Ruskin’s Rictus Grin

Once again the great city of SHEFFIELD is to be thanked for an extraordinary revelation. Had it not been for a fine-ground steel probe – hand-manufactured by Tossers & Co. at their grim, grey works in Savile Street, Brightside – gradually being let down into the hessian sack containing the body of John Ruskin (1819-1900) in Coniston Churchyard, there would have been no revelation that Ruskin, that wearisomely sermonising, polysyllabic Victorian polymath, the bi-centenary of whose death is being celebrated almost everywhere of a serious disposition throughout this year, actually possessed a sense of humour. Here is what happened, as recounted to us in considerable detail by a Rotterdam stringer called Martinus Burley, occasional contributor to the ARTnewspauper.

When the probe was let down, inch by inch, it was discovered that the ethically sourced hessian sack into which Ruskin’s body had been bundled at the time of his death by some disaffected local, was rotting at a greater speed than the bodily remains. He was quickly exhumed. His exposed skull showed incontrovertible evidence of a RICTUS GRIN. The reason for this became evident almost immediately. In his two fists, he was tight-grasping two of his most precious possessions – in the left hand, the Red Queen from his ivory chess set, and in the right, a fist-sized lump of amethyst that Tom, his garden boy, had long coveted. Ruskin had outwitted him by taking it with him! Hence the splendid rictus grin.

Ruskin’s chess set, lovingly preserved at Brantwood, his former home beside Conistonwater in the Lake District

The ones he failed to take with him: a selection of Ruskin’s great collection of minerals, preserved in a drawer in the basement of the Ruskin Collection, Sheffield

Later probing amongst Ruskin’s voluminous papers revealed yet more evidence of Ruskin’s ability to laugh at the world and all its absurdities. Here, for example, is a marvellously comic demolition of the reputation of the composer Richard Wagner, in a letter written by Ruskin to Georgiana Burne-Jones, the wife of Ned (later aggrandised to Sir Edward Burne-Jones), on 30 June 1882, who was one of the artists Ruskin used to kick about for the good of their art. The object of Ruskin’s hostility is the Meistersingers. We couldn’t agree more!

Of all the bete, clumsy, blundering, boggling, baboon-blooded stuff I ever saw on a human stage, that thing last night beat – as far as the story and acting went – and of all the affected, sapless, soulless, beginningless, endless, topless, bottomless, topsiturviest, tuneless, scrannelpipiest – tongs and boniest – doggrel of sound I ever endured the deadliness of, that eternity of nothing was the deadliest, as far as its sound went. I never was so relieved, so far as I can remember, in my life, by the stopping of any sound – not excepting railroad whistles – as I was by the cessation of the cobbler’s bellowing.

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