To My Father

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I’ve been trying to write a long poem in tribute to my father who was a Wordsworth enthusiast. Needless to say, I have found it very difficult and don’t know what to make of my attempt. This is the beginning. The good thing about a blog is you can float ideas to try out. This is not a finished draft; merely a first attempt!

*

Is it for this an un-bridged chasm yawned between us?

I know I turned away from your literary conversations

and when you wrote your annotations, but be sure, that now

I venerate your Everyman hardback. Now you’re no longer

able to converse with Wordsworth or with me I’ll try

and bridge the widening gap. I’ve paid homage today

by gluing the loose spine and placing your book on my altar.

*

You didn’t annotate De Quincey’s quip, that Wordsworth’s legs

were certainly not ornamental so I wonder if you smiled

when you followed De Quincey’s meandering steps. Did you

chuckle when you read that beside a tall clergyman

Wordsworth’s figure appeared “mean” and he walked

like a beetle, even edging his companions off the highway?

Once you attached a grapnel around his eyes and underscored:

there was a light as if radiating from some spiritual world

the light that never was on land or sea.

I’m in concord here and throw a rope to the other side, hoping

I can narrow the distance. I’m following a convoluted path

here and now but recognise your footprints: your battles

en route and with the dimming light. Some footholds

afford some security and I can rest awhile. I travel on

and glimpse a finger-post pointing to a deep ravine;

I hope there’s a permissive path beyond the gorse.

*

I was a toddler trailing clouds of glory when you read

about your hero’s legs. Like his, yours conquered many a peak

and cut a path through scrub and gorse. Years later I came to myself

in a dark wood: I knew I had lost the way. If only I had

talked to you about Dante’s Labyrinthine Way!

Your furrow then was straight and certain, a bulwark against

the distractions of the world. You underlined in pencil;

he was guarded from too early intercourse with the deformities

of crowded life. In the ensuing years your naming of parts

obscured both our paths. You named the poetic faculty

as the highest good. I find your longer sentences difficult

to follow even with a magnifying glass. You turned his Ode

around and wrote horizontally. There is little that’s fugitive

but his spots of time became your asterisks; his radical ideas

your ‘toning down.’

I lay down my words in the shadow of yours;

I underline the verses next to yours and tomorrow I’ll copy out

your longer passages before they fade from view. My hands

touch the edge of both our worlds on this cold day.

A double underlining for the powers of reason and nature

thus reciprocally teacher and taught – you can be my guide

even at this late date. I know that, a voice without imagination

cannot be heard. Is it for this that I am searching for the signs?

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Wordsworth’s Mysticism

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Grasmere

This is a version of a mini-essay I did for an online course designed by Lancaster University on FutureLearn. My late father was a Wordsworth enthusiast so this is partly a tribute to him. I have a few of his books on Wordsworth and have enjoyed reading my father’s many annotations he made in pencil.

Although Wordsworth became an orthodox Anglican in his later years this should not be held against him or detract from his championing of the ‘indwelling spirit’ throughout his life but especially in his younger years. He is not as radical as William Blake but, nevertheless, there are passages in The Prelude where he is preoccupied with a mystical view of reality and that necessary inner spiritual transformation of the individual.

We are all familiar with his ‘nature-worship’ which goes by the term ‘pantheism.’ Perhaps this is epitomised in his Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey, and especially in the lines:

And I have felt

A presence that disturbs me with the joy

Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime

Of something far more deeply interfused

[. . . ] A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things . . .

However, we should not limit Wordsworth’s beliefs to nature-worship alone. I would argue his broader views have a lot in common with Blake (“to see heaven in a wild flower”), the English Mystics, St John of the Cross, and even Eastern traditions such as Buddhism and Taoism. As with all mystical traditions, a universal ‘Love’ is at the centre of his worldview. In common with Blake, he also elevates “Imagination” to a position where it is co-joined with selfless Love.

