In 1853, art critic John Ruskin caused a stir in polite society with a series of Edinburgh lectures lambasting the city’s architectural pretensions. Ruskin turned up his nose at the Neo-Classical style then favoured by city worthies, championing the Gothic style of highland castles and French cathedrals. This week from Monday to Friday, the National Gallery becomes the setting for a recreation of two of Ruskin’s controversial lectures on architecture, followed by a third talk on J.M.W Turner (who he admired) and the Pre-Raphaelites (another favourite). Having attended the first of the sequence, I can only recommend that anyone with a passing interest in art, architecture or the history of Edinburgh attend one or more of the others. Regrettably each lecture will only be delivered once, but each should be interesting as a stand-alone performance.
Embodying the stern, opinionated Victorian is actor and art historian Paul O’Keefe. With his mutton-chops, dramatic page-turning, grim expression and starched collar, he vanishes entirely into his role, never breaking character. His delivery is both wholly believable and capable of animating concepts for a modern audience. Resurrecting a moment in academic history is an interesting idea and one which I am now convinced should be tried more often.
Hearing the lectures seventy years later throws up some charming anachronisms. When Ruskin announces his intention of demonstrating why glass and iron will never become common building materials, there were knowing chuckles from the audience. Yet far from being dull or irrelevant, there are actually plenty of laughs to be had, and many of Ruskin’s arguments are challenging - even controversial - today. O’Keefe elicits humour from the printed lectures which would surely be overlooked on a simple read-through. Clarity is assisted by the liberal use of illustrations, one of which - a schematic of what trees would look like should nature follow the principles of Greek architecture - was unveiled with such righteous indignation that it was impossible not to laugh.
Ruskin was highly critical of the square, repetitive Classical style in which Edinburgh’s New Town was constructed. He objected to seeing the same ‘oppressive’ style time and again. Recounting a walk down George Street, he claimed to have spotted over six hundred identical, square windows. Not only was this style dull, it was also dangerous - many fatalities caused by weak construction are described. The first two lectures form a plea for architectural variety. Ruskin champions steep gables, towers, pointed arches and other romantic flourishes in a way which is still rather convincing, despite the dated language.
Evidently, the good burghers of the city did not follow Ruskin’s exhortations as closely as he would have liked - the landmarks of which Ruskin despaired are still standing. You will certainly come away looking at the city with new eyes.