LOUISA WATERFORD AND JOHN RUSKIN: "FOR YOU HAVE NOT FALSELY PRAISED." by Caroline Ings-Chambers, Reviewed by Sara Atwood
 

LOUISA WATERFORD AND JOHN RUSKIN: "FOR YOU HAVE NOT FALSELY PRAISED."
By Caroline Ings-Chambers
(Legenda, 2015) xi+ 235 pp.
Reviewed by Sara Atwood on 2015-07-20.

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Louisa Beresford (née Stuart), Marchioness of Waterford (1818-1891), was John Ruskin's pupil for over twenty years. Talented and dedicated, she had studied art since her youth and had traveled to Italy with her parents to see the work of the great Italians. After her husband's death in 1859 and her subsequent move to a family estate in Northumberland, she devoted even more time to art. In 1861 she began to produce for the school at Ford village a series of murals based on characters of children in the Bible -- a project that would span twenty years. Painted in watercolor on paper stretched to wooden frames mounted on the schoolroom walls, the murals remain in situ. They are an impressive accomplishment by a woman admired in her own day but not widely known in ours. A reevaluation of Waterford's work is undoubtedly worthwhile and this study adds to the small number of modern accounts of her life and work.

Ings-Chambers's primary aim, expressed rather awkwardly in the Introduction, is "to transgress the boundaries and to re-work the processes of time that for too long have held Louisa Waterford, the artist, in obscurity and to emphasise the continuing value of her work today" (6). Though Ings-Chambers tells us that she will consider whether or not Waterford possessed genius, she writes as if she has already settled the question. Referring to her as a genius, Ings-Chambers also calls her a "visionary artist," a "visual poetess" who "evokes the archetypal everyman [sic] experience, drawing the viewer in towards her theme of pathos, dignity, poignancy, innocence, or repose" (5-6). Yet in spite of these claims, Ings-Chambers concedes the "undoubted shortcomings of various kinds and degrees" (5) that characterize Waterford's efforts.

Unfortunately, it is hard to weigh these seemingly conflicting descriptions against the evidence of Waterford's pictures, for the only one reproduced in color appears on the book's cover. Inside the text, reproductions are in black and white (a frustrating choice, since Ings-Chambers has much to say about Waterford's cuse of color), and a number of pictures discussed in the text are not reproduced at all. In the chapter on the Ford village school project, for instance, only two of the sixteen murals are reproduced.

Ings-Chambers' commentaries on these murals are not always accurate. While she locates and describes each one as well as identifying its Biblical source, she sometimes makes surprising errors. For instance, just one page after observing "pigeons flying past on the left" of Waterford's The Sacrifice of Cain and Abel, she cites a comment on this mural by Hastings M. Neville, who reads the flying birds as "a pair of doves" that "would seem intended to be the omen of God's acceptance of Abel's sacrifice" (160-61). Of Jesus in the Midst of the Doctors Ings-Chambers writes: "To either side of the window are painted pretend apertures, out of which figures lean" (177). Ings-Chambers also misses opportunities for discussion, as when she notes that the figures in Joseph Sent unto his Brethren "lack an underpinning knowledge of anatomy" (165); she might have surveyed contemporary ideas about the study of anatomy in art and, given the focus of her book, Ruskin's ideas about the subject in particular. Likewise, when she writes of David the Shepherd that "the foliage within and without the main picture is also particularly well done" (171), she might have explained just what qualities make it so.

As its title announces, however, this book foregrounds not just Waterford herself but her relationship with Ruskin: her response to the principles and practice of his art instruction as well as his ideas about class, education, and women's education in particular. While the standard source for his correspondence with Waterford is Virginia Surtees's excellent edition of Ruskin's letters (1972), it is important to note (as Ings-Chambers does) that only Ruskin's half of the correspondence survives, so that Waterford's replies must be inferred from his remarks and responses. Stimulated by Ruskin's work, Waterford found in it-- as she told a friend-- "a charm that I find in no other, though he often provokes me, and I sometimes disagree with it" (qtd. Virginia Surtees, Sublime and Instructive [1972] 4). Feeling the need of a teacher who might help her overcome technical faults developed during years of self-tuition, she sought his advice, and through him became acquainted with Rossetti, Millais, Holman Hunt and other artists. They judged her in various terms. G. F. Watts hyperbolically declared that "she was born an artist greater than any England had produced . . . . an artist as great as Venice ever knew" (qtd. Surtees 5). Less fulsomely, Ruskin observed that "she might have been a Paolo Veronese, had she been poor, but I suppose it is all right that she should be great and rich" (SI 5).

