Feb 082016

My last post on Ruskin 2 years ago was hopelessly inadequate because I was so distracted at the time http://www.bookofdaystales.com/john-ruskin/ This is much better.


Today is the birthday (1819) of John Ruskin, leading English art critic of the Victorian era. He was also a patron of the arts, draughtsman, watercolorist, social thinker and philanthropist. He wrote on subjects as varied as geology, architecture, ornithology, literature, education, botany and political economy. His writing styles and literary forms were equally varied. Ruskin wrote essays and treatises, poetry and lectures, travel guides and manuals, letters and even a fairy tale. His early writing style when writing about art was elaborate but he later toned it down for plainer language designed to communicate his ideas more effectively. In all of his writing, he emphasized the connexions between nature, art, and society. He also made detailed sketches and paintings of rocks, plants, birds, landscapes, and architectural structures, and ornamentation.


He was hugely influential in the latter half of the 19th century, and up to the First World War. After a period of relative decline, his reputation has steadily improved since the 1960s with the publication of numerous academic studies of his work. Today, his ideas and concerns are widely recognized as having anticipated interest in environmentalism, sustainability, and craft.

Ruskin came to widespread attention with the first volume of Modern Painters (1843), an extended essay in defense of the work of J. M. W. Turner in which he argued that the principal role of the artist is “truth to nature”. From the 1850s he championed the Pre-Raphaelites who were influenced by his ideas. His work increasingly focused on social and political issues. Unto This Last (1860, 1862) marked the shift in emphasis. In 1869, Ruskin became the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford, where he established the Ruskin School of Drawing. In 1871, he began his monthly “letters to the workmen and labourers of Great Britain”, published under the title Fors Clavigera (1871–1884). In the course of this complex and deeply personal work, he developed the principles underlying his ideal society. As a result, he founded the Guild of St George, an organization that endures to this day.


As with many of the “greats” whom I celebrate here, there is way too much to say about Ruskin. If you need to know more there are plenty of places to find information on him. I’m going to focus on one adventure of his, now known as the Ruskin Diggers, which I think symbolizes his life’s work.


Ruskin was fond of riding out into the countryside from Oxford, and his trips often took him westwards to North Hinksey, whose rustic charm he admired. (There is a plaque to this effect on one of the old thatched cottages.) He noted the poor state of the village road, and in 1874, he thought of a scheme which would give Oxford students the benefits of manual labor, and also improve conditions for the villagers. He organized a group of undergraduates to help him in the building of an improved road, bordered with banks of flowers. The episode might have vanished into historical obscurity, except that the students in his road-building gang included Oscar Wilde, Alfred Milner, Hardwicke Rawnsley, William Gershom Collingwood and Arnold Toynbee. Wilde later wrote of the episode in “Art and the Handicraftsman” (published in Essays, 1879):


We were coming down the street—a troop of young men, some of them like myself only nineteen, going to river or tennis-court or cricket-field—when Ruskin going up to lecture in cap and gown met us. He seemed troubled and prayed us to go back with him to his lecture, which a few of us did, and there he spoke to us not on art this time but on life, saying that it seemed to him to be wrong that all the best physique and strength of the young men in England should be spent aimlessly on cricket ground or river, without any result at all except that if one rowed well one got a pewter-pot, and if one made a good score, a cane-handled bat. He thought, he said, that we should be working at something that would do good to other people, at something by which we might show that in all labour there was something noble. Well, we were a good deal moved, and said we would do anything he wished. So he went out round Oxford and found two villages, Upper and Lower Hinksey, and between them there lay a great swamp, so that the villagers could not pass from one to the other without many miles of a round. And when we came back in winter he asked us to help him to make a road across this morass for these village people to use. So out we went, day after day, and learned how to lay levels and to break stones, and to wheel barrows along a plank—a very difficult thing to do. And Ruskin worked with us in the mist and rain and mud of an Oxford winter, and our friends and our enemies came out and mocked us from the bank. We did not mind it much then, and we did not mind it afterwards at all, but worked away for two months at our road. And what became of the road? Well, like a bad lecture it ended abruptly—in the middle of the swamp. Ruskin going away to Venice, when we came back for the next term there was no leader, and the ‘diggers’, as they called us, fell asunder.

