John Ruskin and His Mother

November 2002
Version later published in Third Coast.

I do not know what details of her son’s childhood John Ruskin’s mother later remembered, or, had she lived in a different era, what memories of her famous son she might have decided to write down and submit for publication. I have read, however, that as an adult John Ruskin chose to tell the world that his mother’s particular Christian faith had led her to believe that children should not be given toys. According to Ruskin, later become the leading English art critic of the Victorian age, he had an unhappy childhood—toy-less, staring at the knots in the flooring and the clouds in the sky. It is tempting to conclude that it was precisely this upbringing that developed his extraordinary talent for comprehending, drawing and describing works of art. It is at least equally likely that a good deal of this talent was genetic, and thus he was much stimulated by the flooring and clouds and was able to get along without toys.

Above all, given the complexities of memory, psychology and human relations, Ruskin’s observation about his childhood appears so fragile as to be almost useless. For example—far from the worlds of recollection and of the shaping of a written remembrance—what might have transpired between the young Ruskin, his mother and toys? At one extreme there is the possibility that he rejected many of the first toys his mother proposed, and this encouraged her to find a reason to renounce toys altogether. More modestly, we might imagine that if he had reacted violently to the lack of toys, his mother or someone else might have snuck him a few. A host of possibilities emerges the moment we recognize that adults respond to children as well as vice-versa, that many a parent’s psychology and way of thinking has been shaped not simply by the experience of raising a child, but by the character and behavior of a specific child or children.

Like many children, when my son was a baby he greatly preferred to his toys household objects—the colander, newspapers, telephones, computers, combs. Outdoors in Russia his first winter he liked running his hands over bark and being twirled on his back in the snow. He loved riding in cars—the sense of movement, the view, interior surfaces to sample, handles and other components to pull on. An unusually social infant, he alternately stared and smiled at people until they could not resist taking him in their arms and letting him explore their faces with his fingers. It is hard to imagine Ruskin, or any child, being deprived of contact with a number of more or less similar objects and pleasures. It is easier to imagine that of many possibilities John Ruskin preferred the patterns of floorboards and clouds. As with most all of our judgments, the truth of Ruskin’s observation about his childhood lies less in the explicit evaluation offered and more in the sense it conveys of the evaluator’s emotions. In his case, and as regards his mother, these would seem to include bitterness and isolation.

(As for my own interest in calling attention to complexities, real or imagined, and as regards parents, children and many another aspect of life, I have taken to heart Adam Phillips’s observation that some of us become attached to complexity as a way of obfuscating the all too clear.)


Links & Credits

A John Ruskin blog with biography.

Third Coast literary magazine.

Adam Phillips observation comes from Houdini’s Box: The Art of Escape.

The image used above is not of Ruskin’s mother, but of his wife Euphemia (“Effie”) Chalmers Gray, who later left him to marry his protégé, the painter John Everett Millais, who may be credited with the portrait. Source of the reproduction:  website about Millias.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.