John Ruskin: Echoes of Stones

John Ruskin, Ca’ d’Oro, Venice (1845), graphite, watercolour and bodycolour on toned paper; 33 × 47.6 cm. Ruskin Foundation (Ruskin Library, Lancaster University) (RF 1590). Image courtesy of the Ruskin Foundation

John Ruskin’s watercolour drawing of the Ca d’Oro in Venice is like the man himself: brilliant, intense, poetic and idiosyncratic. While a third of the work is rendered in meticulous detail, with a rhythmic grid of Gothic arches, the rest is unfinished. Ruskin—writer, critic, geologist, teacher and artist—was at once multi-talented and emotionally complex.

Ca d’Oro is one of 140 drawings, watercolours and photographs on view at the National Gallery in John Ruskin: Artist and Observer, an exhibition representing the artist’s prolific output over a 60-year career. Organized in partnership with the National Galleries of Scotland, it brings together works from major public and private collections in Great Britain, Canada and the U.S. 

The exhibition, laid out thematically, explores Ruskin’s great preoccupations: architecture and nature. He drew buildings, close-up details of architectural sculpture, distant views of towns tucked into alpine valleys, cloud studies, rocks, glaciers, trees, ferns, shellfish, birds and more. Each drawing is like a precious gem, inviting close scrutiny of its luminous hues and many facets.

Ruskin, celebrated during his lifetime as one of Victorian England’s most influential art critics and social theorists, was also one of its greatest watercolourists and draughtsmen. Although not a professional artist by today’s standards, rarely entering his work in exhibitions, Ruskin drew as a daily, journalistic activity. Drawing was for him a way to strengthen his powers of observation—to gather and record information, and learn about the world. It was also a vehicle for expressing emotion. “His drawings were part of his hidden, private life,” says exhibition co-curator Christopher Newall in an interview with NGC Magazine. “Ruskin suffered from intense mood swings, and drawing allowed him to free his thoughts.”

The entrance to the exhibition features two self-portraits, in which Ruskin’s intense gaze seems to take in the world. An introduction to Ruskin’s early work follows: delicate drawings, mostly in black ink, of scenes in Britain and Italy. Although still a teenager when he made Rosslyn Chapel (1838), he was already rendering architectural carvings with a profound respect for their artisans, according to Conal Shields, also co-curator of the exhibition. “The movements of the artist’s hand,” he writes in the exhibition catalogue, “lovingly echoed the gestures of the masons as they revealed within the stone a wealth of plant and animal forms.” 

John Ruskin, Capital 36 of the Ducal Palace, Venice (1849–52), graphite and wash on white laid paper; 22.3 × 23.5 cm. Ruskin Foundation (Ruskin Library, Lancaster University) (RF 1601). Image courtesy of the Ruskin Foundation

Later works include a lively watercolour, Capital 36 of the Ducal Palace, which conveys solid mass through an assured use of light and shadow. An illustration for Ruskin’s defining book on architecture, The Stones of Venice, presents rows of capitals in meticulous detail. In addition, several daguerreotypes are paired with drawings—a gryphon in front of Verona’s Duomo, for example—to demonstrate how the artist used photography as an aide-mémoire, and as a tool to help him identify areas of light and dark.

Ruskin’s predilection for outline and his habit of leaving works unfinished make for some particularly arresting images. One watercolour sketch of the Ducal Palace and the Campanile of St. Marks in Venice has so much white space that the palace seems to float on the Adriatic itself. Other works, such as The Fondamenta Nuove, stand out for their relative lack of detail. Such polarities in technique may reflect fluctuations in Ruskin’s state of mind, which wavered between periods of euphoria and bleak despair. Christopher Baker writes in the catalogue that Ruskin shifted his methods “to suit his mood and preoccupation.”

About half of the exhibition is devoted to nature—both close-up studies and distant views—including several magnificent drawings of rocks. A series of photographs and drawings illustrate how Ruskin sought to capture the power and cragginess of the glaciers around Chamonix in the French Alps. Elected a Fellow of the Geological Society of London, Ruskin was an ardent student of geology and glacial movement. For him, questions of metamorphosis, pressure and stability were key to both natural phenomena and human identity.

John Ruskin, Rocks and Ferns in a Wood at Crossmount, Perthshire (1847), pen and ink and watercolour over graphite on paper, 32.3 x 46.5 cm. Courtesy of Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Lakeland Arts Trust, Kendal, Cumbria, UK (AH1134/73). Reproduced by courtesy of Abbot Hall Art Gallery

An only child raised in near seclusion by highly controlling, evangelical parents, Ruskin made his first known sketches at the age of seven. By twelve, he was taking weekly drawing lessons, and by thirteen had become impassioned by the work of J.M.W. Turner, whose ethereal watercolours appeared in Samuel Roger’s book Italy, given to Ruskin as a birthday present. That book also imbued the future artist with a sense of wanderlust, and it wasn’t long before his parents indulged him with the first of many family trips to France, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. On his return journey to London, Ruskin started an illustrated travel diary.

One of the final works in the exhibition is an engraving of Ruskin's drawing, The Dryad's Crown, made for Volume V of his book Modern Painters. A bract of oak leaves, shriveled by an autumn frost, is curled over like a crown. In typical Ruskin style, the rhythmic relationships between the individual elements lend the work its elegance. Ruskin wrote in the book that he could have chosen to draw leaves in spring, but they “would droop and lose their relations.” By contrast, the autumn leaves, though withering, “have enough left to show how noble leaf-form is.”

John Ruskin: Artist and Observer is on view at the NGC from 14 February until 11 May 2014. A catalogue in English and French editions accompanies the exhibition.

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