In lieu of a parade of “useful” things to know about Ruskin’s life here’s some poignant quotes. In all of this I hear my own mantras, chief of which are – PAY ATTENTION, SLOW DOWN, BE HUMBLE. Furthermore I firmly believe that merely writing or reading lofty words is pointless. You must believe them deeply and incorporate them into your being:


To banish imperfection is to destroy expression, to check exertion, to paralyze vitality.

It is better to lose your pride with someone you love rather than to lose that someone you love with your useless pride.

Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.

The purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love color the most.

I believe that the first test of a great man is his humility. I don’t mean by humility, doubt of his power. But really great men have a curious feeling that the greatness is not of them, but through them. And they see something divine in every other man and are endlessly, foolishly, incredibly merciful.

A man wrapped up in himself makes a very small parcel.

Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty if only we have the eyes to see them.

When love and skill work together, expect a masterpiece.


All art is but dirtying the paper delicately.

Every increased possession loads us with new weariness.

No changing of place at a hundred miles an hour will make us one whit stronger, or happier, or wiser. There was always more in the world than man could see, walked they ever so slowly; they will see it no better for going fast. The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.

Modern traveling is not traveling at all; it is merely being sent to a place, and very little different from becoming a parcel.

The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one.

Say all you have to say in the fewest possible words, or your reader will be sure to skip them; and in the plainest possible words or he will certainly misunderstand them.

Education does not mean teaching people what they do not know. It means teaching them to behave as they do not behave.

 You will find it less easy to unroot faults than to choke them by gaining virtues. Do not think of your faults, still less of others faults; in every person who comes near you look for what is good and strong; honor that; rejoice in it and as you can, try to imitate it; and your faults will drop off like dead leaves when their time comes.

Remember that the most beautiful things in life are often the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance.

It rather surprises me that Ruskin had virtually nothing to say about food and cooking given his interest in the sensual and its effects on the mind and body. However, after much hunting I found this quote from him in the first edition of the Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (1896)

Cookery means the knowledge of Medea and of Circe and of Helen and of the Queen of Sheba. It means the knowledge of all herbs and fruits and balms and spices, and all that is healing and sweet in the fields and groves and savory in meats. It means carefulness and inventiveness and willingness and readiness of appliances. It means the economy of your grandmothers and the science of the modern chemist; it means much testing and no wasting; it means English thoroughness and French art in Arabian hospitality; and, in fine, it means that you are to be perfectly and always ladies — loaf givers.

Perfectly Ruskin-esque: bread is the staff of life. Not much help in choosing a recipe, however, other than for me to tell you to go and bake a wholesome loaf. So, I am going to be inventive and show you what I made for breakfast today. This year (2016) today is Collop Monday in England, that is, the Monday before Ash Wednesday. In Victorian times it was a common custom to have a collop for breakfast right before Lent. “Collop” is a dialect cognate of the French loan word “escalope” which generally means a thin slice of meat (sometimes flattened with a mallet). Typically on Collop Monday people ate a collop of bacon and a fried egg for breakfast, as prelude to the Lenten season when meat and fat are forbidden.

Living in Italy, a rustic slab of English bacon is not easy to come by, and, besides, bacon and eggs is a little pedestrian as a celebratory meal, I think. I happened to have some beef scaloppine in the refrigerator, so I cooked up a hearty breakfast of beef collops, cheese, and vegetables. I began by sautéing sliced mushrooms, leeks, and hot peppers in olive oil.


Then I pan fried the beef and topped it with cheese.


Then I served the beef and melted cheese with the veggies on top – color, sight, sound, smell, and taste.


Feed your inner Ruskin !!

