In Focus: Ruskin, Turner and the ‘prophetic warning of impending environmental catastrophe’

Simon Poë is blown away by ‘Ruskin, Turner & the Storm Cloud’ at the Abbott Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, an exhibition about climate change and mental health, plus the pleasures and pains that come with seeing clearly.

What is happening to the weather? What is climate change doing to the planet? These are urgent questions, much in the news, that are addressed by this timely exhibition. There is a full supporting cast, for context, but the three stars of the show are J. M. W. Turner, John Ruskin — better known as a writer, but also a talented painter in watercolour — and contemporary artist Emma Stibbon. The work is beautiful, but the message is stark.

This year sees the 200th anniversary of Ruskin’s birth, but this exhibition is no mere celebration. It takes its title from that of a lecture, ‘The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century’ — given by Ruskin at the London Institution in February 1884 and published later that year — which has long been dismissed as one of his late, ‘mad’ books, but which is now coming to be recognised as a prophetic warning of impending environmental catastrophe.

The exhibition reaches a climax with recent depictions of Swiss mountains, done on huge sheets of paper in Indian ink, but it starts quietly, with a small volume of poetry. On February 8, 1832, Ruskin was given Italy by Samuel Rogers for his 13th birthday. This was a momentous gift, because it was where he first saw the work of Turner. A copy of Italy, open at one of the tiny vignettes with which it is illustrated, is among the first exhibits in the show.

John Ruskin’s ‘Near Interlaken’ (1870). Courtesy of Abbot Hall Art Gallery.

Ruskin’s own first book, Modern Painters — part one of a work that would eventually stretch to five volumes — came out in 1843. It began as a vindication of Turner’s controversial late paintings — his sanity, too, was called into question towards the end of his career — but it spiralled out from there to discuss all sorts of other things. Three of its chapters are devoted to ‘the truth of clouds’.

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There were no illustrations. Instead, the author referred his readers to Turner’s pictures in Italy, so highly did he regard their meteorological accuracy and the quality of the engravings.

Ruskin loved Nature’s beauty and spent a lot of time gazing at the sky. He also loved art, but tended to admire it most when it rendered natural beauty with scrupulous truth. Turner’s work remained a touchstone for him until the end of his life.

It was an unhappy life, despite its wealth and privilege. His problems probably had their roots in his childhood, which was both indulged and deprived, but they came to a crisis when he experienced a terrifying mental breakdown one night in 1878 at Brantwood, his Lake District house.

In ‘The Storm-Cloud’, he claimed he was grateful ‘that my mind is capable of imaginative vision, and liable to the noble dangers of delusion’. Certainly, despite his occasional bouts of mania, Ruskin’s perception, particularly of natural phenomena, remained clear, but the unremitting clarity of his vision may have been one of the things that sometimes made life almost unbearable.

Emma Stibbon's 'Aiguilles', in Indian ink and oyster shells. ©Emma Stibbon, courtesy of Alan Cristea Gallery.

Emma Stibbon’s ‘Aiguilles’, in Indian ink and oyster shells. ©Emma Stibbon, courtesy of Alan Cristea Gallery; photographed by Alan Bunce.

It seemed to him that the world — literally and metaphorically — was getting darker and dirtier and that few people were paying attention. He showed the audience one of his paintings, of ‘an old-fashioned sunset — the sort of thing Turner and I used to have to look at — (nobody else ever would) constantly. Every sunset and every dawn, in fine weather, had something of the sort to show us. This is one of the last pure sunsets I ever saw, about… 1876’.

Ruskin’s sense was based on a lifetime of looking — on an artist’s impression, rather than on scientific data — but he was right. Emma Stibbon was asked to revisit some of the scenes painted and photographed by both artists. The resulting pictures, together with some of Turner’s paintings, bookend the ‘Sublime’ tradition in British painting, according to which art achieves beauty partly by inspiring feelings of terror.

In The Passage of Mount St Gotthard, Taken from the Centre of Teufels Broch (Devil’s Bridge) (1804), for instance, Turner evokes the vertiginous horror of the crossing, which people often did on hands and knees.

The new paintings are awe-inspiring in the best sense of the word, but they also confront us with the awful possibility that, within our lifetimes, the glaciers will be gone and the mountains no longer snow-capped — and we have every reason to be afraid.

‘Ruskin, Turner & the Storm Cloud’ is at Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal, Cumbria, until October 5 — A book of the same title by Suzanne Fagence Cooper and Richard Johns is out now (Paul Holberton Publishing, £20).

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