Ruskin was one of the most amazing people of his century. His prose broke over his contemporaries like a great unstoppable wave, thirty-nine volumes of it in the great collected edition published soon after his death. So his art got left behind and undervalued. He put it to practical use, illustrating his lectures and books rather than giving it a free-standing existence. Still, his watercolours and drawings remain the quickest, most immediately startling means of accessing Ruskin’s visionary perceptions of architecture, sculpture and the natural world. His interpretations of old texts are always original and usually astonishing and his perceptions of the natural world are overwhelming in their force. Little studies he calls ‘fast sketches’ of seaweed, shown broken off and lying flat, still convey the movement of the sea, a sense of turbulence and change in the twists and struggle of their fronds and the surprising complexity of their colour. The ‘fast sketch’ of withered oak leaves suggests a tragic development, of decay tending toward death but filled with energy, of youth consumed in a bonfire of bright colour, Baroque exuberance in the vagaries of how these leaves live their lives. We have arrived at death, but the work is still all about life and the richness of interior spaces, such depths, such distances and shadows, discovered in a final burst of activity.
Ruskin is wonderful in his waywardness above all, pulled in contradictory directions that he must find ways to bridge. There are two main poles in his thinking and interests. He begins a defence of Turner, the great landscape painter of his era and, led by the subjects of the pictures, finds himself waylaid by the structure of the Alps and the meaning of clouds.
His next big project, after Turner and mountains, is to decipher the relevance of a great Gothic survival, Venice, a city and civilisation which Ruskin will approach through its stones, not just its buildings in the common sense of the word, but its spiritual sources in properly revered materials – marbles, brick, limestone, tufa — the relevance of these basic facts of traditional life to the estranged conditions of life in the new industrial cities of his homeland. Looking at or being in Venice or Abbeville, Ruskin never forgot Sheffield or, at least, turned more and more to writing and drawing the history of Venice and its art to heal the wounds of the nineteenth century he lived in, though as soon as he was free to move himself, he left the city for the Lake District.
At times Ruskin liked to claim that Abbeville or Verona meant more to him than Venice, but the idea of a Stones of Verona to equal that of Venice didn’t get very far. Abbeville, which had an even more circumscribed place in Ruskin’s map of significance, turns up in a fascinating episode that brings together his great themes of nature and art and time passing. This is a sequence that starts from Ruskin’s photograph of the courtyard of a late Gothic house in the northern French town of Abbeville. Leaving aside much surrounding picturesque detail, Ruskin singles out the convergence of leaves of living ivy and leaves of carved wood which form the structure which supports the ivy. His earliest gouache of the subject reduces the leafage to a set of grotesque shapes of almost Japanese abstraction, arriving at an outcome like a paper cut-out, which dismembers the plant’s continuities in favour of a thrilling blizzard of scraps.
Ruskin’s next drawing thinks better of this and reintegrates the fragments until the leaves become chunky cabbages and the woodwork retains the only traces of the splitting apart. Ruskin assigned these studies to his Elements of Drawing, where they became early stages in a student’s development, who learned to draw by taking familiar objects apart and putting them back together, after discovering their essential principles.
The cluster of oak leaves keeps turning up in different guises, most notably in the last volume of Modern Painters where it appears in a more dignified form, now known as the Dryad’s Crown, an appliance in a ritual that looks like a piece of Art Nouveau metalwork, uncannily symmetrical yet unfathomably quirky in its forms, irregularity which comes from its origins in actual, not stylised leaves, which twist and turn in multiple movements hard to keep up with. The entire figure, shown still growing round its supporting twig, also resembles a skull, as if it were the plant’s bony residue, missing its flesh but recognisable in eye-sockets and nose-hollow focussed on the spectator.
The text of Modern Painters doesn’t mention the dryad at all; only the names of the engraved illustrations carry this particular burden of meaning. In further, more elaborated moments the dryad lays claim to the qualities or character of the branching plant. ‘The Dryad’s Waywardness’ is the name of one of Ruskin’s most original drawings of the growth of oak twigs, which shows them exploding or growing, with us as their target, careening to the left as they lurch forward like a sailing boat cutting the water dramatically, a figure Ruskin actually uses to describe the evolving space we are pushed to imagine, arising from the plant’s desire.
