Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill
This is the first of seven articles that will catalogue an important group of drawings by John Ruskin at King’s College, Cambridge (note 1).
None of the drawings has been exhibited since 1969, and some have never been reproduced. As a result they are unfamiliar to modern scholarship, let alone the general public. In a year of two important exhibitions of Ruskin drawings; John Ruskin – Photographer and Draughtsman at the Watts Gallery, Compton, near Guildford, 4 February to 1 June, and John Ruskin: Artist and Observer at the National Gallery of Canada from 14 February until 11 May and then afterwards at the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh from 4 July to 28 September (note 2) – it seems a good opportunity to bring the King’s College group to wider attention, and put them into some relation with Ruskin’s life and work.
At the risk of frustrating whatever interest I might stimulate, I must point out that the drawings are currently neither in displayable condition nor situation at King’s College. I am grateful to the Master and Provost for making special arrangements for me to view and photograph them in 2012. Despite the beautiful circumstances under which I was privileged to enjoy them, my view is that they require some proper arrangement for public access, whilst recognising (as is the case for all watercolours) they cannot be permanently hung for fear of irreversible light damage. I am hoping that once this catalogue is complete, some public exhibition might be arranged.
The drawings were given to King’s in 1981, together with a large number of books, by the bequest of alumnus Guy Barton (1907 – 1981). He matriculated in 1926 to read English and French and afterwards served for twenty years as art master at Marlborough College. His collection of Ruskin drawings had descended to him from his grandfather Robert E Cunliffe, who retired to ‘The Croft’ at Ambleside in the late years of the nineteenth century. Following Ruskin’s death in 1900, numerous works came onto the market and Cunliffe managed to assemble a significant group quite quickly. Many of the King’s drawings are still in the frames provided for them by William Mason, Carver and Gilder and Fine Art Gallery of Ambleside, and the backboards carry labels recording the original titles and the source from which they were purchased. Guy Barton’s collection of Ruskin was further augmented when he married. His wife was the granddaughter of Manchester solicitor Sydney Morse, via his son Esmond Morse, both Ruskin collectors, and also the descendant of Juliet Tyler who was a friend of and pupil of Ruskin and acquired work direct. The whole collection was exhibited at the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal in 1969, and following Guy Barton’s death divided up. The largest part went to Abbot Hall (and some of those are included in the Artist and Observer exhibition) but five particularly fine examples were reserved for King’s, and the bequest augmented by two other significant examples from Mrs Barton’s inheritance. Details of provenance, exhibition etc. will be given under the individual entries that follow.
1. Isolino di San Giovanni from Lago Maggiore, Evening, 1844?
King’s College, Cambridge
Pencil, pen and ink and watercolour on a warm grey wove paper, 5 3/4 x 8 1/4 ins, 145 x 207 mm, (sight, measured by DH 12.07.2012)
The artist to
Juliet Morse [nee Tylor, a pupil of Ruskin] and by descent to
Esmond Morse (1969) and so to his daughter
Mrs Guy Barton and given by her 1981 to
King’s College, Cambridge (augmenting her husband’s bequest)
Exhibition and Publication:
Exh. Royal Watercolour Society, London, Works by John Ruskin, Winter 1883-4, no.403.
Exh. Royal Watercolour Society, Works by John Ruskin, 1901, London, no.235.
Exh. Fine Art Society, London, Works by John Ruskin, 1907, no. 70.
E.T. Cook and A. Wedderburn, ‘Catalogue of Ruskin’s Drawings’, in The Works of John Ruskin, 1903-1912, Volume 38, pp. 216-309, no. 894 as ‘Isola Madre, evening (1845); w. c. (6 x 8). Mrs. Morse. Exh.—R.W.S. (Winter, 1883–84) 403, R.W.S. 235, F.A.S. 70. Ref. To, 36, 131.’
Exh. Abbot Hall, 1969 no.34 as ‘Chillon, view’, lent by E Morse; the label on the backboard inscribed ‘from the collection of Juliet Morse (nee Tylor) a pupil of John Ruskin’.
Ruskin newsletter, no.25, Autumn 1981, p.11, no.5 as ‘Chillon, view’.