Nevertheless, Ings-Chambers seems unacquainted with recent scholarship on Ruskin. Though she cites several important studies by critics such as Van Akin Burd, John Batchelor, Tim Hilton, and Robert Hewison, most of her secondary sources date from the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries; the most recent source listed is the Dictionary of British Watercolour Artists (2002), and the most recent work of scholarship cited dates from 2000. Consequently, Ings-Chambers ignores recent work on Ruskin's interaction with female artists and other women, Ruskin and education, Victorian education, and, more specifically, the education of women in this period. For instance, she does not mention the work of Dinah Birch, Linda H. Peterson, Sharon Aronofsky Weltman, Cathy Shuman, Rachel Dickinson, Deborah Cherry, or this reviewer, among others. Given the volume of scholarship today it would be impossible to cite everything published on one's subject, but Ings-Chambers has missed work of direct relevance to hers, with the result that her arguments often reflect a limited or outdated understanding of Ruskin's ideas.

Writing about Ruskin and women's education, for instance, Ings-Chambers offers a superficial reading of Sesame and Lilies, inferring from just three short passages that his views are "restrictive," and "disturbing" (68). Later, arguing that Ruskin thought women should copy pictures rather than create them, she cites from Sesame and Lilies the passage in which Ruskin assigns different powers to men and women: the man's power, he writes, is "active, progressive, defensive . . . he is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender" whereas woman's power is "not for invention or creation, but for sweet ordering, arrangement, and decision . . . Her great function is Praise" (Collected Works [1903-1912] 18.121-22). But Ings-Chambers fails to note that in The Laws of Fésole (1877-78), Ruskin famously proclaimed that "All great Art is Praise" (CW 15.351). For Ings-Chambers as for many earlier readers, Sesame and Lilies exemplifies Victorian patriarchy and condescension. Yet modern commentators have begun to recognize that it is one of the more progressive documents of the period, offering a nuanced exploration of contemporary sexual stereotypes.

Startlingly, Ings-Chambers also makes similarly blinkered (and contradictory) statements about Ruskin's teaching. Having commended at one point the "highly structured and graduated course of study" offered in The Elements of Drawing, she next declares that Ruskin's "teaching style is typically old-school, arbitrarily setting exercises which frequently are not adapted to Waterford's individual creative objectives as an artist, nor to the level of her ability. There is little structure to his teaching methods. Constructive criticism is lacking; instead, he berates what falls below the required standard" (74). This statement reveals a misunderstanding of Ruskin's pedagogical methods. Instructing Waterford, Ruskin would not have tried to meet her "individual creative objectives" or nurture "the development of her natural style"; before cultivating a style or technique, he thought, artists must learn to draw accurately, just as writers who aim to innovate must first master grammar and syntax. Above all, they must be grounded in foundational principles and practice. Moreover, far from being "old-school," Ruskin himself was innovative; rejecting the conventional methods of art instruction exemplified by Henry Cole's system at South Kensington, he stressed close observation and study of natural objects.

His letters to Waterford were often accompanied by examples and assignments. Owning many valuable sketches, paintings, books, manuscripts, and minerals, he generously distributed them as teaching aids, and in July 1855 he sent Waterford a packet of such materials. By means of them and the exercises he set, he sought to train his pupils to see and delineate clearly through active practice. In the letter accompanying his packet, Ruskin urged Waterford to study the leaves around Bacchus' head as well as the vine leaves in Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne at the National Gallery. "Make that your perpetual mark," he instructs her, "and don't let anybody insult your power by telling you to stay content with what you can do now" (qtd. Surtees 10). In spite of such encouragement, Ings-Chambers argues that many of Ruskin's demands were "inappropriate to the point of being detrimental" (3), faults Ruskin's "almost comprehensive attack" (39) on Waterford's technique, and calls him a "task-master" (90). "It is furthermore regrettable," she writes, "that when Ruskin discusses Waterford's art, his criticism is almost unremittingly negative; the role of encouragement in the teaching process was seemingly entirely alien to him" (38). Once again, this generalization shows a misunderstanding of how Ruskin taught, which is suggested by the tone of what he writes to Waterford on one occasion: "I can't explain what I mean by letter--Are you coming to town--& could you come some morning to the National gallery with me--or in any other way let me have a talk with you over Titian--and I could show you what I mean" (qtd. Surtees 12-13). This hardly sounds condescending, discouraging, or ungenerous.