Though a wood sprite, the dryad seems a sedate figure, tying the natural world to the classical past, to poetry in forgotten languages. The drawings are anything but sedate, even ‘The Dryad’s Toil’ which Ruskin says is the most uninteresting view, lateral or sideways-on movement, from which the spectator has stepped aside and views analytically rather than being caught up in, as he was in the head-on view.
Ruskin based a whole theory of perception on the contrast between frontal and lateral views. Only by facing growing things head on can you understand growth and represent it truly. Does the principle, or a version of it, apply to objects not capable of movement which we can actually perceive, like mountains or buildings?
As it happens Ruskin is often focussed on views of his subjects that suggest or intimate change. One of his favourite forms is that of a crevice or cleft which can be a gentle hollow like the land-form of a mossy cushion grown over by the soft hair of wild strawberry, toad flax and primroses, or whatever these more fleshy leaves are. This famous drawing is set apart by how lopsidedly it fills the space, leaving most of it bare. This was drawn on paper bluer than it is now, stronger colouring which would have spoiled its purity, of a virginal feminine sort, which makes it easier to imagine as part of a large, soft human body.
Mountain forms provide more powerful versions of the cleft or crevasse which also attracted Ruskin strongly. Two of his strangest, most magnetic drawings depict a rocky ravine at Maglans in the French Alps seen from above, which makes the opening in the earth look like surgery, a violence practised on or erupting from turbulent depths. Here not a single bit of the terrain is quiet and every inch heaves with forceful detail like scarring or splitting, writhing or shaking. I can’t help speculating about how Ruskin found the vantage from which to see this sight, not a concern when looking at Blake or John Martin, but Ruskin makes you expect that he must actually be looking, not idly making things up. And here again appears one of the signs of a fully equipped landscape, the little tufts of growth, in this case whole trees or copses, not the delicate tendrils crossing the mossy cushions. In ‘Moss and Wild Strawberries’ we felt ourselves voyeurs, here we are adventurers, looking into depths precariously, then plumbing them and feeling effective.
Ruskin finds such dynamic ensnarled forms in unlikely places, in the carved arches over the doorways of San Marco, where by feats of eyesight he singles out whirlpools in stone which represent plants catching up birds in their movement and forming them into bosses or beautiful filigreed bumps, which Ruskin also finds at larger scale scattered on the ground, again wound up, sweeping different substances into unified movement which scatters itself profusely and unevenly. What system can we see in it? Impaction? Construction? A kind of anti-construction? Richness, but why so satisfying? Lessons of geology made palatable?
Is it a lesson? It doesn’t feel like it, but perhaps it does get you thinking who is doing what to whom, trees resisting movements of stone, an invasion of stone. Ruskin remained an inveterate animator of dumb creation, as earlier, when voicing the thoughts of developing oak twigs, their concessions, their escapes.
This scene is animated by the contending wills of rocks and trees, rocks brought here by a force, moving water in the form of ice, which has now disappeared but survives in the light blue-green wash that sweeps over the ground left free by the contending forces on a scale we could almost call domestic, like the sub-Homeric battle of the frogs and mice.
Ruskin’s knack for grandiose names in many of his titles was matched by a corresponding openness to ludicrously humble ways of conceptualising his subject, on the one hand the Dryad of the oak sprig, and on the other, streaky bacon as the familiar deity of one of the most venerable Venetian palaces. Tantalising references in his notebooks and diaries point us to a mysterious Bacon Palace named, we discover, for its beautiful panels of rosso di Egitto alabaster. This façade is known from a murky daguerreotype like something dug up from the sea, and a Ruskin drawing based on it, in colours made more complex by fading. In reality the alabaster has faded entirely – it was removed in Ruskin’s lifetime. The bacon of the bacon palace was already only a memory for Ruskin, another sign that Venice was becoming a ruin and a shadow right before his eyes. Important and unimportant memories were hard to hang on to, a conviction just as visible in Ruskin’s renderings of rocks as in his records of buildings.
