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John Ruskin (1819–1900) is best known today as a writer and critic. His very individual, opinionated and often eccentric views on art and architecture, nature and landscape, economics and history, are still frequently quoted (though how many people actually read his books, with their beautiful but verbose prose?). Ruskin’s extensive output of detailed drawings and watercolours, spanning more than six decades, is less well known. Indeed, he is hardly regarded as an artist per se, as much of his work was made purely for his own use, much of it comprising unfinished studies created in order to work through his understanding of a subject or a view. Not surprisingly, his own lack of interest in their artistic merits has been shared by many historians and critics. But the current exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery provides a rare opportunity to see a sizeable selection of this work.
The selection demonstrates both Ruskin’s acute powers of observation and his quirky obsessiveness of mind, and their excellent condition imparts a freshness of appearance and shows fully the luminous brilliance of those in colour. They span his lengthy artistic career, and cover the huge range of subject matter in which he was interested.
Paradoxically, the great precision with which Ruskin worked served, quite unconsciously, to express the strong emotional reactions he felt towards his subject-matter. He could be very cerebral and scientific in his observations, yet there is great sensuousness in these images, particularly in the details and colours of natural forms – he positively communed with their beauty. Thus his formal investigation into so many scientific subjects – geology, botany, meterology, ornithology and so on – is complemented by evident joy and wonder which transcends his own wordy descriptions. He himself noted, writing from Italy (1852), ‘There is the strong instinct in me, which I cannot analyse, to draw and describe the things I love – not for reputation, nor for the good of others, nor for my own advantage...’. His varying states of mind (he would surely be described today as suffering from bipolar disorder) are discussed here in relation to his approach to work produced at different times.
Ruskin’s tools and media varied. He used pen, pencil and brush, and worked in chalk, gouache and watercolour (and also produced prints). Some studies show a mixture of tools and media. It was the image that mattered, technical consistency being of secondary importance. And because these works were intended for personal use, there is little self-consciousness about them. Yet they hardly existed in an artistic vacuum: even precocious artists have to learn from the examples of others. So there is discussion of the more conventional artists from whose style he learnt, and a selection of his early drawings which show a boy still coming to grips with perspective and accurate delineation. For me, the most revelatory area of Ruskin’s visual world was the collection of over 300 daguerrotypes he amassed between 1845 and 1858, mainly of continental scenes; it was an interest in early photography in which he himself became involved.
The show at Edinburgh’s Scottish National Portrait Gallery is beautifully mounted, with lighting that avoids the sense of dark gloom which all too often envelops the visitor when entering a gallery showing works on paper. The detailed book-cum-catalogue comprises a set of essays on every aspect of the subject, edited by Christopher Newall, who begins with an essay on Ruskin’s drawings. Christopher Baker, in discussing ‘Ruskin and Scotland: The Intimacy of Landscape Art’, points out the strong family ties to Scotland; his first page shows Ruskin’s copy of a map of Scotland, made when only nine years old (and the cover of the publication shows a study of rocks and ferns, made in Perthshire). Conal Shields examines ‘Ruskin as Artist: Seeing and Feeling’, and like Newall gives detailed analysis of many of his works. Ian Jeffrey’s ‘Fatal Praise: Ruskin and the Daguerreotype’ provides a history of an interest both scientific and artistic. Together with the detailed catalogue and full chronology, it is the definitive study of this area of Ruskin’s work, and a valuable addition to what is known about Ruskin – ideal for the undergraduate in art history or someone with a deep interest in Ruskin.
The exhibition is a partnership between the National Galleries of Canada and Scotland, already shown in Ottawa and now at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery until 28 September.
John Ruskin: Artist and Observer by Christopher Newall, with Contributions by Christopher Baker, Ian Jeffrey and Conal Shields is published by the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa and Paul Holberton 2014. 376 pp., 240 col illus. ISBN: 978 1 907372 57 5
Media credit: All images courtesy of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery