Ruskin and Hilliard had faith in education

Published 21 February 2019

This spring, new exhibitions and books explore the two artists’ belief in the educational and humanising power of art.

  • Last year, the 250th anniversary of the Royal Academy, readers will have learned, among much else, of the reasons for its founding. One of these was to provide for its Members a marketplace for their work in the form of the Annual Exhibition. But arguably more important was the RA’s educational function. The Academy was not just to provide practical instruction, but to promote art as having moral and philosophical significance and therefore having an important role in the development of a fully rounded human being.

    Two exhibitions and two books now focus on two contrasting figures who both played a major part in promoting the educational and humanising power of art. The 400th anniversary of the death of the great miniaturist Nicholas Hilliard is celebrated by Elizabethan Treasures at the National Portrait Gallery (until 19 May) and a Yale biography Nicholas Hilliard: Life of an Artist by Elizabeth Goldring. Robert Hewison’s book Ruskin and his Contemporaries and the show John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing (Two Temple Place, until 22 April) mark the 200th anniversary of the birth of the great writer on art, social thinker, draughtsman and watercolourist.

    The son of a Devon goldsmith, Hilliard in his early 20s became the favoured painter of Queen Elizabeth I, creating the powerful image of her which has come down to us and which in multiple versions and copies was a vital diplomatic tool, being sent to potentates all over Europe. Then followed a long career, during which he achieved international fame. Only in his last years was he eclipsed by his pupil Isaac Oliver, a skilled but lesser artist also on show in Elizabethan Treasures.

    Our view of Hilliard has been restricted by the fact that he is known exclusively as a miniaturist, even if working at a time when in England the miniature was highly prestigious. But as Goldring’s superb book makes clear, that long career also included making standard-size portraits and even subject paintings, considered the most important form of art, and much has somehow simply been lost.

  • What we do have is his textbook The Arte of Limning (the term for miniature painting in Hilliard’s time), and records of his London workshop which, Goldring tells us, “was one of the most sought-after schools for aspiring artists in England”. His textbook “is threaded throughout with a commentary on the Italian Renaissance ideal of the painter as practitioner of a lofty, liberal art”. Hitherto, painters in England had been seen simply as artisans. Hilliard, by his art and his teaching, began a transformation of the status of both art and the artist. As such he was a key ancestor both of the RA and of a distinctive English art.

    It may seem a long way from the dandiacal darling of Elizabeth’s court that was Hilliard, to the fierce Victorian sage that Hewison’s book on John Ruskin brings to life. And yet Ruskin picked up that idea of “a lofty, liberal art”, promoting his views in splendid, often searing rhetoric. Ruskin’s doctrine of “truth to nature”, based on his view of nature as a direct manifestation of God, led him to loathe industrial capitalism and what it was doing to the planet and to the people in the factories. These views have proved profoundly prophetic.

  • As a radical reformer, from 1871 Ruskin set out a vision of education in Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain, describing a system of learning by doing and teaching according to aptitude, accompanied by a denunciation of rote learning for examinations. (He would have hated our present exam system.) Also in 1871 he set up the Guild of St George, a charity to promote traditional arts and crafts and a rural economy. This in turn led to the founding of the St George’s Museum – now housed in the Sheffield Millennium Gallery as the Ruskin Collection – as a free resource that would be both educational and recreational. The show at Two Temple Place draws on its varied treasures, not least among them ravishing watercolours by Ruskin himself. They return to the Millennium Gallery for a further show, John Ruskin: Art & Wonder (29 May–15 Sep). The architecture of both venues – delirious neo-Gothic and beautiful classic modernism respectively – makes both well worth a visit for their own sake, thus offering a double treat.

  • Simon Wilson is a former Tate curator.