Arthur Severn soon abandoned the sober Civil Service for art. Lazy, in 1871, he opportunistically married Joan Ruskin Agnew (1846–1924), the cousin, eventual guardian, of John Ruskin. He was generous to them, but following his 1878 break-down, they lived at Brantwood. Joan had to mediate between Ruskin and her socially ambitious but resentful drone of a husband. Charitable though he was, Ruskin resented being regarded as a meal-ticket.
This antipathy is obvious in this unsympathetic portrait. Arthur Severn, deliberately or sub-consciously, paints with anger, spite, hatred: he depicts a victim, not a person of greatness. There is no compassion, just cruel enjoyment of the sitter’s senility. A desperate, frightened, drugged Ruskin, a prisoner, trapped inside himself, looks out in anguish, unable to fight against what has happened to him – or to understand why.
Compare the sadistic portrait painted by Severn with the loving one painted by Collingwood. Both date from 1897.
Where to see this painting?
The Ruskin Museum
Yewdale Road, Coniston, Cumbria, England, LA21 8DU
If you are planning a visit to see this painting, check with the collection first. Paintings can be moved at short notice.