26. The Allegory of Good Government
8 Apr, 2022

In my last blog, I implored you to “come back soon” only to keep you waiting for far too long. Having recovered from a recent bout of illness, I’m now ready to share what I described before as “an intriguing account of one of Ruskin’s digger-breakfasts at Corpus”.

(Part II)

My focus today is on an anonymous account which appeared in the Times of India in the aftermath of Ruskin’s death. It draws on the writer’s undergraduate diary notes for Tuesday, 8 December 1874. Apparently overlooked or dismissed by scholars until now, it certainly makes for fascinating reading and raises some interesting questions. In general terms it accords with the testimony of Rawnsley, Collingwood, Walkley and others that we looked at last time. Yet, as an account of a single occasion, it impresses by the sheer breadth of the conversation. In reproducing the article, I have split it into shorter paragraphs in order to make it easier to read on screen.

Corpus, the site of Ruskin’s rooms, by Emily Warren

“More than a quarter of a century has elapsed since Ruskin, at Oxford, deplored the waste of young British energy on the river and the cricket field, and called upon his followers to do something that would not only strengthen their muscles but also be of permanent utility. The call was enthusiastically responded to, and a large number of undergraduates, under the superintendence of Ruskin’s gardener [David Downs, read more here], began to work at the construction of a road connecting two small villages in the neighbourhood of Oxford.

“A friend and myself resolved to take part in this schme, partly from admiration for its author, and partly, it must be confessed, from a desire of the honour of being invited to one of the breakfasts in his rooms at Corpus, with which Ruskin rewarded his amateur road-makers.

“So, we worked with the rest on the Hincksey road, and saw Ruskin divest himself of his blue necktie and delicately tap a stone with a hammer. In due time we got our invitation to breakfast. I cannot express the tact with which Ruskin put his young guests at their ease, and the skill with which he drew out even the shyest to take part in the conversation. I can only reproduce the rough notes that I took down after the breakfast. They may be of interest to Ruskin’s biographers, and to any one else who likes to hear what men of genius said and did even on trivial occasions.

“My friend and I were the first to arrive at Ruskin’s hospitable rooms, and on our entrance were warmly shaken by the hand. It was a rainy day ([Tuesday] December 8th, 1874), and he told us of the glee with which he chuckled over the disappointment of skaters at the breaking up of frost. Soon the rest of the party entered and we sat down to breakfast, during which he conversed pleasantly.

“[Ruskin] hoped that fish would not be hunted out (apropos of the fish he was helping), and where I suggested that there was a danger of salmon being killed out in Scotland by being fished with staked nets, beat nets, and angling—’How curious’ he said ‘that Scott foresaw this in his Redgauntlet.’ Ruskin would not object to our fishing, if we did it in the proper way, riding on horse-back and pulling down quakers’ stake nets.

“He then went on to doubt whether Scott was a Liberal or not. He had asserted that Scott was a Liberal in his earlier writings, and felt bound to stick to it now, though he was not sure.

“He spoke of the consummation when his disciples should pull down the railway embankments, which disfigured small countries like England, specifying the vale of Matlock.

“He objected to rent, and more particularly to variable rents, and spoke of landlords as leeches who sucked away the wealth of the country to squander it in town. He himself had a small property, in which he let the houses at a rent a little lower than the surrounding landlords, which he would never increase [i.e. Ruskin’s housing scheme in Marylebone carried out in connection with Octavia Hill]. The rent fixed upon he exacted as sternly as any landlord. The tenants, knowing that they would never be ejected as long as they paid their rents, looked upon the houses and rooms as their own, and made many little improvements. But the proper principle he thought was that the landlord should receive a fixed salary for his work like the Queen. The Queen could not sell England to the highest bidder, nor should the landlord be able to do so to his property.

“He then spoke of his Utopia. He would have the world a museum, and each of us should consider ourselves keepers of the other men and beasts in it, making the world comfortable by keeping them nice and clean. He introduced the subject of Utopia by asking us, if we but read about Utopia in the last number of Punch. In his Utopia no books were to be allowed. If any books were written, they were to be burnt, and the writer flogged or put in the pillory.

“He next asked us if we had read in the Telegraph the story of the converted Bendigo. None of us had, so he promised to read it to us after breakfast. [[This refers to William ‘Bendigo’ Thompson (1801-1880), the bare-knuckle boxer who had been Champion of England. After a difficult middle-age plagued by alcoholism he found God and became a committed Christian.]

“[Ruskin] then talked of sudden conversions, expressing his belief in the reality of conversion, when any one saw the truths which had been before concealed from him by circumstances. He approved of a little spice of bitterness in talk, particularly in a lady’s mouth.

“After breakfast he read us the account of the conversion of the reformed prize-fighter which much amused us.

“He next showed on [sic] some pictures, more particularly a picture of good government, surrounded by virtue, and with two naked children at his feet. These he thought were cherubs, but my friend distinctly made out the figure of a wolf suckling them and licking them. Round the head of the figure of good government were the letters C.S.C.V., for which Ruskin sought any explanation. ‘May we guess?’ said I, and proposed “civium status civium virtus” [i.e. the virtue of the citizenry]. My friend suggested “caput senatus caput urbis” [i.e. the capital of the senate, the capital of the city]. Ruskin was delighted with both suggestions and made notes of them.

“Presently my friend said ‘Might I make another suggestion?’ I trembled for his reputation. He surely could and succeeded well again. There was in the picture a figure of Temperance holding in her hand what Ruskin took for an overflowing cup. This, my friend said, was an hour-glass, and sure enough, when we looked at it more closely, there was the sand falling from the upper part in a thin line and making a heap below. […] Ruskin was delighted at these discoveries. He said he must resign his chair to my friend, and specially thanked him when we said good-bye!”

