to see him enter the wine business. His wife ran a careful household, but with only one servant.

Margaret Ruskin, nee Cox, herself devoted to cultural self-improvement after gaps in her own education, was not only her husband’s perfect partner, but her son’s inspiration, with her feeling for ‘lovely things’. Her belief in ‘the right clear language which only can relate lovely things’ [117] led to many happy family hours spent reading aloud and looking at albums.  John regarded himself and his father as having ‘a subdued consciousness of being profane and rebellious characters, compared to my mother’ [108] But whatever that meant, besides a preference for wild walks in nature, Margaret kept the family on course culturally.

She was surely the moving force behind their trip to Paris to taste the atmosphere after the king of France was restored to his throne. The future Charles X had fled France after the Revolution that would execute his elder brother Louis XVI, and lived in exile in London from 1805-1814. He lived at 72 South Audley Street W1, beside Hyde Park, amid a population largely 180px-Blue_Plaque_Charles_X_of_France averse to the Revolution of 1789.

Margaret Ruskin was certainly the one who said, after her son was Samuel Rogers’ poem Italy, with illustrative vignettes of beautiful places, ‘why should we not go and see some of these in reality.’ That holiday, when he was 14, said John, established ‘the main tenor of my life’. [87]

And so the Ruskins, an ideal middle-class British family then and still now, travelled abroad to learn values for art, and the art of living, and then happily returned home.

Ruskin was an aesthete whose love of what he saw in Pisa, and Rouen and Geneva [180] opened British eyes to the delights of their own country. Everything he wrote was the result of that having been abroad. Learning to see landscape, and art, and architecture, and objects in daily use, brought him back to the great cathedral at Christ Church Oxford where as a student he found ‘a congregation representing the best of what Britain had become, – orderly, as the crew of a man-of-war, in the goodly ship of their temple.’ [219] Here indeed was that people victorious at Waterloo, I surmise: disciplined, mindful of  traditional institutions, loving liberty but not revolutionary.

christchurch oxford

At the same time as he travelled abroad, Ruskin’s childhood in Herne Hill, a leafy, hilly district of south London, made him the first champion of that seemingly much smaller British conservative order of things, suburbia:

That great part of my acute perception and deep feeling of the beauty of architecture and scenery abroad was owing to the well-formed habit of narrowing myself to happiness within the four brick walls of our fifty by one hundred yards of garden; and accepting with resignation the aesthetic surroundings of a London suburb, and, yet more, of a London chapel. [152]

The connection between the nineteenth-century art critic John Ruskin to the twentieth-century architectural campaigner and poet of suburbia John Betjeman is easily drawn, and brings Ruskin, just, into my own lifetime. The critic Osbert Lancaster found in 1952 that these two great figures in the British cultural landscape had ‘savage indignation’ in common and a real concern for how people lived among objects and buildings, some beautiful, many less so.

Ruskin’s conservatism however reached a tipping-point insofar as he was above all things an educator. He moved from the eighteen-year-old Oxford student ‘not conscious of any need or chance for change’ [219] to the campaigner for working-class education and social reform he became from 1850 on. Pivotal was his belief in art as a moral force showing the right – sensitive, informed – way to live.

In his turn Ruskin inspired William Morris, the design pioneer, the father of Victorian domestic architecture, who though no champion of the suburbs yet to be built, nevertheless inspired many of the decorative touches that made the common man’s home his castle.

suburbia 2

Ruskin in 1882 was even chairing the meeting at which Morris begged the middle class ‘to renounce their class pretensions and cast in their lot with the working men’. Morris, though already claimed by middle-class homemakers as their saviour, as he still is now, in himself earnestly aspired to a Ruskinian socialism revolving around the idea that everyone was entitled to live with beautiful things and benefit from them in their soul.

In a jumble of Ruskin and Morris, and the conservatism of Ruskin’s parents and the socialism of Morris, and in all the little houses yet to be built which created millions of little homeowners, and in a tolerance of suburban ugliness and a taste for social justice, I see Britain as it was then and still now (at least outside London).


In the chain of associations and concerns leading through their son John, to William Morris, and John Betjeman, and present-day suburbia, I see how my fellow countrymen still prefer to live like Ruskin’s parents: in a concentrated smallness, like Ruskin’s Herne Hill, where they can digest the foreign holidays they’ve taken and the mementos brought back, while ‘accepting with reservation the surroundings of a London [or Manchester or Birmingham or Glasgow] suburb.’   This is British small c conservatism, and it includes a love of classical art history, and labourist sympathies, and, ever important in British politics, a semi-detached relationship to that post-1789 Europe that hardly died with the victory over Napoleon at Waterloo.


These are not my values. I’m a rootless cosmopolitan. But I come from them and since I’m surrounded by them I’ve been trying to sort them out.

Coronation of Charles X

Coronation of Charles X

Politicians and commentators get very worried when asked about ‘British values’. But in the making of John Ruskin they’re plain to see and should be stated for what they are.

This entry was posted in Art History, Britain Today, Current Affairs, Europe, Who are you? and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.