Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill
At the end of May I had the opportunity to spend a few days in Lucerne and explore in the footsteps of John Ruskin. Among the subjects that particularly interested me were three unidentified architectural drawings. On the face of it, the chances of identifying their subjects seemed remote. Two drawings record individual timbered buildings that seemed unlikely to have survived and the third no more than the detail of an individual window. Nothing in their existing gallery catalogues gave anything to go on. As things worked out I managed to discover the originals of all three, amazingly all more-or-less unchanged in the near two hundred years since Ruskin drew them.
This seems an opportune moment to give some thought to Ruskin, for on 3 July the major exhibition of John Ruskin: Artist and Observer, opens at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (until 28th September 2014). A second exhibition, ‘This Mountain Paradise’: Ruskin on the Continent, 1835 at the Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster (until 19 September 2014) provides a further occasion, for two of the three subjects discussed here date from the tour of 1835.
The first subject is that of a drawing at Sheffield Galleries, hitherto catalogued, after Ruskin’s inscribed title only as ‘Ancienne Maison, LUCERNE’.
Lucerne must originally have had many such timber-framed buildings, and there seemed no especial likelihood that this particular example would have survived. The building to the left of the composition, however, a rather elaborate gateway and tower, looked more promising. Try as I might in advance, however, I could find no representation or record of it. So it was something of a surprise, then, in crossing the Spreuerbrucke heading for a viewpoint that looked out over the city, to enter into the Kasernenplatz and be confronted with a building that answered exactly to Ruskin’s drawing. It is now the premises of the company Von Moos that makes exceedingly expensive jewelled pens. A plaque on the wall described that it had was completely renovated by owner Walter Von Moos in 1986-88.
What, then, of the gate and tower? It was plain where it should have been, and a little examination of the buildings in the vicinity revealed another plaque. This commemorated the Baslertor, the old city gate and tower, which was demolished in 1862 at the end of a widespread campaign to rid the city of its traffic-restricting obstacles. Images of the old Baslertor are by no means common, and it may be that Ruskin’s drawing is of some historical importance in recording the monument in its last phase.
Ruskin made this drawing in 1835 on his second visit to Lucerne (note 1). He was only sixteen years of age, but already a capable draftsman, especially of architectural subjects. On this tour he made dozens of drawings of architectural subjects, many elaborated as here into finished pen and ink studies, and he may well have had some idea of their being published. Such an idea, although unrealised, would have been by no means beyond their merit, but in any case he did begin to discover his aesthetic of the idealities of architectural adaptation to environment, which resulted in his first major published piece of writing – ‘The Poetry of Architecture’ published in parts in The Architectural Magazine 1837-8. The essay has a section on Swiss Cottages, illustrated by drawings made in 1835 (note 2), but a promised section on Swiss cities never appeared, and it is not impossible that this subject of the Ancienne Maison, might well have been included.
The visit of 1835 was actually quite brief. He arrived on 17 August from Fluelen; had a full day in Lucerne on 18th and next day went to the summit of Mont Rigi, where he slept to see the sunrise, before returning to Lucerne on the 20th in order to catch the boat for Alpnach heading for the Brunig pass and Meiringen. So there was only the day of the 18th for drawing, but in writing his diary for 18 August, however, he makes no mention of any architectural drawing. It appears that he had made so many architectural studies on the tour, that by this stage of the tour his application to this activity was so well established that it warranted no mention.
Ruskin found time on the same day to make a second architectural study which he inscribed ‘Lucerne, from a suburb’, which is now at the Ruskin Library at the University of Lancaster. Again it seemed very unlikely that this exact building should survive, but there was enough in the drawing to suggest a rough locality. To the right can be seen some of the towers of the Musegg wall, which forms the northern boundary of the old city, so this would suggest an easterly viewpoint, perhaps in the vicinity of the Hofkirche, and sufficiently detached from the old city to warrant the Ruskin’s description of it as ‘a suburb’. The whole area is now thickly developed and much more city centre than suburb, but none-the-less, hemmed in by taller buildings, tram wires, street signs, road signage and all the confusion and racket of the modern world passing by, the building still stands, just north of the Hofkirche now the Hotel Hofgarten: It is, however, a bit like an elderly pedestrian stranded on the central island of a six-lane arterial; one wonders just how much protection a wrapping of history and memory can really afford.
The identification of the surviving subjects of the drawings does raise at least one potentially interesting issue. The two buildings stand at opposite ends of town, but outside the walls. It may be that their standing apart from the town was significant to Ruskin, after all, he does go to the trouble to specify that this drawing was taken from ‘a suburb’. The fact that both subjects have been swallowed up by development, reminds of the inevitable mutability of cities. In selecting these buildings, it is as if Ruskin was already looking for those things that stood apart from such change. As it is, he returned to Lucerne frequently enough to become a concerned chronicler of its development. In the end he preferred to inhabit the spired imagining of its past, than the contemporary and increasingly cosmopolitan reality.