Dec 262015


Today is the birthday (1791) of Charles Babbage FRS, an English polymath who worked as a mathematician, philosopher, inventor and mechanical engineer. Babbage is best remembered nowadays for originating the concept of a programmable computer. Considered by some to be the “father of the computer” (although his ideas had predecessors, and many people contributed to the development of computers), Babbage is credited with inventing the first mechanical computer that eventually led to more complex designs. His varied work in other fields has led him to be described as “pre-eminent” among the many polymaths of his century. Parts of Babbage’s uncompleted mechanisms are on display in the London Science Museum. In 1991, a perfectly functioning difference engine was constructed from Babbage’s original plans. Built to tolerances achievable in the 19th century, the success of the finished engine indicated that Babbage’s machine would have worked.

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Babbage was one of four children of Benjamin Babbage and Betsy Plumleigh Teape. His father was a banking partner of William Praed in founding Praed’s & Co. of Fleet Street, London, in 1801. In 1808, the Babbage family moved into the old Rowdens house in East Teignmouth. Around the age of eight Babbage was sent to a country school in Alphington near Exeter to recover from a life-threatening fever. For a short time he attended King Edward VI Grammar School in Totnes, South Devon, but his health forced him back to private tutors for a time.

Babbage then joined the 30-student Holmwood academy, in Baker Street, Enfield, Middlesex, under the Reverend Stephen Freeman. The academy had a library that prompted Babbage’s love of mathematics. He studied with two more private tutors after leaving the academy. The first was a clergyman near Cambridge; through him Babbage encountered Charles Simeon and his evangelical followers, but the tuition was not what he needed. He was brought home, to study at the Totnes school: this was at age 16 or 17. The second was an Oxford tutor, under whom Babbage reached a level in Classics sufficient to be accepted by Cambridge.

Babbage arrived at Trinity College, Cambridge, in October 1810. He was already self-taught in some parts of contemporary mathematics. He had read widely and as a result, was disappointed in the standard instruction available at Cambridge in mathematics. With other friends, including William Herschel, he formed the Analytical Society in 1812, in part as an antidote to the dullness of his teachers. Babbage was also a member of other university societies such as The Ghost Club, concerned with investigating supernatural phenomena, and the Extractors Club, dedicated to liberating its members from the madhouse, should any be committed to one. In 1812 Babbage transferred to Peterhouse, Cambridge. He was the top mathematician there, but did not graduate with honours. He instead received a degree without examination in 1814. He had defended a thesis that was considered blasphemous in the preliminary public disputation.

Before graduation, Babbage quickly made a mark. He lectured to the Royal Institution on astronomy in 1815, and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1816. After graduation, on the other hand, he applied for positions unsuccessfully, and had little in the way of career for some time, presumably because of his adeptness at ruffling feathers. In 1816 he was a candidate for a teaching job at Haileybury College; he had recommendations from James Ivory and John Playfair, but was passed over. In 1819 he failed to get a post at the University of Edinburgh even though at the time he was lecturing to learned societies in London and Paris, and kept company with some of the brightest and best of Europe.

Eventually he succeeded, in 1828, in being elected Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. He was not a conventional resident don. His lack of interest in teaching was noted. George Biddell Airy, his predecessor as Lucasian Professor thought an issue should be made of his lecturing. In response Babbage planned to lecture in 1831 on political economy and social reform. Among his targets was university education which he wanted to be more inclusive, with universities doing more for research, a broader syllabus, and more interest in applications as opposed to theory. Traditionalists found the program unacceptable, and his offer to lecture on these subjects was declined. I’m going to bypass discussion of Babbage’s difference machine and talk about his social and religious views which are, let us say, controversial.


In 1832 he wrote Economy of Machinery in which he described what is now called the “Babbage principle”. It pointed out commercial advantages available with more careful division of labor. As Babbage himself noted, it had already appeared in the work of Melchiorre Gioia in 1815. The term was introduced in 1974 by Harry Braverman. Related formulations are the “principle of multiples” of Philip Sargant Florence, and the “balance of processes”.