He was fascinated by glacial erratics that had been stuck for who knew how many hundreds of years but could still be rendered to suggest that they might again be washed away by forces we detect undermining them.
Even cliff-faces, the most imperturbable of natural surfaces, suggested fracture more strongly the longer we looked. I’ve read somewhere that gneiss (the oldest rock? another un-tethered memory) was Ruskin’s favourite kind of stone. Because it seems the most unchanging? or the most complex in variety of form and surface? This great face is the blankest and most expressionless of all, or pure and infinitely changeable expression, loaded with emotions, but not human ones, so that we can crack our heads against it forever wondering what it is saying. It is a face, with forehead, eyes, broken nose, laughing or yawning mouth, and beard, yet this is a travesty which one wants to un-see, what happens when one stares too long at a featureless subject.
This drawing is often reproduced in black and white, which levels it still further toward sameness. There are many touches of bluish Chinese white, and there is also the pale brown or cream of the paper.
Another big lump of Scottish stone of a few years later displays more surface variety but suggests an inexhaustible world in a grain of sand less successfully. Not that the close-up view in the Pass of Killiekrankie is trying for that effect, but the earlier Glenfinlas monochrome is more overwhelming, which must arise from its simplicity and unitary concentration, a preposterous claim for a subject which breaks into incalculably Many instead of the One you saw or thought you saw at the beginning.
There is an important class of Ruskin’s drawings that I would prefer to leave out, intense studies of single natural objects wrenched from their seating in a surrounding world. The Glenfinlas drawing fills every inch aggressively, every microscopic pore of the paper surface, almost crowding any element which isn’t rock, including the crucial contrasting element of water, out of the picture.
The drawings of single specimens which I am thinking of sit in the middle of emptiness which is a true blank and not a real space at all. The velvet crab on a vaguely velvety cloth is not an exception to this rule. Even this creature’s name is a compliment to its refinement, a quality we appreciate, of which it is unaware. All its mysterious colours and textures can’t overcome the subject’s lack of engagement with its surroundings. The limpness of its minor legs gives away that it is not alive and makes it hard to imagine the movements of life.
You might assume that the famous drawing of a single feather from a peacock’s breast would produce the same effect. What sense does an isolated feather make? And this marvel of complexity is too reduced to be visible to our sense, a problem exaggerated by reproduction, like a further shrinking of the subject. In a letter Ruskin gives a minute account of making the drawing, plugging on as long as he can without re-dipping his brush. To get the fullest sense of the drawings nothing equals the richness that comes from catching Ruskin at work on particular drawings in his diaries or letters home to his parents, a thrilling integration of the drawing and its own circumstances, so that it too has its place in a human narrative and becomes a character. Ruskin’s gift for dramatising his subjects is applied also to the works which embody his animating gift, an almost unimaginable doubling of our involvement, extending from the subject to the process of its capture.
The feather drawings are in one sense too stark for deep enjoyment. The drawing of single rays of the breast feather leaves us unsatisfied, more a concept than a sensation. We want instead the whole feather enlarged to this scale, which is more a comment on our voraciousness than on Ruskin’s failure to pursue his perceptions far enough.
When he turns to buildings we recognise the same perceiver who senses the developing processes of life and change in whatever he is looking at. Like plants and mountains, buildings are growing and decaying, moving slowly or quickly towards their death, sharing the joys and hazards of mortality with everything around them.
The wonderful view of St Wolfram Abbeville in its setting comes close to those views of rocky landscapes in how it chops off the view, which it approaches from behind and sideways. Though he fills the sheet entirely, he gives us the subject unevenly, leaving out its most prominent features, its towers, which we can catch up with in other Ruskin drawings.