The third objective of my quest seemed like the very epitome of seeking a needle in a haystack. Ruskin was quite wilfully vague in inscribing the subject of an architectural study now at the Fogg Art Museum, Harvard, U.S.A. only as a ‘window on a ground story at Lucerne’. Where to even begin? However, given that the window appears Gothic in style this suggested some way in which to narrow it down, for apart from the towers and walls, there are few buildings in Lucerne of that period, and hardly any that might have Gothic tracery. I identified the most likely possibility as the Franciscan Church on the south side of the River Reuss, which I knew to have been built in the C13 and which might therefore contain some tracery of this kind. So it was completely by error, rather than by design, that in walking there through the city from the Hofgarten and looking at every first floor window that presented itself, about half-way along my route my eyes (for reasons entirely of their own) lighted on the windows flanking the doorway of the ‘Manhattan V.I.P Bar Club’.
Quite what goes on behind the (frosted) window of the Manhattan Club I cannot begin to imagine, but whatever its attractions they are not the explanation for Ruskin’s interest in the site. In his time the building, which stands at the north corner of the Hirschenplatz and Rossligasse (see photos) was the Goldener Adler Hotel, and it still sports its gilded inn sign. Though now plying a different trade the building has an historic claim to fame, as it proudly proclaims, in that it played host to the German philosopher Goethe when he stayed there in 1779.
The original building on this site was built in 1356 according to the lintel over the door. That was replaced in the later C16, and that in turn by the hotel building, which opened in 1786 according to the plaque over the door. Of the two windows flanking the door only that to the left appears to be original, dating back to the C16 building, that to the right being a more recent restoration (note 4). The fact of there only ever having been one window looks unusual. The original building must surely have had more, and presumably all would have been decorated alike. Perhaps the explanation is that the stonework here originally served instead as a doorway, as Ruskin’s other subject at Sursee, and in some early restoration – possibly the redevelopment into the Goldener Adler in 1786 – it was cut down to form a window. Ruskin’s notes to the drawing record that he thought the lower termination of the window unusual: ‘There is no base to the moulding; it terminates flat on the sill of the window’. This seems to be confirmed by Martini’s pictorial map of Lucerne from 1597 which shows that the late C16 building (and its companions to either side) had no ground floor windows to speak of, just small piercings or lunettes. Schumacher’s pictorial map is doubly interesting for although it was published in 1792, it appears to record the building prior to its remodelling of 1786, with what might be the original (‘Dolphin’) doorway still in place (note 5).
The ‘diving dolphin’ motif seems to have been common from the Renaissance through to the Baroque. I came across a rather Ruskinian consideration of the symbolism of the motif by L A Miller at http://www.cyclopaedia.org/revelation-7/dolphins-7.html as ‘a talisman that ensures luck and good health, fulfilment in life and its promise of eternal regeneration’, and an interesting visual comparison from a suit of armour made by Milanese metalworkers in 1536.
Similar motifs seem to be widespread in the period, but whether I would call them dolphins is quite a different matter. Grotesque, even monstrous fish seems more apt. It is worth noting here that Ruskin’s record of them in the drawing does not quite correspond to the surviving carvings. Close examination of the drawing, however, shows that the original sketch was in pencil and that Ruskin subsequently overworked this in careful pen and ink and watercolour, possibly with the idea of having it engraved. In some places the original pencil work is visible, but out of register, as Ruskin reworked the arrangement on the sheet. That of the main ‘b’ section for example is in the top right corner whilst that of the whole window [‘D’] is lower than the pen and ink overworking. The pencil work is distinctly sketchier, and it is possible that his pencil recording of the exact forms of the fish was never as precise as that of the tracery in which he was principally interested.
This drawing occupies an important place in the development of Ruskin’s architectural theory. It is dated 31st August 1846, during an extremely wet few days in the city 29 August to 4 September, including four full days. On 31 August Ruskin noted in his diary: ‘We have had two days’ ceaseless rain, this, the third, hardly interrupted, and the lake right into the town’. In fact the Swan Hotel in which they were staying was surrounded by water, and the ground floor rooms flooded. Late Ruskin remembered ‘There was great joy in helping my mother from the door of the Cygne along a quarter of a mile of extempore plank bridge in the streets’.
These were not the best conditions for sketching, but conditions on the 31st were good enough at least in part for Ruskin to have made this study and another of the walls and towers (note 6). In the case of the present sketch it may be that it was one of the best things he could do under the circumstances, since there was probably a sheltered vantage-point opposite from which to work in the dry.
