Aiguilles of Mont Blanc: A rediscovered watercolour by John Ruskin

Coronavirus restrictions have forced many of us to find imaginative room in small things, but last week I received a pleasant reminder of previous excursions to sublimity on the grand scale. The British Art specialists Lowell Libson and Jonny Harker sent me a link to their new online exhibition ‘Good Prospects’. The selection includes a Ruskin watercolour that I have long known, but only from a century-old reproduction, and it took me back to blithe times over twenty years when I made a photographic expedition to more-or-less exactly the same spot.

Courtesy of Libson Yarker Ltd

John Ruskin
The Aiguilles of Chamonix from below Les Houches, 1842
Watercolour and pencil heightened with white on grey wove paper, 13 × 18 ⅛ inches, 330 × 462 mm
With Lowell Libson & Jonny Harker, 2020

Provenance: Robert Ellis Cunliffe of The Croft, Ambleside, d.1902; Mrs Cunliffe (1912); Private collection, Australia; Private collection, UK, from whom purchased 2007 by Lowell Libson, to 2020 when exhibited by Lowell Libson & Jonny Harker in virtual exhibition ‘Good Prospects’ April 2020 as ‘Aiguilles of Chamonix near Les Houches, 1842’, repr colour; £45,000.

References: Ruskin 1854 Diary MSS list as ‘14 Aiguilles of Chamouni, from Les Ouches 1842’; Works 38/240, no. 398 as ‘Aiguilles of Chamouni, from Les Ouches (1842). No. 14 in R.’s list; w. c. (12¾ x 17½). Mrs. Cunliffe. Exh. R.W.S. 313, M. 88. Reprod., 35, Pl. 20 as ‘Chamouni’.’; David Hill, ‘Perfection, I should call it’: John Ruskin’s Personalised Guide to Switzerland, 1843’ in British Art Journal, Vol.13, no.1, Spring/Summer 2012, p.64, n.40; David Hill, ‘Ruskin drawings at King’s College, Cambridge: #1 Isolino di San Giovanni from Lago Maggiore, Evening’ in http://www.sublimesites.co, 2 March 2014 at https://sublimesites.co/2014/03/02/ruskin-drawings-at-kings-college-cambridge-1-isolino-di-san-giovanni-from-lago-maggiore-evening-2/; Libson-Yarker online exhibition ‘Good Prospects’, 2020 at https://www.libson-yarker.com/exhibitions/good-prospects-landscape-drawings-from-our-racks/aiguilles-of-chamonix-near-les-houches [accessed 09.04.2020]

Photograph taken by Professor David Hill, June 1999

Ruskin’s viewpoint is a little way down the Arve valley from the village of Les Houches. We can see the river towards the left and the spire of Les Houches church to the right. The viewpoint provides one of the most comprehensive panoramas of the line of Aiguilles towering over the Chamonix valley. From left to right we see the Aiguilles Verte, Charmoz, Blaitiere, Plan, and Midi (above the church spire) culminating at the right with the peak of Mont Blanc de Tacul. The summit of Mont Blanc itself stands beyond the top right corner of the composition and the village of Chamonix is just hidden in the distance behind the bluff to the left.

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In actual fact my photograph is taken from a viewpoint very slightly higher and further right than Ruskin’s view. Ruskin’s exact position can be plotted by the intersection of the crest of the Cretes du Taconnaz with the summit ridge of Mont Blanc to Tacul, and the bead of the church spire on the Aiguille du Midi. Work on the ‘Route Blanche’ motorway to Chamonix, completed in 1990, altered the foreground detail from Ruskin’s time. The bluff that occupies the centre of Ruskin’s watercolour was blasted, backfilled and almost completely obliterated by the new carriageway.

The re-emergence of the watercolour reminds me that I have a good deal of unfinished business with Ruskin. I have planned all manner of grand projects on Ruskin’s Alpine drawings but only a few things have seen the light of day. There are a few articles on http://www.sublimesites.co [click here] and back in 2012 I wrote up a wonderful Ruskin letter for the British Art Journal (‘Perfection, I should call it’: John Ruskin’s Personalised Guide to Switzerland, 1843’, Vol.13, no.1, pp.54-67). Over the years I have been compiling a database of Ruskin in the Alps, and now count eight hundred and fifty-eight items, plus scores more that I haven’t got round to entering. One day, maybe.

