During a recent trip to the United Kingdom, Professor Emeritus of Sociology Jim Spates introduced a major new collection of letters and drawings that will add significantly to the study of celebrated 19th century British writer and critic, John Ruskin (1819-1900). Ruskin has been the major focus of Spates’ research for the past two decades.
During the 1880s, the eminent Victorian’s last working decade, the young writer and artist, William Gershom Collingwood (who, during the 1870s, had been Ruskin’s student at Oxford), determined to dedicate himself to working with and assisting Ruskin. This later decade of Ruskin’s life has, up until now, not been well documented or well understood, Spates says, in part because the many letters Ruskin wrote Collingwood and his family, as well as many drawings he had given the younger man, remained in the Collingwood family after Collingwood died in 1932.
For generations, these artifacts passed to various of Collingwood’s descendants, and, for that reason, were unavailable to scholars. Collingwood’s granddaughter, Janet Gnosspelius, was the last recipient in this inheritance chain and, using these materials as her basis, was in the process of writing a biography of her grandfather when she died in 2010. In her will, she directed that the valuable Collingwood-Ruskin legacy should go to Cardiff University in Wales for proper preservation. They are now housed in that university’s SCOLAR Archives. The first scholar to ever examine these documents in detail, Spates says that, before he was long into the process, he “realized that this was an important new collection and would allow us to reassess the last decades of Ruskin’s life much more accurately.”
The heart of the new collection covers a five-month trip that Ruskin and Collingwood took to Continental Europe in 1882, a trip “about which almost nothing was known,” Spates says. The contents of the collection include an abundance of new drawings and paintings of cathedrals, cities, and mountains in France, Switzerland, and Italy, extensive correspondence with Collingwood’s wife, and, in many of Collingwood’s letters which he posted back to England, much insight into Ruskin himself, who was, at that time, recovering from a psychotic episode earlier that year.
What is new about these letters is that they show Ruskin fully recovered from this bout, contradicting the view among all his biographers that he was then but a shadow of his former, formidable self.
“Because so little is understood about Ruskin in the 1880s, the period is always seen as a time when Ruskin was in decline,” Spates says. “I’d never really believed that and these letters and drawings are the proof that the suspicion was correct, for-and as was the case after his even earlier mental attacks-during this trip and after he was very much himself, made plans, published books. The letters show that he was in good shape. In other words, they can help rewrite the story of Ruskin in the 1880s.”
At the invitation of Professor David Boucher, who oversees the Gnosspelius Collection at Cardiff University, Spates gave two talks during this research visit. On Dec. 11, he spoke at the School of Law and Politics at Cardiff University on the importance of the collection as a collection for Victorian scholars generally. The talk was titled “Life with Ruskin: The Janet Gnosspelius Collection of Letters, Diaries, and Art of W.G. Collingwood.”
Then, on Dec. 17, he gave the Keynote Address to the Annual British Idealism Section of the Political Studies Association of Great Britain. The talk was delivered at the Gregynog Conference Center, also in Wales. The lecture, “For the Love of Beauty: On the Old Road with John Ruskin and W.G. Collingwood in 1882, a New Rendering,” Spates saw as an opportunity “to put some flesh on my general argument that these letters and drawings allow us to see both Ruskin and Collingwood in strikingly new scholarly and biographic light and to provide, using some of these new materials, evidence for this new view.”
“I have in mind that one of the books I’ll write in retirement will be a revisionary view of Ruskin in the 1880s,” Spates adds. “Because biographers and scholars have seen him, wrongly, as essentially mad and declining, his work of this decade is regarded as being of lesser importance. Now that we have this new collection, we know this to be a damaging mischaracterization and, using the Collingwood materials, can rewrite the story, not only of Ruskin’s later life, but can reassess the significance of his work of this period as well.”
While in the U.K., Spates also delivered a third lecture, a revised version of a talk on Ruskin’s highly influential book, “The Seven Lamps of Architecture” (1849), at the Ruskin Museum in the Lake District in northern England.
Spates joined the HWS faculty in 1971 after earning his Ph.D. in sociology from Boston University and his B.A. in anthropology and sociology from Colby College. In addition to his 43 years of teaching at Hobart and William Smith (he retired at the end of the 2014 academic year), Spates has been four-time Visiting Professor of Sociology at the Institute for Shipboard Education at the University of Pittsburgh. On campus, he has twice served as Chair of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology, has served for many years as the chair of the Urban Studies Program and chaired two curriculum committees.
His scholarship has focused on the quality of social life and city life, the 1960s counterculture, the sociologies of cities, values and human nature, and, more recently, on the life and work of Ruskin. Regarding this later interest, Spates is the author of a number of books about Ruskin, including “Availing Toward Life: A Summary of the Social Thought of John Ruskin” (in draft) and “The Imperfect Round: Helen Gill Viljoen’s ‘Life of Ruskin'” (Long View, 2005). He has authored numerous journal articles about Ruskin and has presented this work locally, nationally, and internationally. His most recent book, “Why Ruskin?” will soon be published by Pallas Athene in London. Recently, he also has given lectures at The Hillside Club in Berkeley, Calif., on the basic ideas contained in Ruskin’s masterpiece of social criticism, “Unto this Last.” As another aspect of his effort to communicate his belief in the abiding importance of Ruskin’s thought for our modern era, he has started a Ruskin website, www.whyruskin.wordpress.com.