John Ruskin
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Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
Sketch of a Head of a Living Lion, 1870
Pencil on pale buff paper
16.0 x 19.6 cm
Ruskin School Collection
Lion's Profile from Life, 1870
Graphite, watercolor and bodycolor
16.5 x 16.0 cm
Ruskin School Collection
WA RS.Ed 155b

John Ruskin (1819-1900), educator, theorist, environmentalist, artist and prolific writer, is perhaps best known today as the preeminent British art critic of the Victorian era.  "I am only trying to teach you to see,"[i] said Ruskin, a dictum from which he never strayed during his long and productive life.  Involved in an extraordinary range of artistic and social proclivities, from sketching the geological strata of the Alps to drafting religious sermons, Ruskin observed the world around him in great detail, melding art, nature and religion into a unique recording of the external universe.

Ruskin, an only child, was born into a prosperous English family, his father a sherry importer and collector of modern watercolors, his mother a fervent Evangelical Christian.  The Ruskins vacationed frequently, traveling to France, Switzerland and Italy, where the young Ruskin drew landscapes and architecture, often spending entire days with sketchbook in hand.  In 1836, Ruskin's father bought him a place into Christ Church, Oxford, as a gentleman, relieving Ruskin from taking the college entrance exams.  Ruskin maintained a lifelong relationship with his alma mater, although he scathingly alluded to the school as a "mere cockney watering place for learning to row."[ii]  In 1861, Ruskin presented his initial gift to the Oxford University Galleries, donating a number of Turner watercolors from his own personal collection.  Ruskin, in 1875, founded a museum of art and a drawing school at Oxford, contributing pictures, drawings and five-thousand pounds for general maintenance.  In 1869, the University invited Ruskin to fill the newly created position of Slade Professor of Art.  Ruskin commenced the professorship in February of 1870, an appointment renewed in 1873 and 1876, retiring in 1878 due to ill health and mental depression.  Reelected to the post in 1883, Ruskin finally ended his position in 1884 over indignation at the University's sanction of vivisection and a general disgust of the institution's policies and politics.        

Drawing and painting from an early age, Ruskin received his artistic education from a succession of fashionable drawing masters.  Nonetheless, Ruskin always claimed an amateur status, giving precedence to his writings over his art.  Ruskin wrote enormous quantities of verse, winning the Newdigate prize for poetry at Oxford in 1939 for his work Salsette and Elephanta.  In May of 1843, at the age of twenty-four, Ruskin had the first volume of his Modern Painters published, with volume II following shortly after in 1846.  The Seven Lamps of Architecture made it to press in 1849, complete with Ruskin's own etchings as illustration to the text.  The author directed his breadth of publications, including The Stones of Venice (1851), Elements of Drawing (1857) and further volumes of Modern Painters, to the well-to-do middle class, echoing his own upbringing in the upper levels of society.

With a passion for geology and nature, Ruskin often engaged in minutely detailed artistic studies of feathers, shells, gems, etc., viewing his drawing as a scientific record of personally examined objects.  For Ruskin, who was vigorously opposed to the English cult of art for arts sake, painting and drawing had nothing to do with 'picture-making.'  Under Ruskin's theoretical principles, the purpose of art was to either 'state a true thing' or 'adorn a serviceable one,' always existing as the means of knowledge.  As a professor and proficient lecturer, Ruskin proffered his views on art, first as drawing teacher at the London Working Men's College and later at Oxford, where he taught classes in drawing, painting and perspective.  Ruskin, noting the importance of a practical artistic education, stated, "I think the facts which an elementary knowledge of drawing enables a man to observe and note are often as much importance to him as those which he can describe in words or calculate in numbers."[iii]  As a proponent of drawing from what one sees, Ruskin felt dubious about the benefits of teaching art history, a practice he believed enslaved the intelligence.  Ruskin publicly clashed with fellow artist and professor William Dyce over the content of the art examinations at Oxford.  Dyce wanted less emphasis placed on practical drawing accomplishments and more on the knowledge of art history, a view to which Ruskin obviously objected.                

Ruskin gave numerous lectures on artistic practice, including both the use of formal elements and the role of societal values (moral and religious) in art, often using the speeches as an opportunity to espouse his own social views.  Ruskin completed a number of drawings to serve as visual aids for his inaugural lecture at Oxford on February 8, 1870, a practice he continued throughout his time as Slade professor.  Employing large lecture diagrams prepared by either himself or his assistants, such as Arthur Burgess or George Allen, Ruskin stressed the importance of learning to look, at times even placing a layer of glass over the works to draw on in order to illustrate particular technical points.  In contrast to Ruskin, the Slade Professor of Art at Cambridge, M. Digby Wyatt, opposed graphics of any kind, stating, "It would be impossible for any illustrations I could bring you not to fall far short of the standard to which I think your taste should be raised."[iv]

The use of illustrations to accompany art lectures began at the Royal Academy of London early in the nineteenth century.  William Turner, in his lectures as Professor of Perspective from 1811 to 1828, assembled nearly two hundred teaching drawings, ranging from diagrammatic schemas to finished watercolors.  In the 1850s, with the advent of the camera, a new form of visual aid was employed, the documentary photograph.  Ruskin, who started his lecturing career in 1853 at the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution, began including photographic reproductions of paintings in his talks in February of 1859, a practice he continued throughout his time at Oxford.  A number of technological innovations shortly followed, including the transference of positive transparencies onto glass using albumen by the Langenheim brothers of Philadelphia, the commercial availability of slides in the 1860s, Macy's Sciopticon lantern slide (on the market in the 1870s) and the first electric projecting equipment in the 1890s.  Throughout this period of ever-evolving visual methods, Ruskin remained constant in his use of hand-made drawings and photographs to augment his lectures.              

