Ruskin the Irrigationist

Jonathan Law reveals John Ruskin’s mania for mucking about with water, and explains how it stood as an emblem for his wish to tame the “frantic monster” of unchecked capitalism…

Richard Nixon loved mashing potatoes; Gladstone had a passion for chopping down trees; and John Ruskin – in many ways a similarly obsessive and hyperactive type – adored digging holes.

This mania for pick and spade can be traced from his childhood garden at Herne Hill – where the enthusiasm was not encouraged – through the “digging clubs” he organized for high-minded undergraduates at Oxford, to the last sad years of ‘brain fever’ and broken health. Indeed, Ruskin seems to have spent a good part of his life seeking outlets for his “original instinct of liking to dig a hole” – and rarely seems to have been happier than when he found one. In Praeterita, for example, he recalls a blissful day on which he did nothing but gouge thistles out of a Scottish bog (“an inheritance of amethystine treasure to me”).

As Ruskin was also a great lover of rivers and streams – from the mighty Rhone to the tiny Wandle – it’s no surprise that his favourite kind of digging involved the added element of water. Chanelling, damming, and generally mucking around with water formed the core of many Ruskinian projects – from his famous road- and ditch-digging scheme at Hinksey to his attempts to purify the springs at Carshalton. Ruskin seems to have found a special kind of joy in any occasion involving mud, water, and the conviction that he was doing something useful. Praeterita, again, records the delight he took in sluicing the staircase of a dirty French inn:

I brought the necessary buckets of water from the yard myself, poured them into a beautiful image of Versailles waterworks down the fifteen or twenty steps …and with the strongest broom I could find, cleaned every step into its corners. It was quite lovely work to dash the water and drive the mud, from each, with accumulating splash down to the next one.

Perhaps the most ingenious of all these projects was the elaborate irrigation system Ruskin created in his gardens at Brantwood in the Lake District. Visitors would be led up the steep path at the back of the house to admire the water catchments he had scooped out of the moor, their devious flood-gates, and the myriad channels that ran shimmering down to refresh each level of the garden.

Guests would soon learn that, for Ruskin, such projects had an ideological as much as an ornamental or even practical value. Apart from embodying his firm belief in the dignity of manual labour, irrigation and drainage schemes were a paradigm for the socially useful public works that Ruskin saw as the mark of any well-ordered civitas. For this inveterate ditcher and drainer, the neglect of such works was itself compelling proof of the failure of laissez-faire capitalism, in practice as in theory. His own diggings and dabblings showed what could be done, given the will, and served as a visible reproof to orthodox 19th-century economics, with its cult of non-intervention.

On this basis, Ruskin allowed himself to dream of grandiose engineering projects that would transform great tracts of Europe. If the wells and watercourses of Brantwood could be tamed, then why not those of the Alto Adige and the Lombard plain?

Every drift of rain that swells the mountain torrents … is literally rain of gold. We seek gold beneath the rocks; and we will not so much as make a trench along the hillside to catch it where it falls from heaven, and where, if not so caught, it changes into a frantic monster, first ravaging hamlet, hill, and plain, then sinking along the shores of Venice into poisoned sleep. Think what that belt of the Alps might be – up to four thousand feet above the plain – if the system of terraced irrigation which even half-savage nations discovered and practiced long ago … were but in part also practiced here – here, in the oldest and proudest centre of European arts, where Leonardo da Vinci … first discerned the laws of the coiling clouds and wandering streams … and yet in this centre of all human achievements of genius no thought has been taken to receive with sacred art these great gifts of quiet snow and flying rain. Think, I repeat, what that south slope of the Alps might be: one paradise of lovely pasture and avenued forest of chestnut and blossomed trees, with cascades docile and innocent as infants, laughing all summer long from crag to crag and pool to pool, and the Adige and the Po, the Dora and the Ticino, no more defiled, no more alternating between fierce flood and venomous languor, but in calm clear currents bearing ships to every city and health to every field of all that azure plain of Lombard Italy ….

(Apologies, perhaps, for the length of the quote – but this is not a man who would have known what to do with a Twitter account.)

In Ruskin’s social and polemical writings he will sometimes state openly what this passage only implies: that the work of the hydraulic engineer – checking the fierce flood, stirring up envenomed languor – is a sort of emblem for that of the wise economist or lawgiver, seeking to tame the “frantic monster” of unchecked capitalism. The benign meddlings of the irrigationist will serve Ruskin as a strong metaphor for the idea of social intervention generally.

Clearly, digging holes and mucking around with water can have some rather serious implications: which will be the subject of my next post.

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About Author Profile: Jonathan Law

Jonathan Law grew up in Westonzoyland, Somerset. He gained a degree in English from Oxford University and has subsequently followed a career in reference publishing. His books as editor or co-editor include European Culture: A Contemporary Companion (Cassell, 1993), The Cassell Companion to Cinema (1997), The Macmillan Dictionary of Contemporary Phrase and Fable (2002) , Perfect Readings for Weddings (Random House, 2007) and The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (2011). Since 2009 he has been a director of Market House Books Ltd. As well as being a regular contributor to The Dabbler, he has also written for the literary quarterly Slightly Foxed. His book The Whartons of Winchendon is published for Kindle by Dabbler Editions. Jonathan lives in Buckinghamshire with his wife and three children.

3 thoughts on “Ruskin the Irrigationist

    July 18, 2012 at 18:13

    Fascinating Jonathan, interesting sublimation on the part of Ruskin, who surely would have made a terrific opal miner

    July 18, 2012 at 19:24

    This is the dawning of the age of the Wandle, not sure about it’s Ruskinigation, apply clothes peg to nose and it was the place to go a-courting in the mid sixties, elysian views of the television tube factory adding to the romance.

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