How seriously should we take Ruskin as an artist?

A review of John Ruskin: Artist and Observer, by Christopher Newall. This catalogue says Ruskin was ‘among the greatest of English painters and draftsman’; some of the comparisons it contains suggest otherwise

3 May 2014

9:00 AM

3 May 2014

9:00 AM

John Ruskin: Artist and Observer Christopher Newall

National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa/ Paul Holberton Publishing, pp.376, £37.50, ISBN: 9781907372575

This stout and well-designed volume nicely complements Tim Hilton’s classic biography of John Ruskin. It is the catalogue for the exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (till 11 May) and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (4 July–28 September).

A Scottish venue is especially appropriate. Ruskin (1819–1900) was a Londoner but proudly Scots by descent. He retained the slight Scottish accent of his father, a successful sherry merchant, who had been brought up in Edinburgh; and already at nine drew a highly competent map of Scotland, which is illustrated but regrettably not exhibited. In common with the fashion of his time, the poems and novels of Sir Walter Scott were his ‘chief source of delight’; a formative visual and romantic memory was ‘going through Glenfarg, near Kinross, on a winter’s morning, when
the rocks were hung with icicles’. Mountains, rocks (geology, another fashion) and wild plants would always be favourite subjects.

Ruskin’s literary and cultural importance are beyond dispute, but how seriously should we take him as an artist? This catalogue suggests very seriously indeed. At his best, writes Conal Shields, he is ‘among the greatest of English painters and draftsmen’. Ruskin had drawing lessons and was never without a sketchbook; but he regarded his drawing as an aid, not as art. In 1858 he told some students that drawing ‘must always be nothing in itself, unless the whole life be given in it’. And to the illustrator Kate Greenaway he described his own drawings as ‘such mere hints’ that he never imagined them giving ‘the least pleasure to anyone but myself’. More analytically, when working alongside the professional artist James Harding, one of his teachers, he noted that he could only draw ‘bits’, whereas Harding produced ‘pictures’. That is borne out time and again. Some of the bits are desirable, but bits they remain. An illustration comparing the same Venice scene by Ruskin and Samuel Prout, Harding’s teacher, damagingly demonstrates the difference.

According to his father, Ruskin was a geologist before he was anything else. His rock drawings get his current advocates particularly hot and bothered. ‘Could there be an anthropomorphic aspect to the drawing,’ asks Shields of Crossmount, ‘the rock forms subtly referring to the spread-eagled female body?’ It was made when Ruskin was on his way to propose marriage to his future wife Effie Gray. Christopher Newall is more sweeping. Ruskin’s landscape drawings ‘may be recognised on occasions as stemming from unfulfilled sexual desires, seen for example in the observation of geological forms unwittingly suggestive of female genitalia’ etc. One can only suggest cold showers all round before they next grapple with the rock drawings.

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