Here is a passage from Book 14 of The Prelude (significantly, the 1850 version is not much altered from the 1805 version):

Imagination having been our theme,
So also hath that intellectual Love,
For they are each in each, and cannot stand
Dividually. — Here must thou be, O Man!
Power to thyself; no Helper hast thou here;
Here keepest thou in singleness thy state:
No other can divide with thee this work:
No secondary hand can intervene
To fashion this ability; ’tis thine,
The prime and vital principle is thine
In the recesses of thy nature, far
From any reach of outward fellowship,
Else is not thine at all. But joy to him,
Oh, joy to him who here hath sown, hath laid
Here, the foundation of his future years!
For all that friendship, all that love can do,
All that a darling countenance can look
Or dear voice utter, to complete the man,
Perfect him, made imperfect in himself,
All shall be his: and he whose soul hath risen
Up to the height of feeling intellect
Shall want no humbler tenderness; his heart
Be tender as a nursing mother’s heart;
Of female softness shall his life be full,
Of humble cares and delicate desires,

Mild interests and gentlest sympathies.

The independence of the individual is unambiguous here and has something of the broad sweep of Walt Whitman.

Be tender as a nursing mother’s heart” has an exact parallel in a Buddhist scripture which reads as follows:

Even as a mother protects with her life

her child, her only child

so with a boundless heart

should one cherish all living beings;

radiating kindness over the entire world;

freed from hatred and ill-will.

[part of the ‘loving-kindness verse’]

Book 14 is a fitting climax to Wordsworth’s Opus Magnum and achieves philosophical and psychological heights which not only illustrate the prospectus of Romanticism, but recapitulate his earlier ideas rather like the last movement of a symphony. I am in awe of The Prelude and look forward to comparing the three versions in the Norton Edition. I recommend it to anyone who has not read it in its entirety!

Is it a Dog’s Bone?

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This article was prompted by a remark from a woman I was on a health walk with in Saltwell Park. The metallic sculpture in the park elicited the question, “What do you think of the dog-bone?”

Yes, unfortunately it does resemble a cartoon dog-bone; a comparison I’m sure was not in the sculptor’s mind when he produced the sculpture.

The next week our walking group passed nearby the sculpture which is titled, Rise, and we stopped to talk about it. I put on my art-history hat and explained about abstract art: that it didn’t ‘represent’ anything other than itself, not even a dog-bone! Someone else said, “It can be anything you want it to be.” That innocent remark begs a multitude of questions such as, “Is a work of art successful if its form is so open- ended as to be a blank space upon which we project purely subjective ideas?”

This is getting into more philosophical territory which I will leave for a possible future blog.

Another person in the group drew attention to the shiny material (steel) and he contrasted it with the weathered, rusty appearance of Anthony Gormley’s Angel Of the North. Someone else even said we should keep an open mind and not jump to quick judgements. These last two remarks made me re-assess my own opinions; was I being too hasty in thinking the sculpture underwhelming?

The sculpture is by Stephen Newby and was commissioned by Gateshead Sculpture Festival in 2006. It is what is known as a site-specific sculpture. The title is always helpful when viewing art. So, this is called Rise. We are all used to seeing engineering structures, such as bridges which use cast iron for example, yet nevertheless, appear to be light and buoyant. Think of the Millennium Bridge crossing the Tyne or the Forth Railway Bridge.

The fact that Rise is balanced on one of its four corners and consists of curves and no straight edges suggests lightness and movement. Does it make you think of ‘dance’?

I have found that by questioning my knee-jerk reaction to Rise, I have appreciated some of its qualities more. We should approach art in an attitude of open mindedness and ‘disinterestedness.’ On the other hand I always like to relate art to my own life. This is easier in content-heavy and representational art but more difficult with abstract art. Nevertheless, we can still ask such questions as, “What mood does it engender? What does it express? What effect do the materials have?” Such questions are better than “What is it?” which closes down debate and reveals a misunderstanding of abstraction.

Stephen Newby pioneered a new technique in which he somehow ‘inflates’ stainless steel. His website outlines his aims:

Realism becomes obscured and the unmalleable and clinical appearance of steel is transformed into something soft, fluid and organic.

Elsewhere he is quoted: I like to create objects that confuse the eye and give the viewer the feeling that she has found herself in another dimension.

Examples of some of his other work include a metallic sofa, cushions and an oversized metallic crisp-bag. There is also a huge metallic ‘tyre’ (Titled, Halo) outside the main Tesco in Gateshead.