This small study was called ‘Chillon’ at its exhibition at Abbot Hall in 1969 (no.34) and that title was followed by James Dearden in his 1981 listing of the Barton gift to King’s in the newsletter of the Ruskin Association. It was re-identified as Lago Maggiore by myself in correspondence with King’s College following a visit in July 2012. At that time I made a connection with a drawing recorded in Cook and Wedderburn’s 1903-12 catalogue of drawings by Ruskin no 894 where given as ‘Isola Madre, Evening’ when in the collection of Mrs Morse (note 3). The fact that the old title is so specific – the time of day is indeed evening, with dusk gathering over the lake, whilst the high peaks in the distant are still bathed in clear sunlight – suggests that its early owners may have preserved something of Ruskin’s knowledge of the subject. I can now, however, provide a refinement to the exact subject. The view is actually that of the Isolino di San Giovanni, which is not far from Isola Madre, just off Pallanza, looking north-west to the high mountains above the Valais east of Saas Fee, principally the Weissmies (4023m). The subject was evidently sketched from a boat on the lake, and the specific effect of light on the mountains suggests that it was painted to a significant degree direct from nature. Ruskin was a keen oarsman, and when he toured alone his parents tended to fret that this was a practice fraught with danger (note 4).
One summer’s eve, I hope to be able to myself row out onto the lake from Pallanza and take a photograph, but in the meantime here is a Google Earth aerial view indicating the viewpoint:
and a link to a photograph by Pedro Roncales on Panoramio taken from almost exactly the right spot, but under bright morning light: Click on the following link and then use your browser’s back button to return to this page:
The date of the study is difficult to determine definitively. Cook and Wedderburn dated it to 1845 and the style is certainly that of the mid-1840s. The palette is very like that of another drawing at King’s – A Window of the Ca Foscari, Venice, that will be discussed next in this series, but which we may say here can certainly be dated to 1845.
The chronology of Ruskin’s visits to the area during his early career admits of alternatives, for he visited Lago Maggiore and the Borromean Gulf on four occasions before 1850, including twice in successive years in the mid-1840s. His first visit was in 1833 when aged fourteen and enjoying his first continental tour with his parents. The party returned north from the Italian Lakes via Lago Maggiore, Domodossola and the Simplon Pass to Martigny. The Morgan Library in New York (ref. MA 7368) has an unpublished group of six drawings of Lago Maggiore subjects, including Baveno, which must date from this visit. These have previously been dated to 1835 in an inscription on the mount by donor Gordon N. Ray. In fact Ruskin did not visit Lago Maggiore at all on the tour of 1835, so the drawings must date from the earlier visit. I have not yet seen the drawings, or even an image of them. It would be a splendid task to work through the rich seam of Ruskin material at the Morgan Library, but funds for this, alas, are not so easy to come by. Really, the Morgan Library needs to put them all (recto and verso) on line.
His second visit was in 1844. Ruskin was by now something of a minor celebrity. His first book, Modern Painters, volume 1, had been published in 1843, and he had conceived a real passion for the Alps. Travelling again with his parents, he strained to be off amongst the peaks, whilst his parents preferred the more sedate climes of the lakeside resorts. On 12 July 1844 they crossed the Simplon from Brig to Baveno for a few days rest among the Borromean Islands before returning over the Simplon for him to grapple with the peaks surrounding the Valais. He did enjoy Baveno, however, and his Diaries contain several references to the beauty of the lake, including a very specific record for 13 July of enjoying: ‘A lovely row in the afternoon to the opposite point [i.e. from Baveno to Pallanza], with the sun setting behind the Simplon and casting dusty [?dusky – note 5] beams along the hills of the shore.’ This is the only reference that places Ruskin at the exact spot of the present sketch. The aesthetic effect, moreover, seems to chime exactly with his mind-set in 1844. He enjoyed the ease and luxury of the resorts, but was ever fretful of their enervating effect, and restless to be beating up a mountainside to attain the hard clarity of the high mountains. A perusal of the sketch first discloses the glimmering forms of island and lakeside hills. It then comes as something of a shock to discover the higher peaks amongst the clouds, and to find one’s eye jumping into a very different register of scale and space. On the morning of the 15th he passed this way again on an early morning ferry journey: ‘The rowers bent hard to their long oars, and sent the boat’s bows dashing through the waves; the Simplon rose clear against the blue; the mountains of Lugano were bathed in mist; the islands white in intense sunlight; the breeze fresh and cool. I was bitterly sorry to turn homewards, much as I love the Alps. At 8 this evening I was sitting on a stone on the highest part of the Simplon’ (note 6), amongst, indeed, the very mountains that he had admired from the water.
In 1845 Ruskin visited Baveno as part of a tour devoted mainly to the study of art and architecture in Italy, working towards the second volume of Modern Painters published in 1846. As a respite from the heat of high summer he spent two weeks at Baveno 18 – 31 August following a short walking tour in the mountains. On 24 August he was joined there by artist J. D. Harding from whom he had taken lessons in the early 1840s, and on whom he had based his early style. The two spent a week sketching together – though the weather varied from unsettled to wet – and afterwards they travelled on to Verona and Venice.