I knew of this subject from its black and white reproduction in the Library Edition of The Works of John Ruskin (Vol.35, pl.20).

Ruskin himself dated the watercolour to 1842 in a list of sixty-four Chamonix drawings made in his diary for 1854 (Works 5/xxi-xxii). It is no.14 as ‘Aiguilles of Chamouni, from Les Ouches 1842’.

Its first private owner appears to have been Robert E Cunliffe, a Manchester solicitor who retired to ‘The Croft’ at Ambleside in the last year of the nineteenth century.

The Croft, near Ambleside
Photograph by Professor David Hill, 28 March 2014

Following Ruskin’s death in 1900, numerous works came onto the market and Cunliffe managed to assemble a significant group before his own death in 1902. His collection descended in the family and was exhibited at the Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal in 1969. At that time James S Dearden published a study of the collection “The Cunliffe Collection of Ruskin Drawings” in The Connoisseur. 171.690 (August 1969) pp. 237–40. After 1981 the collection was divided up. The largest part went to Abbot Hall but seven particularly fine examples were bequeathed to King’s College, Cambridge. In 2014 I started to write up the King’s drawings in detail one by one [click here] and so far have completed four. I had hoped to raise support for that work, but without success. Perhaps working on this drawing of Les Houches might prompt me to resume work on the final three.

To return to our present theme: In 1842 Ruskin was twenty-three years old, just graduated from Oxford, and making his third visit to Chamonix. In 1833 his first sight of the Alps had fixed in him a sense of where his true calling was to be found. At Chamonix in 1842 he found his vocation to explore the most profound knowledge of nature, especially as it was embodied in the art of J.M.W.Turner. On the way home he began to compose ‘Modern Painters’, the first volume of which was published in May of 1843.

His diary for this year is at Yale University Library and, although kept inconsistently, it does provide valuable documentation of his activity during his tour to the Alps. He travelled with his parents, although they are rarely mentioned, and their route took them from Calais through France to Geneva. They arrived in Chamonix by the 17th June and stayed four weeks.

Jjean Dubois, 1989-1849
Hotel de L’Union, Chamonix, c.1820
Coloured aquatint.
Chamonix
Photograph taken by Professor David Hill, 30 June 2011

They put up at the Hotel de l’Union , now disappeared, but built in 1816 and the first of the grand hotels to be built in Chamonix. In the 1830s Murray’s Handbook, p. 291 considered the Londres to be one of the finest hotels in the Alps, so standards at the Union must have been exceptional for the Ruskins to have made it their preferred base.

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By anybody’s standards the valley of Chamonix is a place of epic scale. The floor of the valley lies at over 3000 feet, the first shoulder over 6000, the crest of the Aiguilles about 12,000, and the summit of Mont Blanc at 15774. It is indeed a place against which to test one’s strength.

Ruskin started gingerly enough, recording on 17 June that he climbed half way up the Tapia. This is the glacier-strewn slope that extends from the foot of the aiguilles to the top of the shoulder, so even only half-way to the shoulder involves a climb of 1500 feet. Sensibly, he came down for fear of becoming tired.

The following day he climbed to the Montanvers at 6276 feet and ventured onto the ice of the Mer de Glace [see here]. At the age of twenty-three he quickly acclimatised and a week later on the 24th he climbed to the Flegere a point at 6158 feet on the north side of the valley that gives a spectacular view into the valley of the Mer de Glace opposite, and then climbed a thousand or 1500 feet further. On the 27th he went up to the Col de Balme at 7201 feet: On the 29th to within 300 feet of the top of the Brevent, which towers over Chamomix from the north at 8284 feet. On 30th to the Tapia, 1 July to the Montanvers again and on 11 July he made it to the summit of the Brevent.

By the standards of contemporary twenty-somethings at Chamonix, this might not seem altogether adventurous. In any case he might not have accomplished all of this on foot. On 4 July he records that he went up to the Pavilion de Belle Vue, a climb of 2591 feet from Les Houches, but the same entry records that he ‘rode down’ about 2.00. All the same, we can certainly say that he threw himself into the landscape with some physical vigour and could legitimately feel in the vanguard of Alpine afficionados.

