John Everett Millais, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti had established the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1848. The Pre-Raphaelite commitment to 'naturalism' – "paint from nature only", depicting nature in fine detail, had been influenced by Ruskin.
Ruskin came into contact with Millais after the artists approached him through their mutual friend Coventry Patmore. Initially, Ruskin had not been impressed by Millais's Christ in the House of His Parents (1849–50), a painting that was considered blasphemous at the time, but Ruskin wrote letters defending the PRB to The Times in May 1851. Providing Millais with artistic patronage and encouragement, in the summer of 1853 the artist (and his brother) travelled to Scotland with Ruskin and Effie where, at Glenfinlas, he painted the closely observed landscape background of gneiss rock to which, as had always been intended, he later added Ruskin's portrait.
Millais had painted Effie for The Order of Release, 1746, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1852. Suffering increasingly from physical illness and acute mental anxiety, Effie was arguing fiercely with her husband and his intense and overly protective parents, and seeking solace with her own parents in Scotland. The Ruskin marriage was already fatally undermined as she and Millais fell in love, and Effie left Ruskin, causing a public scandal.
In April 1854, Effie filed her suit of nullity, on grounds of “non-consummation” owing to his "incurable impotency," a charge Ruskin later disputed. Ruskin wrote, "I can prove my virility at once." The annulment was granted in July. Ruskin did not even mention it in his diary. Effie married Millais the following year. The complex reasons for the non-consummation and ultimate failure of the Ruskin marriage are a matter of continued speculation and debate.
Ruskin continued to support Hunt and Rossetti. He also provided an annuity of £150 in 1855–57 to Elizabeth Siddal, Rossetti's wife, to encourage the art (and paid for the services of Henry Acland for her medical care). Other artists influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites also received both critical and financial support from Ruskin, including John Brett, John William Inchbold, and Edward Burne-Jones who became a good friend (he called him “Brother Ned”). His father's disapproval of such friends was a further cause of considerable tension between them.
During this period Ruskin wrote regular reviews of the annual exhibitions at the Royal Academy under the title Academy Notes (1855–59, 1875). They were highly influential, capable of making and breaking reputations. The satirical magazine, Punch, for example, published the lines (24 May 1856), "I paints and paints,/hears no complaints/And sells before I’m dry,/Till savage Ruskin sticks his tusk in/Then nobody will buy."
Ruskin was an art-philanthropist: in March 1861 he gave 48 Turner drawings to the Ashmolean in Oxford, and a further 25 to the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge in May. Ruskin's own work was very distinctive, and he occasionally exhibited his watercolours: in the United States in 1857–58 and 1879, for example; and in England, at the Fine Art Society in 1878, and at the Royal Society of Painters in Watercolour (of which he was an honorary member) in 1879. He created many careful studies of natural forms, based on his detailed botanical, geological and architectural observations. Examples of his work include a painted, floral pilaster decoration in the central room of Wallington Hall in Northumberland, home of his friend Pauline Trevelyan. The stained glass window in the Little Church of St Francis Funtley, Fareham, Hampshire is reputed to have been designed by him. Originally placed in the St. Peter's Church Duntisbourne Abbots near Cirencester, the window depicts the Ascension and the Nativity.
Ruskin’s theories also inspired some architects to adapt the Gothic style. Such buildings created what has been called a distinctive "Ruskinian Gothic". Through his friendship with Sir Henry Acland, from 1854 Ruskin supported attempts to establish what became the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (designed by Benjamin Woodward) which is the closest thing to a model of this style, but still failed completely to satisfy Ruskin. The many twists and turns in the Museum’s development, not least its increasing cost, and the University authorities’ less than enthusiastic attitude towards it, proved increasingly frustrating for Ruskin.
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