Is Rise anything other than an ephemeral talking point? Will our grandchildren view it as significant art in 50yrs’ time? Maybe not; but at least it has made a few of us look at it with fresh eyes. The ‘problem’ with a lot of contemporary art is that there is so much of it. There are thousands upon thousands of sculptures all vying for position as it were. Much of it is bland and forgettable.

I hope I have given Rise a bit of a rise and that it can now dance confidently in Saltwell Park for a while.

Old-Fashioned Art?

Yesterday, while on a local history walk I asked the historian if he had seen the current exhibition of the Treasures From the Shipley Collection at the Shipley Gallery, Gateshead. He hadn’t so I told him there were a number of seventeenth century Dutch Mannerist paintings on show. I expressed my admiration for them and he replied. “People aren’t interested in those kinds of paintings nowadays.”

At the time I thought I was out on a limb, but afterwards I tended to agree with him. His response got me to question my own reasons for liking the paintings. Was I enamoured because the paintings were centuries old and had been cleaned to show bright and shiny colours? Was I harking back to pre-modernist times when all paintings were representational rather than abstract or conceptual? Was there even a hint of snobbery in my admiration? (I am aware that many people do not even step inside a gallery.) After all such paintings, along with the huge and impressive Tintoretto in the gallery, are examples of ‘high art’ and, that the distinction between ‘high and low art’ is anathema to art critics today. There may be some truth in this latter claim as I do believe in a kind of ‘gold standard’ in art. No amount of pleading will convince me that Andy Warhol’s Marilyn prints are qualitatively on a par with Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. Yet, this is what post-modernist critics claim!

However, I’d like to make clear I am not a reactionary or debunker of modern art in the tradition of Brian Sewell. There is much I enjoy in contemporary art: Anthony Gormley, Andy Goldsworthy and Robert Smithson to name but three which come to mind.

I’ll choose David and Abigail as one of the paintings to discuss. It was thought to be by the Dutch artist, Joachim Wtewael (1566-1638), but now is designated as ‘after’ the artist.

Wtewael, Joachim Anthonisz., 1566-1638; The Meeting of David and Abigail

When I first saw it I had no idea what was going on in the picture. I had a vague idea it referenced a bible story. Even so, I admired the skill of the painter to depict people, horses, trees and buildings in harmonious colour and tone and I noted the convincing perspective. I had to wait until I got home to look up the story – those visitors with smartphones can do this while looking at the painting!

Now, here is our first hurdle. Not many of us today see the relevance of bible stories. However, I was prepared to put that to one side. Art Aestheticians often talk about the principle of ‘disinterestedness’ when looking at art. They ask us to step into the artist’s shoes and not make snap judgements based solely on personal preferences.

So, in a nutshell the story is as follows:

Nabal, married to Abigail, is a rich landowner with many cattle and crops. He is proud and selfish. David has allowed Nabal’s men to graze cattle on his land and yet when David asks for food and shelter one day, Nabal refuses. David is offended and arms his 400 men who are under orders to kill Nabal’s men. Abigail hears about the plan and sets out with friends with food and drink to meet David. They meet and Abigail says her husband is an arrogant fool and she implores forgiveness. That’s David on horseback on the right with Abigail kneeling. Miraculously, her intervention does the trick as David is moved by Abigail’s determination, compassion and generosity. (Later, poor Nabal is ‘smitten by the Lord’ and dies – oh dear, this sounds like the old Old Testament ‘eye for and eye’ justice! David then marries Abigail).

The figures on the left are Abigail’s men carrying supplies and food, and those on the right are David’s soldiers. There is hence, a perfect symbolism in the composition with Abigail ( the force for compassion) in the centre of opposing forces. The two main tree trunks form a kind of arch which frame the crucial meeting of the protagonists.

If we are to take any spiritual teaching from this archaic story today, surely we can agree that reconciliation is superior to vengeance and war. In our own time we only need to think of Northern Ireland. And, on an individual level, forgiveness is a wonderful gift. Taking a leaf out of Alain de Botton’s book, Art As Therapy, I always try and relate art works (whether paintings, novels, plays, or music) to my own life; they can add to self-understanding. (The book, Art As Therapy,  is co-written with John Armstrong. Published by Phaidon, paperback 2016.)