If we can trust this account, especially its concluding anecdote, then we are led to believe that  Ruskin went to quite extraordinary lengths to endear himself to his young guests.

The picture referred to is surely the “Allegory of Good and Bad Government” (1338-41) by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (picture, above), a magnificent fresco in the Sala della Pace at the Palazzo Publico (Town Hall) of Siena. It was a painting Ruskin greatly admired. He knew it intimately and it was crucially significant to him. It is inconceivable that he needed students to describe it to him. But perhaps he was testing their skills of analysis?

The enthroned figure is wise civic government, flanked by Magnanimity, Temperance, and Justice (to his left), and Prudence, Fortitude and Peace (to his right). The three Virtues are above: Faith, Charity, and Hope. On the extreme left, another depiction of Justice is looking up at Wisdom. Below her is Concord, with a carpenter’s plane on her lap (a symbol of levelling, signifying equality). In her left hand she holds two ropes attached to the scales of Justice which she passes on to a line of good citizens.

Ruskin gave a magnificent reading of the painting towards the conclusion of “The Discovery and Application of Art”, a lecture he delivered in Manchester on 10 July 1857 and collected in The Political Economy of Art (1857).

Ruskin argued in that lecture that the painting “represents, by means of symbolical figures, the principles of Good Civic Government and of Good Government in general” (Works 16.54).

Ruskin’s lecture continued:

“Faith, Hope, and Charity” do not “surround the head of the figure” in “mere compliance with the common and heraldic laws of precedence among Virtues” but rather with “peculiar purpose on the part of the painter” (Works 16.54).

Faith rules “the thoughts of the Good Governor”, but this does not mean “religious faith” merely, but

“the faith which enables work to be carried out steadily, in spite of adverse appearances and expediencies; the faith in great principles, by which a civic ruler looks past all the immediate checks and shadows that would daunt a common man, knowing that what is rightly done will have a right issue, and holding his way in spite of pullings at his cloak and whisperings in his ear, enduring, as having in him a faith which is evidence of things unseen.” (Works 16.54).

Likewise, Hope is not merely

“the heavenward hope which ought to animate the hearts of all men; but she attends upon Good Government, to show that all such government is expectant as well as conservative; that if it ceases to be hopeful of better things, it ceases to be a wise guardian of present things: that it ought never, as long as the world lasts, to be wholly content with any existing state of institution or possession, but to be hopeful still of more wisdom and power; not clutching at it restlessly or hastily, but feeling that its real life consists in steady ascent from high to higher: conservative, indeed, and jealously conservative of old things, but conservative of them as pillars, not as pinnacles—as aids, but not as idols; and hopeful chiefly, and active, in times of national trial or distress, according to those first and notable words describing the queenly nation: ―She riseth, while it is yet night.” [i.e Proverbs xxxi.23] (Works 16.64-65)

And Charity also has a “peculiar office” in this picture. Ruskin explains:

“If you consider the character of contest which so often takes place among kings for their crowns, and the selfish and tyrannous means they commonly take to aggrandize or secure their power, you will, perhaps, be surprised to hear that the office of Charity is to crown the King. And yet, if you think of it a little, you will see the beauty of the thought which sets her in this function: since, in the first place, all the authority of a good governor should be desired by him only for the good of his people, so that it is only Love that makes him accept or guard his crown: in the second place, his chief greatness consists in the exercise of this love, and he is truly to be revered only so far as his acts and thoughts are those of kindness; so that Love is the light of his crown, as well as the giver of it: lastly, because his strength depends on the affections of his people, and it is only their love which can securely crown him, and for ever. So that Love is the strength of his crown as well as the light of it.” (Works 16.65)

The “dependent virtues” of Fortitude, Temperance, Truth, and others wish you “only to notice the one to whom are entrusted the guidance and administration of the public revenues” (Works 16.65-66). This is not Charity, not Prudence, not that “bad accountant”, Liberality. Rather,

“the treasures are given in charge to a virtue of which we hear too little in modern times, as distinct from others; Magnanimity: largeness of heart: not softness or weakness of heart, mind you—but capacity of heart—the great measuring virtue, which weighs in heavenly balances all that may be given, and all that may be gained; and sees how to do noblest things in noblest ways: which of two goods comprehends and therefore chooses the greater: which of two personal sacrifices dares and accepts the larger: which, out of the avenues of beneficence, treads always that which opens farthest into the blue fields of futurity: that character, in fine, which, in those words taken by us at first for the description of a Queen among the nations, looks less to the present power than to the distant promise; ―Strength and honour are in her clothing,—and she shall rejoice IN TIME TO COME.” [[i.e. Proverbs xxxi.15, 22, 25] (Works 16.66).

Here, then, Ruskin effectively dramatized the key principles that should govern artistic production and a virtuous society. The political economy of art is indivisible from the art of political economy. His model is authoritarian but benevolent; strictly ordered but paternalistic; conservative yet also expectant.

Ruskin arranged for the picture to be copied for the Guild of St George. Charles Fairfax Murray (1849-1919) did the work between May and June 1873, and it was the first of his many commissions for St George’s Fund. As the embodiment of Ruskin’s social vision, it also exemplifies the ideal of a healthy relationship between the town and the countryside. If you want to understand what Ruskin intended when he founded the Guild of St George, look at this painting, remember Ruskin’s reading of it, and you will appreciate that he was motivated by his deep Christian faith to strive for a benevolent society, grounded in the cardinal virtues, built on the best of the past but never constrained by it, and always invigorated by the hope of finding a path out of present difficulties into a happier and healthier future.


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