The sketch fits into a programme of study into Gothic architecture in which Ruskin was deeply immersed by the mid-1840s. Since his visit to Lucerne in 1835 he had greatly enlarged and sophisticated his understanding of architecture, and professionalised his own note-making, analysis and visual study. The greater part of his work on his Italian tour of 1845 had been devoted to architecture in Italy, and in Lucerne in 1846 he was in the later stages of a similarly exhausting itinerary.
This kind of architectural study is particularity associated with Venice, and indeed when in Lucerne in 1846 he was on his way home from there. At the time he was working towards a theory about the final over-elaboration of the late Gothic and its descent into frippery, especially in Switzerland and Germany. He thought the truncated spurs and the complex intersection of the mouldings in the present example were especially diagnostic of that decline. He found a second example at Sursee on the day he left Lucerne, 4 September (at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge). He wrote up his observations in his Diary at Chatillon sur Seine on 23 September:
‘The architecture all the way from Lucerne, and I suppose, from Schaffhausen here, shows a most distinct connection, here beginning to vanish in more grotesque and purely French form. I should call this architecture generally, sectional, or intersectional, its distinguishing character being that… the mouldings, instead of uniting with or arising out of each other, cut each other and form inelegant interstices, or are themselves violently truncated, as in my examples taken at Lucerne and Sursee.’
That passage formed the basis of one of the most powerful chapters (2. The Lamp of Truth) in The Seven Lamps of Architecture published in 1849. To summarise, Ruskin’s argument was that the best architecture was illuminated by seven key principles. That of truth meant fidelity to the natural and inherent qualities of the materials of building. Any attempt at deception or pretence was to be treated as an offence. He saw the Gothic as a progress towards a perfect expression of the nature and character of stone, ultimately bewildered by its own ingenuity.
‘But the declining and morbid taste of the later architects was not satisfied with thus much deception. They were delighted with the subtle charm they had created, and thought only of increasing its power. The next step was to consider and represent the tracery, as not only ductile, but penetrable; and when two mouldings met each other, to manage their intersection, so that one should appear to pass through the other, retaining its independence; or when two ran parallel to each other, to represent the one as partly contained within the other, and partly apparent above it. This form of falsity was that which crushed the art. The flexible traceries were often beautiful, though they were ignoble; but the penetrated traceries, rendered, as they finally were, merely the means of exhibiting the dexterity of the stone-cutter, annihilated both the beauty and dignity of the Gothic types’ (note 7).
So here in this narrow street on the old town of Lucerne, as the rain poured and the floodwaters lapped around the ground floor of the Swan, Ruskin worked towards one of the most important architectural ideas of his career; one which was to influence a generation of builders after him in the Arts and Crafts movement. So perhaps now that the original can be identified as ‘Ruskin’s window’ its association with the great artist and writer is perhaps worth some commemoration, though Ruskin would perhaps have preferred something less gauche than the memorial to Goethe.
I am grateful to Louise Pullen of Sheffield City Museums and Galleries, Professor Stephen Wildman of the Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster, Bill Robinson, Danielle Carrabino and Isabella Donadio of Harvard Art Museums, for images and permissions to reproduce, and Jaeggi Stefan at the Staatsarchiv, Lucerne for responding to my queries about the Goldener Adler.
1 Ruskin’s first visit to Lucerne was in 1833, documented in the MSS Diary at the Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster MSS 33a, which records:
23 July (Tuesday) Arrived at Lucerne from Sursee. Put up at the White Horse, which was pronounced excellent. Took boat on lake
24 July left for Kussnacht with a view to ascending Mont Rigi
Although merely on overnight stop the visit seems to have been sufficiently formative to lay down a very long-lasting interest in the city, and to inspire several repeat visits.
2 Cottage at Altdorf (Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster, RF 1453), for example, engraved as a woodcut for The Poetry of Architecture.
3 The Swan Hotel still stands, but no longer operates as a hotel. It does, however, house the Schwanen restaurant on the first floor, and that maintains the traditional high standards of hospitality of the house.
4 I am grateful to Dr Stefan Jaggi of the Lucerne Staatsarchiv, who very kindly responded to my queries, and sent me a copy of the history of the building as given by Adolf Reinie, in Die Kunstdenmaler des Kantons Luzern, Vol.2 (Lucerne) pp.98-99. Both Dr Jaggi point out that the dolphin motif was common from the Renaissance to the Baroque.
5 Schumacher’s map is dated to 1790 by the Lucerne Staadsarchiv website, but a date of 1792 in the right-hand cartouche dates the publication – or at least dates the version on the website. In either case it is readily explicable that for the map shows the building prior to its remodelling in 1786. The drawings on which the map was based must have taken several years to collect, and the engraving itself represents months if not years of hard work. However much he tried, it would have been impossible for the artist to have kept up with every new development that occurred in the city while he was working.
6 Lucerne walls and towers, from the east, Lancaster, Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster, RF 1377
7 Works, 8/93