John Ruskin (1819-1900), Victorian art critic and social thinker, was a man who had a profound influence on art and life. Among his many admirers was Oscar Wilde, who met him at Oxford University and whose work and ideas were influenced by Ruskin’s thinking.
After he went down from Oxford University with a double first, Wilde headed for London where he somewhat reinvented himself as a socialite and took up with ‘professional beauty’ Lillie Langtry. Although his preoccupations often appeared trivial, from time to time he allowed Langtry to observe his true nature.
When Wilde brought John Ruskin, then Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, to call on Langtry at her home (some time around 1877-8), she noted that her normally convivial friend:
‘assumed an attitude of such extreme reverence and humility towards the “master” that he could scarcely find breath to introduce him to me’.
According to Langtry, this ‘unusually meek demeanor’ in her friend, ‘aggravated my natural shyness and filled me with exaggerated awe’. She was relieved to report that:
‘Ruskin’s winning voice and charm of manner reassured me, and, taking courage to look at him, I noted that his blue-grey eyes were smiling at me under bushy eyebrows.’
Langtry describes Ruskin further, noticing:
‘that his forehead was large and intellectual, that his nose was aquiline, and that the side-whiskers, made familiar by his earlier portraits, had become supplementary to a grey leonine beard’.
She goes on:
‘His hair was rather long, and floppy over his ears; indeed he was a shaggy-looking individual’.
As to Ruskin’s conversation, Langtry reports:
‘He held forth on his pet topic – Greek art – in a fervently enthusiastic manner, and as vehemently denounced the Japanese style, then at the beginning of its vogue, describing it as the “glorification of ugliness and artificiality,” and contrasting the unbalanced form of Japanese art with the fine composition and colour of Chinese art, of which he declared it to be a caricature’.
My source for Langtry’s fascinating reaction to Ruskin is her autobiography, The days I knew, p.140.
For more on Langtry’s relationship with Oscar Wilde, why not read my Wilde’s Women.