To my eye, such paintings are not so much ‘old fashioned’ but timeless. They may not give up their magic straight away but with a little patience and, above all, leisure and time to look in a sustained manner, they can provide so much aesthetic pleasure.

Wordsworth’s Kites

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Red Kites were alive and well in the 1800s in the Lake District. I have found three separate references to kites in the poems of William Wordsworth and one mention by his sister, Dorothy. There may be more references than these but they alone prove that the iconic birds were a common sight in the Lake District just over two hundred years ago.

The first two instances are from Wordsworth’s narrative poem, Michael and from Dorothy’s Journal, dated 11 Oct 1800.

Greenhead Gill, mentioned at the beginning of Michael is a mountain stream/ravine behind the Swan Hotel, which is north of Grasmere.

If from the public way you turn your steps
Up the tumultuous brook of Greenhead Ghyll,
You will suppose that with an upright path
Your feet must struggle; in such bold ascent
The pastoral mountains front you, face to face.
But, courage! for around that boisterous brook
The mountains have all opened out themselves,
And made a hidden valley of their own.
No habitation can be seen; but they
Who journey thither find themselves alone
With a few sheep, with rocks and stones, and kites
That overhead are sailing in the sky.

As was usual with Wordsworth, some of his lines were prompted by his sister Dorothy. It seems Wordsworth was writing the early drafts of Michael in Oct 1800. She writes in her journal:

After dinner we walked up Greenhead Gill in search of a sheepfold. . . The colours of the mountains soft, and rich with orange fern; the cattle pasturing upon the hill-tops; kites sailing in the sky above our heads. Sheep bleating and in lines and chains and patterns scattered over the mountains.

The third reference is from the autobiographical The Prelude, Book First:

The heart is almost mine with which I felt,

From some hill-top on sunny afternoons,

The kite high among the fleecy clouds

Pull at her rein like an impetuous courser,

*

The fourth from his long poem, The Excursion:

With care and sorrow; shoals of artisans

From ill-requited labour turned adrift

Sought daily bread from public charity,

They and their wives and children – happier far

Could they have lived as do the little birds

That peck along the hedgerows, or the kite

That makes her dwelling on the mountain rocks!

In many of Wordsworth’s poems place-names are mentioned so it is possible to walk in his footsteps. When my parents were alive they lived at Troutbeck Bridge and I would often set off from there to walk behind Rydal Mount (one of Wordsworth’s residences) in the White Moss area. Easedale Tarn, accessible from Grasmere village, was another favourite, and nearby Helm Crag with its famous ‘Lion and the Lamb’ rock.

A mere decade or two after Wordsworth’s sightings, Red Kites began to be persecuted by Gamekeepers and by the closing decades of the nineteenth century they were extinct in England and Scotland. In the 1990s reintroduction programmes were established in England and Scotland. Our North East birds came as chicks from the Chilterns. They were released in the Derwent Valley in Gateshead in a four year project. There is a link in my blogroll to Friends of Red Kites.

I have been in touch with a curator-trainee at Dove Cottage (Wordsworth’s residence at Grasmere) and she tells me kites have been seen recently soaring overhead, so that is good news!

An Addendum to Ruskin: Didactic Art and Climate Warming.

global warming

To put Ruskin into context regarding the purpose of art, it has to be recognised that art has had a didactic purpose for thousands of years since the very origins of art. Prehistoric cave paintings almost certainly had a ceremonial or spiritual purpose. Some are in such dark inaccessible tunnels that they must have had a ritual meaning. [They were not ‘on show’ as in a public space.]

Religious art has always been made to communicate and promote the doctrines of the religion. On a more sinister note, totalitarian states have used art as propaganda.

The earliest Christian art is to be seen in the catacombs of Rome, dating from the third century. These are underground tombs where families buried their dead. There are over one hundred images of the ‘good shepherd’ in these catacombs; probably influenced by earlier Roman and Greek images. In the Christian tradition it is a symbol of protection in the afterlife.

Later on Christian art was made for cathedrals, churches, palaces, public spaces and private homes. And we mustn’t forget the rich tradition of Illuminated manuscripts. Not so well know is the fact that Illuminated manuscripts were also made to illustrate secular subjects, such as fables or medicinal cures; and there is even one illustrating a game of chess.