Even the parts which are included receive unequal attention. The main focus is the triangular stretch of transept wall with its motley assemblage of rich tracery, partly broken, or never finished, or worst of all completely punched out. In fact, like many of the buildings Ruskin cared about most, this building is already a ruin though still in use. The whole scene has suffered since in ways he couldn’t anticipate, though they might not surprise him. The low domestic buildings to the right, which give us the scale of the church, disappeared in the brutal bombing of Abbeville in 1940. The river, like those streams which rush past Ruskin’s cliffs, no longer passes the church, reminding it of subtle forces and the dissolution of solid things. It has disappeared in post-war re-building.
Ruskin writing in 1850 called Venice a ruin and a shadow. This drawing is another witness to melodramatic warnings coming grimly to pass. And yet . . . it is also one of the most wonderful renderings of inconsistency as the ruling genius of architecture just as surely as it is of the natural world, in the ups and downs of that slice of tall traceried wall, in the variations of the boundary wall, in the precipitous shrinking of the whole view into the right-hand side of the picture, and of the life that Ruskin goes on finding in lop-sidedness.
His most finished works still manage to incorporate these pleasures, and there are also the many close-ups of architectural details which parallel the botanical or zoological specimens, and a fascinating in-between class, of architectural details presented in context and separated from context at once, like the portrait of two late-Gothic niches (or, strictly speaking, just their tops with gable forms and balustrades above them) from a building in Caen in Normandy. This drawing is a work by the same man who writes a guidebook to Florence, the cradle of the Renaissance, that treats only Gothic sculpture on the base of the cathedral tower and two sets of medieval frescoes in Gothic churches at opposite ends of the city, that is to say of a man who delights in overturning conventional ideas of what is important and redrawing the map in a violently skewed form.
So we have the drawing of parts of two traceried niches, the sheet chopped off long before we reach the ground, leaving big and inconsistent blanks even in the part of the building there is room for. But the intensity of attention to the parts that remain, there has never been anything else like it. And to fill in the gaps between the flashes of high focus would spoil the rhapsody of having seen just these patches of richness. The mind and eye can only focus this intently on a small stretch at any moment. And then, the rhythm of the drawing wants to tell us, it moves on, and lights again, like a nervous bird, at another spot not too far off and applies its attention again. The inconsistency of the drawing is a picture of the mind and eye’s progress across a surface, miles away from a strictly methodical progress. The drawing enacts this in more than one way, in sudden darkenings and shadows suggesting depths or sub-moments of concentrating more deeply. The message is, thrillingly and repeatedly, unevenness, variance continually, so at-odds with the supposed stability of architecture. Yet in looking at other people’s books about Venice, one often gets the sense from how they defer to Ruskin for detailed reports on minor Venetian palaces, that no one since Ruskin has examined these buildings as thoroughly as he did. Always inconsistently – the buildings he concentrated on are in the oddest corners and scattered all over the territory, a peppering of examples that seems to obey no pattern or rule.
Among all the minute details of Venetian buildings, I came across a drawing in coloured chalk purporting to be Ruskin’s but looking like an ideal illustration of a castle in a children’s story, a very un-Ruskinian kind of fantasy-building. The chalk has got smudged since, an effect not intended but suitable, vanishing before our eyes like a dream-building not in its upper reaches but towards the bottom.
The first drawing of Ruskin’s I ever saw, in the monochrome illustrations to Seven Lamps, showed San Michele in Lucca, covered in stories which charmed me by their wildness, various animals at odd angles mixed up with over-sized plants, like a child’s idea of all creation, much more random ungainly and full of life than anything Gothic, enhanced and clarified by its flatness so that it wasn’t sculpture, though made of stone, but picture, and true to his truthfulness, represented by Ruskin in all its wild strength and impulsiveness. Just last week I came across Ruskin’s description of these stories in a letter home to his father, a description full of life like these bold mosaics which read very easily from the ground in spite of the damage which drives Ruskin incandescent with rage when he finds pieces of green serpentine infill from around the pale figures lying disregarded on the ground beneath, so that he calls his drawing ‘part of the destroyed church of San Michele’.