What Babbage noted is that skilled workers typically spend parts of their time performing tasks that are below their skill level. If the labor process can be divided among several workers, labor costs may be cut by assigning only high-skill tasks to high-cost workers, restricting other tasks to lower-paid workers. He also pointed out that training or apprenticeship are fixed costs which can be absorbed (and returned) more quickly and efficiently if tasks in production are standardized so that workers use the skills learned to their fullest as soon as possible, and not waste time on unrelated tasks. This model, of course, favors a factory system with severe division of labor. Productivity may not be affected greatly, but profitability is greatly enhanced.

I don’t know where you fall on this. John Ruskin completely opposed what manufacturing in Babbage’s sense stood for. 19th-century industrial production had some great benefits in that it could manufacture goods cheaply, and made products available that were not affordable when hand made. There are two negative aspects, however, that Ruskin emphasized. First, and most obvious, mass production produces masses of identical items that flood the market, making households identical. Second, this process separates the workers from their products (as Marx was also quick to point out). A particular item is no longer seen from start to finish by one worker; instead it is produced by maybe dozens of workers each contributing a part based on skill level. The moving assembly line is the natural outgrowth – where each worker spends all day on one, single task performed on hundreds of different items. With increased profitability, unionization, and government regulation, such processes led to increased wages in some industries, but with a concomitant loss of humanity. A worker might spend years doing nothing but attaching doors to cars for 8 hours per day. You have to decide for yourself about all of this. Do you want cheap, affordable goods made by workers reduced to drones – you being one of those drones – or something else?


In 1837 Babbage published On the Power, Wisdom and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation. In this work Babbage weighed in on the side of uniformitarianism — the principle or assumption that the same natural laws and processes that operate in the universe now have always operated in the universe in the past and apply everywhere in the universe He preferred the conception of creation in which a God-given natural law dominated, removing the need for continuous “contrivance.”

The book is a work of natural theology, and incorporates extracts from related correspondence of Herschel with Charles Lyell. Babbage put forward the thesis that God had the omnipotence and foresight to create as a divine legislator. In this book, Babbage dealt with relating interpretations between science and religion; on the one hand, he insisted that “there exists no fatal collision between the words of Scripture and the facts of nature;” on the one hand, he wrote the Book of Genesis was not meant to be read literally in relation to scientific terms. Against those who said these were in conflict, he wrote “that the contradiction they have imagined can have no real existence, and that whilst the testimony of Moses remains unimpeached, we may also be permitted to confide in the testimony of our senses.”

Babbage was raised a Protestant following an orthodox form of worship. However, in his youth he rejected the Athanasian Creed – dogmatically Trinitarian with strong affirmation of the co-equal nature of Father, Son, and Spirit – as a “direct contradiction in terms.” He looked instead to Samuel Clarke’s works on religion, of which Being and Attributes of God (1704) exerted a particularly strong influence on him. Later in life, Babbage concluded that “the true value of the Christian religion rested, not on speculative theology, but on “those doctrines of kindness and benevolence which that religion claims and enforces, not merely in favour of man himself but of every creature susceptible of pain or of happiness.”


In his autobiography Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (1864), Babbage wrote a whole chapter on the topic religion, where he identified three sources of divine knowledge:

A priori or mystical experience

From Revelation

From the examination of the works of the Creator

He stated, on the basis of the design argument, that studying the works of nature had been the more appealing evidence, and the one which led him to actively profess the existence of God. Advocating for natural theology, he wrote:

In the works of the Creator ever open to our examination, we possess a firm basis on which to raise the superstructure of an enlightened creed. The more man inquires into the laws which regulate the material universe, the more he is convinced that all its varied forms arise from the action of a few simple principles. The works of the Creator, ever present to our senses, give a living and perpetual testimony of his power and goodness far surpassing any evidence transmitted through human testimony. The testimony of man becomes fainter at every stage of transmission, whilst each new inquiry into the works of the Almighty gives to us more exalted views of his wisdom, his goodness, and his power.