In the Mediaeval Period books were hand-made to prepare people for death. They were actually called The Art of Dying manuals! In them, the dying person had to look at pictures representing temptations and, each day, determine to overcome them in order for their souls to ascend to Heaven.

It is often said that Christian imagery in churches are ‘books for the illiterate.’ The origin of the idea, when the majority of the population was illiterate, goes back to Pope Gregory the Great (590 – 604). He wrote a letter to Bishop Serenus in which he says, ‘ What writing does for the literate, a picture does for the illiterate looking at it.’ and ‘Painted likenesses are made for the instruction of the ignorant so they may understand the stories and so learn what occurred.’

As Christianity developed elaborate altarpieces were constructed and painted for churches. They usually had side panels and predellas (a panel beneath the main picture-panel) so that the whole Christian narrative could be told by opening and closing certain panels on different occasions. Private homes would have smaller versions for private contemplation.

Buddhism, particularly Mahayana Buddhism, is rich in iconography. Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism has a large cast of Bodhisattvas, each representing a particular spiritual virtue such as compassion, wisdom or determination. Again, many Buddhists have altars in their homes with a Buddha statue as a central focus to aid meditation.

Let us return to the Ruskin quote. He does say that art is there to ‘please.’ so he isn’t saying all art should be didactic. However, he does say it should ‘exalt and refine.’ Now a quick look in my Oxford dictionary has this entry for ‘exalt.’ 1, praise or regard highly. 2. raise to a higher rank or position. 3. make noble in character; dignify. Now, one phrase which has characterised modernity is ‘the disenchantment of the world.’ [I forget who coined it] The idea is that with the ‘death of God’, and the moral vacuum left, the world has fragmented and art inevitably depicts the subsequent anxiety and alienation. All well and good; we can all respond to Munch’s Scream. However, the danger is that the status of the human being is diminished, we become cogs in an impersonal machine. To go back to that little word, ‘exalt’. One thing most of us will agree about is that we don’t dignify what it is to be human; we hardly ‘raise to a higher rank’ or ‘make noble’ our humanity. If we think of Tracy Emin’s Bed, for example, we can see that we ‘make ignoble’. Many artists glorify, or seem to celebrate our depravity; our various hatreds, greeds and delusions. Ruskin would despair if he returned to our times.

So, what am I suggesting? Is there a place in the twenty first century for a didactic art with a moral purpose? I definitely suggest that there might be. The challenge could hardly be greater. Annihilation of vast numbers of the global population through climate change. Can artists address this problem? Why not? There could even be a ‘re-enchantment of the world’ if such a movement went hand in hand with practical/political change.

Christianity managed to convey a unifying message with its millions of art works created throughout two millennia. Imagine if artists now united under a banner of ‘artists against climate catastrophe’ – how energising and positive such a project would be.

 

 

Ruskin & the Moral View of Art

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I like coming across books by chance. This is one such: a copy of John Ruskin’s A Joy Forever, bought for £1 in an Amnesty bookshop. It is an edited transcription of a series of talks he gave in Manchester about the economics of art and about art education. The talks were given in 1857 and there are five essays in total in the book.

The collection is a fascinating mixture of Utopianism, moral aestheticism, dogmatism and naivety. Ruskin is worth reading today in order to mine the nuggets of gold from the occasional dross. Apart from anything else he is a master-stylist of the essay form.

Ruskin is a typical Victorian and takes an elitist, moral view of art. He believes in an aesthetic ‘gold standard’ – that certain works of art stand head and shoulders above others. Contrast that with today’s relativistic, ‘anything goes’ view of art. Postmodernism has abandoned the gold standard: the high priests of post modernism maintain there is no qualitative difference between Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks and Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe. High culture and low culture are anathema in the current art lexical.

As Glenn Ward states:

There is, for example, no self-evident reason why Bach should be seen as better than Bacharaach. This is not necessarily to say that they are the same, just that they are equal. Everything swims in the same social sea of signs, images and meanings. [ Teach Yourself Postmodernism, 1997.]

I don’t want to get bogged down in too much of a criticism of postmodernism, but I should confess that I find it difficult to jettison the gold standard completely. At the same time I can also see the value of originality and experimentation.