In the drawing the glare of the sun is powerfully rendered, and maybe the way Ruskin’s drawing trails off to the right even renders further levels of glare at different times of day in the same drawing. The building’s mass is surprisingly caught at the outer edge, but even the way it breaks off marks it as a precious fragment, whose hallmark, the building’s not just the drawing’s, is inconsistency too, in types of pillar, of scenes and even of colours of the infill. Though maybe the orange is where the green has fallen out, rather than another colour of stone.
Other drawings of this same façade do it less savagely and more meticulously, showing the figured bulges under each arcade, left out in the folkish version and given a lovely glitter with white highlights that make it a different kind of building, drawn in a different mood by a different artist whose extremely variable moods are one of the strongest features of these letters. Someday someone will meticulously key these letters to these drawings, or they already have. Hundreds or thousands of pages of Ruskin’s diaries over a fifty-year period remain to be deciphered and published online, like the wonderful set of his Venice notebooks where one can switch back and forth at will between his handwriting and a transcription. But that too is only another example of a human record too rich and complete for our powers to keep up with it.
In his enthusiasm for the crude energies of the Romanesque and the naiveté of its stories Ruskin was ahead of his time. Likewise in his enthusiasm for the innocent narratives of Carpaccio, which snared him in ways we would like to head off before they really get hold of him. St George and Ursula peopled his imagination too successfully. His childishness and his seriousness, his love of saints and monsters and his susceptibility to reading himself into their stories is beautiful shading into treacherous from the beginning.
There are photographs probably commissioned by Ruskin of the Pisano pulpits, especially of the caryatid lions eviscerating their prey, a subject which appalled and fascinated him, that could be Ruskin drawings, and make one think art aged differently in those days.
In his views of Romanesque buildings Ruskin often leaves architecture behind for narrative, as in the drawing of the Gryphon caryatid at the Duomo, Verona, a ruined fragment of a mountain, whose rents are as powerful as its continuities, whose textures are a commentary on savagery as part of life, whose hybrid obscenities are the more shocking for the damage they have suffered with the years. The mouth composed of beak and jaw, the eye erased, feathers in several distinct guises joined uncomfortably, signs of much smaller prey inescapable, and finally stains of colour like a bath of blood with a result perhaps more demonic than intended.
Ruskin’s interest in mountains is an interest in structures grander than architecture, but continuous with it. Mountains are the largest structures on the earth. Ruskin saw architecture as obeying some of the same laws, and finally decaying in similar ways. His ideas about ruin in architecture, and in cities and societies, derived from his experience of the natural world. You don’t repair mountains, and Ruskin believed you shouldn’t replace original materials in old buildings with new ones, but let them fall down. He hated restoration, which set itself in opposition to the laws of the universe. Old builders knew better than present ones. Ruskin inspired William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement with ideas of repair unobtrusive and very lovely when done well. Carlo Scapa and Alvar Aalto are among the inheritors of this line of thought.
In some of his most interesting close up views of mountains, which aren’t always the most satisfying aesthetically, we see Ruskin searching for the underlying form of the mountain. More than once the search yields an answer that looks as if it is taken from an extreme weather event, a whirlpool or a hurricane, an image of circular movement centripetal or centrifugal, one can’t always say which, because against all likelihood there is a suggestion that the mountain is flying apart.
One of the most interesting comes with a vague title and a teasing resemblance to more familiar mountain complexes, a close-up only in the sense that it feels crammed with detail, though clearly representing a patch of peaks stretching miles across. It seems to push at the edges of the sheet and to show barely contained movement, hammered into shape until the main curve is made to return on itself without losing its powerful tension.
I started out thinking that the next, more distant view is what the more uneasy one would be if it could, as if the second one’s grander, calmer bowl were the kind of crown or ideal that all mountains are unconsciously striving for, or that we are wishing they would. It is a wonderfully complex as well as tranquil form, perhaps holding together a little unnaturally the geometrical perfection of the low snow-covered curve and the miniature ruggedness of the peaks like teeth at the top. Ruskin discovers here a satisfying symbolic form among mountains, of all places, but only the ghost of a mountain, or a mountain floating away, a mountain ending its life as a metaphor.
This piece began as an online talk for Leila Davis’s students at Anglia Ruskin University