According to Ings-Chambers, Ruskin's criticism of Waterford owes something to his conviction that there has never been "such a being as yet as a lady who could paint" (CW 14.308). But in the letter of 1858 containing this comment, he goes to urge its female recipient--Sophia Sinnet--"Try to be the first." Likewise, in observing to Anna Blunden that "no woman has ever been a great painter yet" (qtd. Ings-Chambers 53), his use of "yet" indicates that some woman might be one. Here and elsewhere, Ings-Chambers takes Ruskin's remarks at face value, without considering them within the wider scope of Ruskin's ideas and actions, and without accounting for Ruskin's habit of making bold statements intended to challenge or provoke. Though he published his doubts about female artistic aptitude, he befriended and encouraged a number of female artists. By the 1880s (as Ings-Chambers admits), he declared: "For a long time I used to say, in all my elementary books, that, except in a graceful and minor way, women could not paint or draw. I am beginning, lately, to bow myself to the much more delightful conviction that nobody else can" (CW 33.280).

As this comment suggests, Ruskin's criticism of Waterford hardly springs from the notion that women cannot paint or draw as well as men. He criticized Rossetti freely, telling him at one point that "Flesh is not buff colour -- as Mr. Herbert draws it -- but neither is it pea-green, as you draw it" (qtd. Jan Marsh, Dante Gabriel Rossetti [2005] 148). Ings-Chambers contrasts such criticisms of Rossetti with Ruskin's "exigent exhortations to Waterford to apply herself to hard graft [sic] and to practice to overcome her faults" (58). But as Jan Marsh has noted, Ruskin's "didactic and pedagogic tone towards women artists was . . . gender free--he behaved the same way to men" (DGR 180). Ruskin held Waterford to a high standard because he believed she had real talent, something Ings-Chambers considers only at the end of her book (see below), in a passage that effectively contradicts her previous indictment of Ruskin's methods. As shown by his dealings with Waterford and other female artists, by his published writings from the 1860s on, and by his active support of girls'schools and the new women's colleges at Oxford and Cambridge, Ruskin believed that women should be offered the same educational advantages as men and provided with carefully chosen teachers worthy of respect. While he was hardly a feminist in the modern sense of the word, his ideas about female education and aptitude were in many ways progressive.

Having argued throughout most of this book that Ruskin's teaching was inhibiting and detrimental to Waterford, Ings-Chambers ultimately concedes, in yet another reversal, that his teaching probably strengthened Waterford's work. "Great improvement," she writes, "occurred in the quality of Waterford's art during the course of her marriage. By the time of her widowhood much of her work was of a high standard" (42). As Ings-Chambers recognizes, Waterford felt deeply indebted to Ruskin's tutelage. "She was convinced of her need for guidance," Ings-Chambers writes, "and believed implicitly in the value of Ruskin's advice. Crucially, she also sought impartiality, and when she averred to Ruskin 'for you have not falsely praised', she was unquestionably accurate. Modern interpretations of the student and tutor relationship are useful for establishing historical socio-political perspectives. Ultimately, Waterford's own analysis of her needs and of the outcomes of her learning with Ruskin are of the greatest importance" (99-100). Indeed, Waterford herself, though sometimes vexed by Ruskin's demands, was grateful for his teaching and believed she had benefitted from it.

Like Ruskin's ideas on the education of women, Waterford deserves to be better known. Ings-Chambers's interest in both topics, and her obvious passion for Waterford's work, are therefore encouraging. One hopes that the close attention that she has given to the murals will help them reach a wider audience. Also, even though Ings-Chambers strives to show that the influence of Ruskin's teaching on Waterford was largely negative, she must ultimately allow that "fundamentally Ruskin's criticisms were, as Waterford herself states, a 'useful critique'" (185). Waterford would have been an artist without Ruskin's help, but without him, could she have become the artist that Ings-Chambers so deeply admires?

Sara Atwood, author of Ruksin's Educational Ideals (2011), is an Associate Director of the Guild of St. George.


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