Ruskin transferred the practice of visual aids to his classes, creating a wide variety of drawings for his students to copy as artistic exercises.  Ruskin catalogued the images into three series, Educational, Reference and Rudimentary, with the Educational and Rudimentary series containing exactly three hundred works each, placed in twenty cabinets around the perimeter of the classroom.  Of these six hundred pieces, Ruskin said:

None of these paintings or drawings are, as yet, formally presented to, or accepted by, the University.  Some do not deserve any permanent position, and I retain for the present the power of removing any of them, either for the substitution of others, or for my own occasional use; but if the Collections are found serviceable in the form ultimately proposed for them, and the system of teaching in accordance with which they have been arranged is sanctioned by the approval of the University, and recognized as a part of its educational curriculum, the entire series of examples would remain at the disposal of the University authorities.  In the event of my death, I mean them to be so left, in their present form.[v]

The collection of images, used in the teaching of drawing as examples for copying or examples for reference in regards to practical questions, remained at Oxford after Ruskin's death, presently stored at the Ashmolean Museum.  Ruskin published catalogues of the Educational series in 1871 and 1874 (2nd ed.) and the Rudimentary series in 1872, assigning a number and case location to each individual work.  Sketch of Head of Living Lion and Lion's Profile, from Life are two works created by Ruskin for use in the classroom.  Catalogued as Rudimentary 47 and Educational 155, respectively, the two drawings illustrate Ruskin's preference for attention to detail and a close study of nature.  These two studies, undertaken by Ruskin in 1870 at the London Zoological Gardens, exhibit two distinct modes of artistic creation.  Sketch is comprised of numerous rapidly marked pencil strokes upon paper, with a mixture of light and heavy pressure used to delineate and emphasize particular areas of the face.  Ruskin roughly sketched out the mane of the lion, choosing instead to focus attention on the animal's features.  He referred to this work as, "A really good sketch of my own which may serve to show that I could have done something if I had not had books to write.  It is to be copied by all advanced students as an exercise in fast pencil drawing."[vi]  Ruskin placed Sketch within the Second Cabinet, Second Section of the Rudimentary series, alongside a collection of other animal drawings, including studies of seahorses, owls and eagles, all of which served as artistic examples for his students.

Placed in Case VII, Elementary Zoology (Lions-Birds-Serpents), Lion's Profile exhibits another aspect of Ruskin's interest in the form of the lion, as the drawing is catalogued between studies of lions from Egyptian and Greek sculpture, a redrawn copy of Dürer's St. Jerome and his Lion and a sketch of a lion at St. Mark's in Venice.  Drawn from the same angle as Sketch, Lion's Profile presents a more complete image of the animal, blending black chalk with watercolor and gauche.  Ruskin paid close attention to the direction of hair growth in the mane of the lion, delineating the varying movement through quick lines of black charcoal overlaid with sketchy brushstrokes of watercolor in gray, brown and black.  Pink and white paint highlight the inner ear of the lion, echoing the softness of Ruskin's hand around the profiled eye.  Ruskin adjusted the original line of the lion's nose, still visible today, covering over the alteration with a stroke of white gauche.  This change gave the nose a more streamlined appearance, rounding out the pointed quality of the nose in Sketch.

'Oxford University Gallery - Ruskin Drawing School' appears in stamp on the verso of Lion's Profile; on the front lower left corner, Ruskin wrote: 'F. Lower of two.'  Due to the line of fading in the paper, it appears as if the text would have been covered over by a type of matting, leaving only the drawing visible.  The letter 'F' corresponds to the number of images in the cabinet, Lion's Profile being the sixth work in Case VII, number 155 overall.  As the work is currently tagged WA.RS.ED.155.b, the 'b,' indicating a secondary image, relates to the writing of 'Lower of the two,' implying that Lion's profile was originally mounted with 155.a, Lion and Lioness, not with Sketch, as it presently exists.

Ruskin's thirty-nine volumes of work contain nine million words; his extant correspondence exceeds twenty thousand letters; he produced thousands of sketches, drawings and paintings.  Ruskin was a man of words, of thoughts and practical experience, all of which translated into his artistic endeavors.  As a professor and lecturer, Ruskin dispersed his knowledge to all who would listen, sharing insight and wisdom with his colleagues and students.  A man of the Victorian era, Ruskin's aphorisms still hold true today, for "whether you are drawing a piece of Greek armour, or a hawk's beak, or a lion's paw, you will find that the mere necessity of using the hand compels attention to circumstances which would otherwise have escaped notice, and fastens them in the memory without farther effort."[vii]

[i] Robert Hewison, Ruskin and Oxford: The Art of Education (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996): 32.

[ii] Ibid, 30.

[iii] Ibid, 14.

[iv] Trevor Fawcett, "Visual Facts and the Nineteenth-Century Art Lecture" in Art History v. 6 (December 1983): 451.

[v] E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, The Works of John Ruskin (London: The Ruskin Art Collection at Oxford, 1906): 171.

[vi] Ibid, 179.

[vii] John Ruskin, Lectures of Art (New York: Allworth Press, 1996): 63.

Marissa Vigneault

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