Ought To ‘Ave ‘Ad An ‘Uggins

I tend to think of the Victorian all-rounder John Ruskin as a poet, but it would seem that he’s really more known as an art critic, friend of the pre-raphaelites – and JMW Turner fanatic.

Ruskin loved Turner’s work from the start – loved that Turner rejected traditional conventions and concentrated on what he saw with an artist’s heart – the colours, form, feel and truth of a subject rather than what was literally in front of his eyes.

His view wasn’t shared by all, though, and I found a lovely anecdote told by Ruskin over the weekend that made me smile.

He had been taking a turn around the Painted Hall, which was at the time doing service as an art gallery, its nominal ‘guides’ being grizzled Greenwich Pensioners earning a few pence by showing people round. Ruskin stopped to appreciate Turner’s Battle of Trafalgar (see above – it’s in the National Maritime Museum, if you want to take a closer look) and stood in front of the painting rather “longer than pleased my pensioner guide.”

Thinking that Ruskin was “detained by indignant wonder at seeing it in so good a place, he assented to my supposed sentiments by muttering in a low voice ‘Well, sir, it is a shame that that thing should be there. We ought to ‘a ‘ad an ‘Uggins, that’s sartin.’ “

The old tar wasn’t alone in not holding for all that modern art stuff.

“I can’t make English of it,” admitted another old boy.

“What a Trafalgar!” grumbled another. “‘E’s a damned deal more like a brickfield!”

Ruskin chuckles enormously at the antediluvian attitudes to art from the old sailors, but I confess I was a bit confused. Who was this ‘Uggins?

Turns out the NNM website was able to help there too. William John Huggins was a painter, with a more literal, traditional eye. He was an old sailor himself, so he knew how to get everything absolutely authentic, rigging-wise (Turner got ticked off for not being totally correct in things technical) but to me there’s more than that.

Huggins had worked from the bottom up, as an ordinary seaman, seeing the world and paying his dues – in exotic places, like Bombay and China. As far as the salty old sea dogs were concerned, he was one of their own, and they bought prints a-go-go of his work. He also painted the Battle of Trafalgar – apparently they’re in the Royal Collection (though I can’t find them), but the NMM has 26 works by himbut it was Turner’s work that was chosen for the Painted Hall.

I suspect that Huggins was the Jack Vettriano of his day – loved by the public, hated by art critics. Ruskin didn’t care for his work at all, saying that it looked like “no better than a correct model sailed across a pond.”

It does seem that Time has been kind to Huggins, though. Although he’s still not revered in the same way Turner is, his work commands high prices from collectors. The National Maritime Museum says his work is “a valuable record of the shipping of his period” – but I like it rather more than just as anatomical study. Certainly it’s inspired me to go back to the NMM to check his work out further. I’ll report back…


Comments are closed.