It is tempting to simplify Ruskin and write him off as a hyper-conservative critic, out of touch with modernity. He famously dismissed Whistler’s Nocturne in Black and Gold, accusing him of ‘flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face.’ At the same time he championed JMW Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites.

In this Introduction I want to argue that many of Ruskin’s ideas are worthy and still relevant today.

In his first essay, The Discovery and Application of Art, Ruskin considers how a society nurtures and encourages its young artists, how artists are employed and how works of art are distributed and displayed. I will bypass his main explorations and merely give a few examples of his general view of art and artists to see if they are still relevant today.

I will start with a quote which many may dismiss as encapsulating an archaic, obsolete view of art:

Now, no branch of art economy is more important than that of making the intellect at your disposal pure as well as powerful; so that it may always gather for you the sweetest and fairest things. The same quality of labour. . . will produce a lovely and useful work or a base and hurtful one. . . its chief and final value, to any nation, depends upon its being able to exalt and refine, as well as to please; and that the picture which most truly deserves the name of art-treasure is that which has been painted by a good man.

The notion that art is in any way morally uplifting has been cast into the dustbin of postmodernism. Yet the question of moral influence goes back to Plato and his somewhat draconian expulsion of poets from his Republic. Nearer to our own times, the Romantics championed moral purpose, Wordsworth even seeing moral instruction in nature.

Most of is will baulk at Ruskin’s reference to the morality of the artist – that art should be the product of a ‘good man.’ I will consider this point in a moment.

If we no longer expect artists to take the moral high ground, we are more comfortable with the notion of moral indignation in the service of social justice. The feminist and political stances of Kinda Kahlo and Kara Walker, respectively, are cases in point. Such artists go against the tide of postmodern rejection of moral commitment.

Now, is it possible to defend Ruskin’s view of the ‘morally good’ artist? It would seem, on the face of it, naive and idealistic. Artists such as Francis Bacon and Gauguin were not paragons of virtue but produced works of lasting quality. However, we could be generous to Ruskin, and interpret the idea of morality in broader terms of the artist being morally engaged, and, above all, being self-aware and committed to ‘self-overcoming’ – to use a phrase from Nietzsche.

William Blake comes immediately to mind in this respect. His whole oeuvre is the result of self-overcoming – in his words, ‘cleansing the doors of perception’ and seeing the sacred in everything. [‘Everything that lives is holy.] He demands in himself, as well as us, nothing less than a perceptual, spiritual and moral transformation. [If you wish to examine in detail his view of human potential I recommend studying his Illustrations of the Book of Job. When I say examine, I mean studying his engravings with a magnifying glass and reading a good commentary such as Joseph Wicksteed’s Blake’s Vision of the Book of Job. Probably you will only appreciate the depth of his vision if you are prepared to spend many hours, days and weeks on this work!]

Idealism in art and politics is seen as naive and is often contrasted with empiricism and practicality. However, if we are to avoid a climate-induced apocalypse we all need the imagination and moral commitment to leave behind our infantile greed, violence and rape of the planet. We need to put into practice the principles of non-violence [ Ahisma, meaning ‘not to injure.’] and cooperation, and become true stewards of the planet, nurturing eco-systems instead of denuding them. This will most likely see the abandonment of capitalism in its present form and the abandonment of the insane doctrine of run-away economic growth. What has this to do with art? Art has always been both a product of the times and questioned its own times. Need I say more?

Here, to end, is Ruskin’s eloquent denunciation of our destruction of cultural artefacts as a result of war and indifference:

Fancy what Europe would be now, if the delicate statues and temples of the Greeks – if the broad roads and the massy walls of the Romans. . . had not been ground to dust by mere human rage. You talk of the scythe of Time, and the tooth of Time: I tell you, Time is scytheless and toothless; it is we who gnaw like the worm – we who smite like the scythe. It is ourselves who abolish – ourselves who consume; we are the mildew, and the flame; and the soul of man is to its own work as the moth when it frets when it cannot fly, and as the hidden flame that blasts where it cannot illuminate. All these lost treasures of human intellect have been wholly destroyed by human industry of destruction; the marble would have stood its two thousand years; but we have ground it to powder, and mixed it with our own ashes.

In my next blog I will look in more detail at what Ruskin has to say about art education.