Ruskin gave a detailed account of this tour in daily letters to his father published in H Shapiro, Ruskin in Italy, 1972. After a long spell immersed in the towns and art of Italy, Ruskin had become much accustomed to a more urbane mode, and fancied himself cured of his previous impatience to be among the peaks. He appears to have done quite a lot of sketching whilst at Baveno. As an artist in 1845 Ruskin was principally absorbing the lessons of Turner’s sepia print series The Liber Studiorum which Harding had recommended to him. He worked mostly in brown or black washes and devoted himself to concentrated visual understanding and observation. Reading through the letters it is obvious that on one level he was disappointed with his own drawings, thinking them morose and dark compared to Harding’s, but on another level was entirely certain in his own direction, and in his attempt at truthfulness in seeing and correctly recording what is thus seen. Harding, and indeed most artists, he now realised, were continually seeking after affect, and were always prepared to work loosely with observation. After this Ruskin rarely concerned himself with such matters and whilst making art did so determinedly in art’s despite.
His next visit to Baveno was in 1849. In that year he travelled in the Autumn to Venice with his new bride Effie and remained there throughout the winter. They crossed the Simplon to Baveno and the Borromean Islands, and continued to Milan on 27 October. There are no contemporary diary entries, but he recalled the crossing in his Diary in a later visit of 11 July 1858, without being able to remember any detail of Baveno. In the interval his marriage had traumatically dissolved, and his implication is that his memory had wiped itself of such fraught times. The present sketch certainly cannot belong to such a late date as 1849. Ruskin had spent the main part of that summer ensconced in serious climbing and mountain study at Chamonix and Zermatt, and his mountain drawing had evolved a much greater analytical intensity than here.
Without any further documentation, however, it is not possible to be quite certain whether to assign the present drawing to 1844 or 1845. The similarity of the palette with the 1845 Venice King’s College drawing of Ca Foscari is striking. On the other hand, whether 1844 or 1845, one would expect Ruskin to continue something of his practice and palette from one year to the next. The way, however, in which the composition enacts a mind transfixed by the revelatory potential of the high peaks, seems most persuasive for a date of 1844, and there are strong similarities in terms of style, not least its Hardingesque use of pen and ink and white, with other works from the period 1842-44. Among these might be cited two untraced drawings reproduced in the Library Edition: Mont Blanc with the Aiguilles, from above Les Tines (volume 4, frontispiece) and Aiguilles of Chamonix from below Les Houches (volume 35, pl.20). The treatment of the high snow slopes is very close. Another obvious comparison is a drawing at the Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster, of Visp (RF1675) which was made on the tour of 1844 only a few days after the sojourn at Baveno.
The Ruskin Library also has a sheet of grey paper (RF870) with watercolour studies on both sides that may certainly be ascribed to 1845 on the grounds that it is inscribed ‘Baveno 20 August’. On one side is a monochrome study of mountains under what appears to be wet conditions. This may be here precisely identified as a view towards Mont Orfano at the head of the Borromean Gulf from above Baveno, with the hills behind wreathed in cloud. The profile of Mont Orfano is readily recognisable, but the character of its slopes is somewhat changed today by extensive limestone quarrying. On the other side is a watercolour study recording the view across the lake from a similar viewpoint above Baveno perhaps a little higher, which may here be identified as a view over the Borromean Gulf from above Baveno, with Isola Madre towards the left, and clouds streaming off the mountains above Laveno on the opposite shore. In effect the second drawing continues the panorama to the right.
I have not yet managed to photograph these views myself, but Montecchiari Bruno has a photograph on Panoramio showing Mont Orfano from a similar aspect to Ruskin but from a nearer viewpoint; http://www.panoramio.com/photo/61202598?source=wapi&referrer=kh.google.com
And ‘mstrass’ has a photograph on Panoramio comparable with Ruskin’s view of Isola Madre and the mountains above Laveno:
According to the inscription the drawings were made a few days before Harding arrived on the 24th. Comparison of these with the present sketch indicates rather more freedom of handling in both, and more definite use of colour in the view across the lake, with its very loose extemporised handling (note 7). Together these make the present sketch look more methodical and also more concerned with finish. It is worked up all over. One of Ruskin’s recurrent topics in the letters of 1845 is the fact that he was no longer producing anything resembling ‘finished’ drawings, or works with any artistic affect and he worried that his parents would think his drawings scrappy and unresolved. It is easy to see how they might have said that of both sides of the Lancaster sheet, but the present sheet would presumably have proved more acceptable.