Babbage also wrote a defense of the belief in divine miracles. Against objections previously posed by David Hume, Babbage advocated for the belief of divine agency, stating “we must not measure the credibility or incredibility of an event by the narrow sphere of our own experience, nor forget that there is a Divine energy which overrides what we familiarly call the laws of nature.” He alluded to the limits of human experience, saying: “all that we see in a miracle is an effect which is new to our observation, and whose cause is concealed. The cause may be beyond the sphere of our observation, and would be thus beyond the familiar sphere of nature; but this does not make the event a violation of any law of nature. The limits of man’s observation lie within very narrow boundaries, and it would be arrogance to suppose that the reach of man’s power is to form the limits of the natural world.”

Babbage’s contributions to mathematics, astronomy, cryptography, statistics, and engineering are invaluable. My brief attempt to focus on a few other areas where he worked show him to be a richly complex man. I can’t say that I agree with him all the time, but he did raise valuable questions. Babbage lived and worked for over 40 years at 1 Dorset Street, Marylebone, where he died, of kidney failure at the age of 79, on 18 October 1871; he was buried in London’s Kensal Green Cemetery. He had declined both a knighthood and baronetcy.


In 1983 the autopsy report for Charles Babbage was discovered and later published by his great-great-grandson. A copy of the original is also available. Half of Babbage’s brain is preserved at the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons in London. The other half is on display in the Science Museum, London.

Babbage’s birthday is also Boxing Day in England, usually a day of sporting activities and eating leftovers. I turn, once again to Mrs Beeton for her thoughts on the Christmas turkey and using up leftovers the next day. I always used to roast a goose at Christmas in honor of Bob Cratchit’s festive meal. But it is important to note that in Victorian England the goose was a cheap bird for the poor, and that the turkey was the prize as evidenced by Scrooge’s lavish gift in Christmas morning. Mrs Beeton suggests using Harvey’s sauce or mushroom ketchup in the soup. These were common staples for her but are hard to find nowadays. Harvey’s sauce is a descendent of Asian fermented fish sauces made with anchovies. Mushroom ketchup is made from the spiced juice of salted wild mushrooms. You can find both sauces online or make them yourself. I’ve made both, but am happy to buy them. I find them useful in soups and stews when I have them around in my kitchen.



  1. A noble dish is a turkey, roast or boiled. A Christmas dinner, with the middle classes of this empire, would scarcely be a Christmas dinner without its turkey; and we can hardly imagine an object of greater envy than is presented by a respected portly pater-familias carving, at the season devoted to good cheer and genial charity, his own fat turkey, and carving it well. The only art consists, as in the carving of a goose, in getting from the breast as many fine slices as possible; and all must have remarked the very great difference in the large number of people whom a good carver will find slices for, and the comparatively few that a bad carver will succeed in serving. As we have stated in both the carving of a duck and goose, the carver should commence cutting slices close to the wing from, 2 to 3, and then proceed upwards towards the ridge of the breastbone: this is not the usual plan, but, in practice, will be found the best. The breast is the only part which is looked on as fine in a turkey, the legs being very seldom cut off and eaten at table: they are usually removed to the kitchen, where they are taken off, as here marked, to appear only in a form which seems to have a special attraction at a bachelor’s supper-table,—we mean devilled: served in this way, they are especially liked and relished.

TURKEY SOUP (a Seasonable Dish at Christmas).

  1. INGREDIENTS.—2 quarts of medium stock, No. 105, the remains of a cold roast turkey, 2 oz. of rice-flour or arrowroot, salt and pepper to taste, 1 tablespoonful of Harvey’s sauce or mushroom ketchup.

Mode.—Cut up the turkey in small pieces, and put it in the stock; let it simmer slowly until the bones are quite clean. Take the bones out, and work the soup through a sieve; when cool, skim well. Mix the rice-flour or arrowroot to a batter with a little of the soup; add it with the seasoning and sauce, or ketchup. Give one boil, and serve.

Time.—4 hours. Average cost, 10d. per quart.

Seasonable at Christmas.

Sufficient for 8 persons.

Note.—Instead of thickening this soup, vermicelli or macaroni may be served in it.