Between colour and pattern: Ruskin’s ambivalent theory of constructional polychromy
John Ruskin offered an alternative paradigm to the debates on constructional polychromy in Victorian Britain. The paper considers the larger context of the debate and Ruskin’s place within it, which is that he favoured the decorative use of innate colour of materials to achieve concealment of the building’s structure. However, even then Ruskin’s theory of polychromy, especially his attitudes to colour and pattern, remains far from obvious. The paper offers an original insight into this, as it explores Ruskin’s approach to architecture and colour through the lenses of gender, body, soul and dress, presenting his triadic theory of architecture that asserted: a) architecture is a combination of painting and sculpture; b) it is feminine; and c) it analogous to a dressed body. The paper then deploys this understanding to revisit the ambivalence between colour as pattern, and colour as effect, and to argue that for Ruskin the visual field is characterized essentially by simultaneity and vacillation, not singularity and stability. It is argued that Ruskin’s writings complexified as well as undermined polarities prevalent in the dominant paradigms of polychromy, as his writings refused to resolve the difference between pattern and effect, to the same extent that they also refused to the settle the difference between sculpture and painting; canvas and textile; and flatness and texture.