Ruskin Bicentenary: Letters to Ruskin

Written by Hannah Cox

The ninth of February 2019 marked the bicentenary of John Ruskin’s birthday. Since 2005, our University has been known as Anglia Ruskin University, in honour of John Ruskin’s work in multiple fields which led him to be regarded as one of the leading art and social critics of the Victorian Period. Ruskin opened the Cambridge School of Art in 1858, the school which has transformed into the ARU we know today.

Anglia Ruskin’s Elizabeth Ludlow and Nigel Cooper hosted Letters to John Ruskin on February fourteenth, joining institutions all around the country honouring the Ruskin bicentenary. The letters, written by university members, reflected Ruskin’s own engagement with others’ works, leaving rhetorical questions for the author in his annotations. The letters related to a wide range of topics, as did Ruskin’s interests which included but were by no means limited to architecture, religion, botany, geology, ornithology, literature, education and art.

Zoe Bennett and Christopher Rowland, authors of In a Glass Darkly, The Bible, Reflection and Everyday Life attended and Rowland himself contributed a letter to Ruskin. Bennett began by discussing amongst other things, Ruskin’s annotations to his Bible and how it had influenced their work. Rowland’s letter drew on Ruskin and William Blake’s handling of criticism, their madness and their inner worlds. Elizabeth Ludlow followed with a letter recalling her first experiences of Ruskin as an undergraduate, and the importance of reading his works in context, as he continuously changed his mind.  Ruskin changed his opinions concerning women, becoming an advocate for women’s education. Ludlow’s letter reflected on the value she found within Ruskin’s work, despite her disagreements with some of his values.

“Mostly, matters of any consequence are three-sided, or four-sided, or polygonal; and trotting round a polygon is severe work for people in any way stiff in their opinions.” – John Ruskin

Nigel Cooper wrote a letter that highlighted a personal resonance with Ruskin and his work. Others wrote letters empathising with Ruskin’s ecological values and his issues with industry taking away from the human experience with life and nature. Chris Owen wrote a letter showing how Ruskin’s influence continues to impact the Art School’s teachings today, something anyone in Cambridge can see come October when art students set about Cambridge to do their observation drawings.

The event ended after a discussion lead by Nigel Cooper. Questions were raised concerning the appropriateness of associating the University with John Ruskin, which yielded mixed responses. Ruskin has arguably been unfairly portrayed in films and literature, and his personal life was one of scandal. However, his works defined him as one of history’s finest critics. An admirer of nature and beauty, his views on life and art continue to influence students over a century later.

Ruskin’s influence within Anglia Ruskin continues to live on and inspire students! 2019 has many events lined up to celebrate the life and work of Ruskin, which you can see at


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