Ruskin later said that he did very little drawing at Chamonix in 1842, but this is not borne out by the evidence. There are references in the diary to drawings made towards Argentiere, at Chamonix and of a Tadpole Stream on the road towards Servoz, plus a specific reference on 12 July to the present view: ‘Tuesday, down to.. Servoz. View of aiguilles just below Les Ouches, decidedly finest in valley.’ Surprisingly this subject is the only one of 1842 that is listed in the 1854 list, but I have collected records of seven others for the database. Why then did Ruskin list only one in 1854? It seems most likely that those listed were the drawings that actually had to hand. He continually gave drawings as gifts to friends and family.

My database includes the following;

Image courtesy of Sotheby’s, scanned from 1982 catalogue

The Aiguille du Dru seen over the Glacier du Bois from the floor of the Valley of Chamonix, sold Sotheby’s, 8 July 1982 no.154 as ‘The Matterhorn’, repr colour, est £2500-4000.

 

Image courtesy of Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal

Rocks and Stream, Chamonix, Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal.

 

Image courtesy of the Fogg Art Museum

Mont Banc from the Prieure, Chamonix, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard, USA

 

Image courtesy of Sotheby’s, scanned from 1982 catalogue

Mont Blanc with the Glaciers des Bossons and Taconnay, seen across the Arve valley from the pool of Les Galliards, below Chamonix, sold Sotheby’s 8 July 1982 no.155 as ‘An Alpine Valley’, repr colour, est £4-6000

 

Image courtesy of Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster

Glacier des Bois and Aiguille Bouchard near Les Tines, Lancaster Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster, RF894

 

Mont Blanc with the Aiguilles, from above Les Tines, reproduced in the Library edition as Vol.4, frontispiece, when in the collection of Sir John Simon.

 

Chamouni in Afternoon Sunshine, or On the Road to Chamouni, given by Ruskin to his tutor Osborne Gordon, and reproduced in the Library edition as Vol.3, pl.4, when in the collection of W Pritchard Gordon.

At some stage I might secure an opportunity to write something at length about Ruskin and the Alps. My database includes one hundred and forty-seven subjects with Chamonix in the title, and perhaps as many more in the area of Mont Blanc. Many more no doubt remain to be catalogued. One day some Alpine venue might think of staging what could be a superb exhibition. For the present I’ll content myself with expanding the frame of the present drawing a little more.

In the months before setting out for Chamonix in 1842 Ruskin enjoyed two artistic initiations. Firstly he saw the set of Swiss watercolours and ‘sample studies’ that Turner showed to prospective clients through his dealer Thomas Griffith. Ruskin recognised these as the culminating point of Turner’s knowledge of nature at its most sublime. He even persuaded his father to order two finished examples. He also took lessons in painting from James Duffield Harding. The latter was a very successful drawing master, known for a distinctive sketching style using toned paper and white highlights, but also known as an associate of Turner and capable of producing work of Turnerian effect and grandeur.

Ruskin had already discovered the power of drawing when used as an analytic tool; as a way of entering into understanding; of piercing through prefiguration to glimpse the strangeness of the real. His recent experience at the University of Oxford had engendered an appreciation of the sophistication of academic understanding, but also of its limitations. He saw a fiercely penetrative sense of things embodied most perfectly in Turner, a man of no educational qualification or sophistication, but whose work contained deeper understanding of nature than anyone else had ever achieved in landscape. An understanding achieved through practice.

Drawing became Ruskin’s best and lifelong investigative apparatus and words the attempt to elucidate what he learned through [and embodied in] practice. One of the most superficial things he took from Harding was a certain stylishness of finish, but he learned quickly that finish was an artificial affectation, unless it contributed to the purpose of analysis and understanding.

