The Electronic Labyrinth

John Ruskin, William Morris and the Gothic Revival

In the mid-nineteenth century interest in the Illuminated Manuscript was revived by John Ruskin. Ruskin saw the ornately decorated pre-print books produced by monastic scribes as examples of the Gothic, an aesthetic Ruskin championed as providing the artistic fulfilment lost in the age of mass production. The medieval mode of production, Ruskin argued, provided the artisan with an opportunity for individual expression; the artisan contributed not simply his labour power, but his expertise and aesthetic sensibility. As a result, the Gothic represented a kind of high water mark in artistic production.

Like Blake, Ruskin felt the illuminated book was a means to political and spiritual reform, a way of breaking with the capitalist mode of production which took the means of artistic production out of the hands of the individual and placed it in the hands of the factory owner:

It is with a view [...] to the re-opening of this great field of human intelligence, long entirely closed, that I am striving to [...] revive the art of illumination, properly so called; not the art of miniature-painting in books, or on vellum [...] but of making writing, simple writing, beautiful to the eye, by investing it with the great chord of colour, blue, purple, scarlet, white and gold, and in that chord of colour, permitting the continual play of the fancy of the writer in every species of grotesque imagination [...]. (96)

Ruskin's interest in the physical appearance of the book and the importance of the expression of individual craftsman was taken up by William Morris, a poet, painter and designer who founded the Kelmscott Press. Kelmscott printed many of the most beautiful books seen since advent of the printed book, including Morris' own News From Nowhere (1892) and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

What is at issue here is not simply the visual appearance of the book, but the importance of the artist retaining what Marx called the means of production. With the advent of the electronic text, the author once again becomes his or her own publisher and is able to use the very medium of the book as a vehicle of the artistic expression. Retaining control of every aspect of a text's production, from writing to packaging and distribution, the author of the electronic text regains the possibility of fulfilment Ruskin sensed in the Gothic imagination.

© 1993-2000 Christopher Keep, Tim McLaughlin, Robin Parmar.
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