It is the year 1853, we are at the Philosophical Institution in Queen Street, Edinburgh. John Ruskin, Victorian art critic and prominent speaker against the 19th century art establishment, delivers a lecture – the last of four – about a scandalous new group of young British artists, calling themselves the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The previous three lectures were on architecture and on J.M.W. Turner – all thoroughly informative, but also mainly outragedly provoking.
This last lecture is no less provocative, and hearing it in the National Gallery’s lecture theatre over 150 years after it was first delivered, it still remains entertaining and eye-opening. Dividing the eras of art-creation into classical, medieval and modern, Ruskin talks about the differences of beauty and truth and of means and ends. He also proclaims that the difference between the three eras is religion – and insisting that modernity denies Christ. Not a light comment to make in a city that is drenched in Enlightenment and Presbyterianism.
Paul O’Keeffe delivers a portray of Ruskin so accurately that John Millais could have used him as his model. He stays true to the character from first to last minute, and after the lecture one is surprised to find cars on Princes Street and it still being the year 2013! Intonation, gestures and delivery seem so precise, dress and style just simply flawless compared to the handed down impressions of Ruskin.
These lectures offer an hour of inspiration from a time past yet still surrounding us.