In a letter to W. H. Harrison from Chamonix dated June 20, 1842 we can see how rapidly the conceits of finish were overwhelmed by experience. Harrison published Ruskin’s early attempts at Poetry in the magazine Friendship’s Offering, and appears to have expressed the hope for some new effusion about Chamonix:

“If I have not followed every suggestion you have made, it is only because I am so occupied in the morning—and so tired at night—with snow and granite, that I cannot bring my mind into a state capable of taking careful cognizance of anything of the kind. I cannot even try the melody of a verse, for the Arve rushes furiously under my window—mixing in my ear with even imaginary sound, and every moment of time is so valuable—between mineralogy and drawing—and getting ideas;—for not an hour, from dawn to moonrise, on any day since I have been in sight of Mont Blanc, has passed without its own peculiar—unreportable—evanescent phenomena, that I can hardly prevail upon myself to snatch a moment for work on verses which I feel persuaded I shall in a year or two almost entirely re-write, as none of them are what I wish, or what I can make them in time.” [Works 2/222]

The uselessness of poetic affectation is significant of what Ruskin came to consider as his proper Chamonix work, in that he set himself to slough off all conceits and conventions of the Alps, and come to know the area through the most painstaking, prosaic programme of study that he could muster, He made diligent records of clouds and weather effects, collections of rocks and minerals, botanical studies and some of the most penetrating and concentrated of all drawing studies of the area. In this drawing we can already see him working through the affectation of Harding’s style to a real appreciation of the distinctive cleavages and underlying dynamics of mountain geomorphology. We can also see the emergence of Ruskin’s lifelong interest in the relationship of macro and micro set out in the relationship of distant, middle distance and foreground forms.

Reflecting on this experience immediately after his return to England, the project gained an adamantine purity. Writing to his college tutor, the Rev. W. L. Brown in August 1842 he observed:

“Chamouni is such a place! There is no sky like its sky. They may talk of Italy as they like. There is no blue of any firmament visible to mortal eye, comparable to the intensity and purity and depth of an Alpine heaven seen from 6000 feet up. The very evaporation from the snow gives it a crystalline, unfathomable depth never elsewhere seen. There is no air like its air. Coming down from Chamouni into the lower world is like coming out of open morning air into an ale-house parlour where people have been sleeping and smoking with the door shut all night; and for its earth, there is not a stick nor a stone in the valley that is not toned with the majestic spirit; there is nothing pretty there, it is all beautiful to its lowest and lightest details, bursting forth below and above with such an inconceivable mixture of love and power—of grace with glory—its dews seem to ennoble, and its storms to bless; and with all the constant sensations of majesty from which you never can escape, there is such infinite variety of manifestation, such eternal mingling of every source of awe, that it never oppresses, though it educates you.’ [Works 2/223].

Photograph taken by Professor David Hill, June 1999

In beginning my own visit in 1999 I should probably have adopted more of Ruskin’s caution. Far from saving myself from getting tired, I decided that the best way to begin a walking tour of Mont Blanc would be to ascend to the top of the Brevent [on the cable-car, I might add] and then walk down to Les Houches. The first quarter was glorious, the second quarter, sufficient, the third quarter, excessive, and the final quarter a mere blur of cramping calves and jellied quads. In retrospect, attempting one of the longest and most sustained footpath descents in the whole Alps was ill considered.

In the morning descending the stairs to breakfast could only be accomplished in the seated position. Walking over the Col de Vosa, or at least down the other side to Contamines, was simply out of the question. So it was decided to grimace along the level path to Les Houches station, take this photograph along the way, catch the train down to St Gervais, and then take a taxi up to Notre Dame de la Gorge. From there the route headed consistently uphill for two days to the Croix du Bonhomme, and that proved surprisingly comfortable. The descent to Le Chapuieux was accompanied by [how shall I put this] some protestations, but after that normal progress was resumed. Suffice it to say that the person looking through the lens was less sparkling than the scene before him.

David Hill, 4 May 2020

Ruskin drawings at King’s College, Cambridge: #4 The Mer de Glace from the Montanvers Hotel above Chamonix

This is the fourth in a series of seven articles that will catalogue an important group of drawings by John Ruskin at King’s College, Cambridge. For general notes on the collection see under article #1. I have to admit that progress with the catalogue has been somewhat slow: Part #3 appeared in 2014.

4. The Mer de Glace from the Montanvers Hotel above Chamonix, 1849

Graphite, pen and ink with brown and blue-grey washes, on smooth white wove paper, 12 3/4 x 19 1/4 ins [as measured 12.07.2012 DH, 322 x 493 mm (sight)] in good-quality old washline mount, but not acid-free and wants replacing.

