Friday, November 30, 2012

Ruskin the perv

[Kate Greenaway, "Girls at Play"]

There is not a shadow of evidence that Ruskin's relationships with young girls went anywhere beyond the realm of strictest propriety. In the scores of memoirs of Ruskin furnished by women who knew him when they were children, he is always remembered as kindly, generous, affectionate: there is never even a hint of the "creepy." He never photographed young girls in the nude (as did Lewis Carroll), nor did he draw them thus.

Nonetheless, there's a moment in his late correspondence which belongs nowhere but in the realm of the "pervy." One of the more embarrassing aspects of late Ruskin, it must be admitted, is the decay of his taste: where in the 1850s he was the strident defender of JMW Turner and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, by the early 1880s he was delivering lectures in which he promoted as among the finest contemporary British art not merely his friend Edward Burne-Jones, but the children's book illustrator Kate Greenaway, of whose adorable wee nymphets Ruskin apparently couldn't get enough.

He was in correspondence with Greenaway by the early 1880s, advising her on her drawings – taking charge of her artistic education, as it were. For one thing, Ruskin felt that Greenaway had problems depicting her children's hands and feet rightly. In a letter of 6 July 1883, he coaxes her to go a bit further in divesting her nymphs of their regency costumes:
As we've got so far as taking off hats, I trust we may in time get to taking off just a little more – say, mittens – and then – perhaps – even – shoes! – and (for fairies) even – stockings – And then –

My dear Kate, – (see my third lecture sent to you to-day) – is is absolutely necessary for you to be – now – sometimes, Classical. I return you – though heartbrokenly (for the day) – one of those three sylphs, come this morning.

WILL you – (it's all for your own good!) make her stand up, and then draw her for me without her hat – and, without her shoes, – (because of the heels) and without her mittens, and without her – frock and its frill? And let me see exactly how tall she is – and how – round.

It will be so good of – and for – you – And to, and for – me.
In the margin, Joan Severn (Ruskin's cousin and – largely – caretaker) wrote, "Do nothing of the kind." I don't know whether Greenaway ever complied with Ruskin's desire, but apparently he never repeated the request.

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