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Ruskin biographies show revered -- and reviled -- social visionary

John Ruskin: The Early Years, 1819-1859, by Tim Hilton. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 320 pp. Illustrated. $22.50. Ruskin, by George P. Landow. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press. 99 pp. $12.95 cloth. $3.95 paper. Discoursing upon ``Modern Painters,'' John Ruskin revealed the heart of his own genius as well:

The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see.

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In counseling artists to paint what they saw instead of relying on traditional rules and formulas, Ruskin championed naturalism over formalism. But for Ruskin, paying attention to natural detail was only the beginning of vision.

For him, as for the Romantics, seeing was an act of creation and imagination as well as perception. ``To see clearly,'' he proclaimed, ``is poetry, prophecy, and religion -- all in one.''

Ruskin's 40-year torrent of writings on art, literature, and society link the visionary Romanticism of Blake, Wordsworth, and Turner with the aestheticism of the Pre-Raphaelites, Pater, Wilde, and Yeats. One can trace a direct line from Wordsworth's ``spots of time'' through Ruskin's ``moments of vision'' to Proust's epiphanic recapturings of times past.

It was Ruskin who taught his contemporaries to value the individualism of Gothic architecture and to prefer the irregular beauty of handcrafted Venetian glass to the mass-produced ``perfection'' of glass beads. Ruskin's art criticism boldly linked the joy of the artist/producer in making the work of art to the pleasure of the viewer/consumer. His aesthetic vision was, thus, also a social vision, inspiring the arts and crafts movement.

As a social critic, Ruskin's belief in the interdependence of art, ethics, ecology, and economics made him a Victorian prophet, revered and reviled in his own time. His controversial proposals included taxing the rich and ensuring workers a living wage. His attacks on capitalism shocked many of his contemporaries (including Thackeray) but won the admiration of disciples as diverse as Tolstoy, Gandhi, and the British Labour Party.

Ruskin went beyond conventional liberalism in his vision of a society founded upon the principles of help and service rather than those of competition and self-interest. His ideas were radical, yet at the same time quasi-feudal.

In his excellent guide (part of Oxford University Press's ``Past Masters'' series), George P. Landow provides illuminating explanations for such apparent paradoxes as Ruskin's Tory-Radicalism and his blend of visionary and satiric modes. Landow locates the rhetorical source of Ruskin's authority in his stance: Ruskin presents himself as one who has seen what his readers have not, but who will help them to see from his privileged vantage point.

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Ruskin's primary mode, Landow thinks, is ``ethos'': He asks his readers to trust him because of his qualities as a man. Indeed, Ruskin's life was filled with good works, yet in many ways was a kind of tragedy.

Many (but not all) who have written about Ruskin's life have tended either to shield his reputation or to take what Kenneth Clark called ``a malicious interest'' in exposing his frailties and sorrows. Tim Hilton, who is writing a two-volume biography of Ruskin, is generally dismissive of the work of previous biographers. He also disagrees with the consensus of Ruskin criticism in his evaluation of Ruskin's works. While many consider ``Unto This Last'' (1860) Ruskin's crowning achievement, Hilton regards

``Fors Clavigera'' (1871-1884) as his masterpiece.

There is nothing wrong with being a majority of one, and it should be interesting to discover what Hilton has to say about ``Fors Clavigera'' when the second volume of this biography is published. But, as far as can be judged from this first volume, Hilton is -- regrettably -- more inclined merely to assert his opinions with an air of piqued superiority than to provide evidence and arguments that will revise the reader's understanding of Ruskin. Nor does Hilton take the trouble to explain why MDB R he is so dismissive of Ruskin's previous biographers.

And, despite his commendable commitment to the Ruskinian principle of seeing his subject firsthand by going ``back to nature'' (in this case, bypassing most secondary sources and going back to Ruskin's letters, diaries, the pioneering work of Helen Viljoen, and Mary Lutyens's scholarship on Ruskin's wife, Effie Gray), Hilton does not even include some of the fascinating material that Phyllis Rose gleaned from Lutyens and employed so devastatingly in her brief account of the Ruskins' marriage in ``Parall el Lives'' (1983).

Perhaps Hilton will warm to his subject as he tackles the second portion of Ruskin's life (1860-1900). But thus far, his attempt to paint Ruskin afresh lacks the imaginative sympathy and the interpretative power to transform his viewpoint into a vision.

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