REVIEW – Ruskin Live


By Mark Bolsover

Forming, in part, a tie-in series of events to the beautiful exhibition of his work on at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh until the 28th September (and very highly recommended), The National Gallery of Scotland presents a cleverly staged quasi-dramatic adaptation of Ruskin’s 1853 ‘Edinburgh Lectures’: ‘Architecture’, ‘Architecture II’, ‘Turner and Landscape Painting’, and ‘The Pre-Raphaelites’.

The lectures are performed in the Gallery’s beautiful Hawthornden Lecture Theatre (accessed through the Princes St. Gardens entrance). After a somewhat twee introduction, Paul O’Keeffe, looking every inch—down to his hair, costume, and demeanour—the faithful recreation of John Everett Millais’s (1829–1896) famous portrait of Ruskin (on display as part of the Portrait Gallery’s exhibition) entered the lecture theatre and took to the stage. His authenticity is striking and admirable, and he maintains his performance of the energy, posture, and bombast of his Ruskin well, supported by beautiful and well-deployed recreations of Ruskin’s ‘fig.s’ and images, though he (perhaps rather too frequently) stumbles over the formalities and somewhat archaic formulations of the text.

But it is Ruskin’s text itself which is the star here.

Given recent controversies in Edinburgh over the trams project, the Caltongate ‘New Waverley’ development, and the fraught issues surrounding Edinburgh Council’s preservation legislation (to name but a few), the first of Ruskin’s lectures, ‘Architecture’, seemed somehow apt.

The lecture focuses on what Ruskin argues is the central importance of ‘pleasure’ and of ‘beauty’ to architecture. In effect all architecture can be seen to fall under the broad aegis of two styles or tempers. He contrasts what characterises as the ‘Roman’ style of architecture to the ‘Greek’ (or ‘Attic’).

‘Greek’ architecture, for Ruskin, characterised in and by the large flat stone (—the lintel) and flat roofs, promotes, he argues, the ‘weak’ (less capable of bearing weight), ‘imperfect’ and ‘bad’ ‘form’ or forms of architecture, lacking beauty and promoting uniformity and monotony.

‘Roman’ architecture, by contrast, embodied for Ruskin in the forms of the pointed arch and the steep gable, represents the pursuit of both the ‘strongest’ (practically and efficiently load-bearing) and the ‘most beautiful (aesthetically pleasing) ‘form’ or forms of architecture. The ‘Roman’, in effect, promotes difference and novelty (imbalance, inequality, and variety), in contrast to (the seeming fetish for) symmetry and repetition (—‘equality’) in ‘Greek’ architecture.

The ‘Roman’ seeks to emulate and to incorporate organic and natural forms (especially plants and trees) into architecture. Ruskin, very beautifully and wittily (a wit played well by O’Keeffe here) compares the ‘Roman’s’ emulation of the form of the Ash leaf and branch to the rigid geometric symmetry of the ‘Greek’ with a figure that looked remarkably like a Klee drawing, contrasted to Ruskin’s own exquisitely detailed naturalism. The ‘Roman’ concerns not only the relationship between architecture and nature, however. Ruskin, referencing and quoting from the poetical works of Walter Scott, plays on the etymological links between the ‘Roman’ and the Roman-ce (—the Romantic). In an interesting digression, he goes so far as to suggest that even the terms of the discourse surrounding the ‘Roman’ and ‘Greek’ is indicative of where beauty truly lies, comparing the sonority and lyricism of ‘spire’, ‘pinnacle’, ‘porch’, ‘gable’ (etc.), to the crudity of ‘architrave’ (etc.).

The ‘Roman’, Ruskin maintains, is carried forward in the forms of northern European Gothic architecture, and he chastises his contemporary, nineteenth century, denizens of Edinburgh over the design and execution of, particularly New Town, private property, and what he dubs their subscription to mediocrity and monotony.

It’s strange to hear the lauded World Heritage Site so defamed by one of its contemporaries, but, for any poor soul who may ever have found themselves lost in the seemingly endlessly reiterated architectural patterns and forms of the New Town and West End, and, more specifically in light of the recent developmental controversies in the city, it is difficult to deny the legitimacy and persuasiveness of Ruskin’s argument.
His denial of the future of architecture rendered in iron and glass and comments on the care for the destitute rendered possible in the ‘Roman’/Gothic, have a laudable if somehow pathetic and ironic ring, given the current architectural state of play.

O’Keeffe’s smart, bombastic portrayal of Ruskin, and the substance of the lectures themselves, are wonderful. The staging at the National Gallery serves to show that there is still an awful lot at stake in Ruskin’s meditations on art and architecture, perhaps opening up room for a broader debate on the future of architecture, the relationship of private development to the public good, the necessity of beauty and pleasure in architecture, and the future (—a revival?) of the Gothic.

Ruskin Live is on at The National Gallery of Scotland, Hawthornden Lecture Theatre, 12th, 14th , 15th August 15:00 (1hr 15 mins)

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