Provenance:
The artist to
Henry Acland (1907);
The Squire Gallery, London ?to
Esmond Morse (whose name is pencilled on the backboard) and so to his daughter
Mrs Guy Barton (1969) by whom given 1981 to
King’s College, Cambridge

Exhibition and Publication:
Exhibited Alpine Club 1907 no.25 as ‘From the Acland Collection’
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. 441 as Mer de Glace; sepia (12 3/8 x 19). Theodore Dyke Acland. Exh. Alpine Club (1907) 25. [441]. This beautiful drawing was specially made for Sir Henry Acland
Exh Abbot Hall 1969 no.31 as ‘Chamouni, Mer de Glace’, lent by Mrs Guy Barton (nee Morse)
Ruskin newsletter, no.25, Autumn 1981, p.10 as no.3 as ‘Chamouni, Mer de Glace, watercolour, 19 1/4 x 12 3/4 ins. Exhibited Alpine Club 1907 ‘From the Acland Collection’

Commentary:
Examined by DH 12.07.2012

This watercolour is in very good condition, and represents a confident, virtuoso piece of draftsmanship, combining energetic handling, with tight control of detail. The colour was always muted, painted in a combination of sepia and blue-grey washes.

Mer de Glace from Montanvers
Photograph by David Hill, 1990

The subject is the famous glacier of the Mer de Glace, a little way -east of the French Savoy alpine resort of Chamonix. The viewpoint is a window in an upstairs room of the old Montanvers Hotel. The view of the glacier is flanked to the left by the les Echellettes, from where the ridge rises to Les Drus (3754m) out of the composition top left, and flanked to the right by the Tete de Trelaporte from where a rocky ridge rises to the summit of the Aiguille des Grands Charmoz (3444m), out of the composition top right. The major peak in the centre distance is the Pointe Walker (4208m) of the Les Grandes Jorasses, and the ridge of the Franco-Italian border peaking over 4000m with the Dome de la Rochefort (4015m) and Aiguille de Rochefort (4001m). The latter stands at the far end of a ridge that rises from the glacier in the centre of the composition via the Aiguille de Tacul (3444m). The drawing is slightly vague to the right of the Aiguille de Rochefort, but just in view from this point of view, is the Aiguille du Geant (4013m) cutting a distinctively sharp triangular silhouette.

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Chamonix, Mont Blanc and the Montanvers
Google Earth 3D rendering

The site became famous following a bivouac there by the English visitors Pockocke and Windham in 1741. They were followed by a steady trickle of visitors, which with the publication of more and more guidebooks became a stream. The first refuge was opened there in 1779 and demand was so great that a proper hotel was built in stone in 1840. That provided Ruskin with his room, and is still standing to this day. Despite the fact that the only access was on foot or on muleback, the old hotel was joined by an exceedingly grand new building in 1880, which still offers great comfort as the ‘Refuge de Niege, Montanvers’. In 1909 a mountain railway was completed to bring visitors up from Chamonix in ease, and today that carries thousands daily in the season.

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The Montanvers Hotels and the Mer de Glace.
Google Earth 3D rendering.
The 1840 hotel in which Ruskin stayed is to the right. The larger building is the present day Refuge du Montanvers, built in 1880.

The style of the drawing is closest to that of drawings made on Ruskin’s 1849 tour of the Alps. A good comparison is a sepia study of the Glacier des Bossons at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford:

Link to Ashmolean catalogue entry

Glacier des Bossons from Chamonix
Photograph by David Hill, c.1999

Ruskin painted that from the Hotel de l’Union at Chamonix, over several days, and as a result is even more highly developed. Ruskin claims to have been hesitant about using colour, not being able to process form at the same time as colour. He later writes about the contrast between the schools of Greece (form and chiaroscuro) and the Gothic (colour and pattern) in the Oxford lectures, where the dichotomy in his own practice became reified into an educational programme and a history of art.

The Abbot Hall 1969 exhibition label is inscribed with a note: ‘From the collection of Juliet Morse (nee Tylor) a pupil of John Ruskin’. But this is incompatible with the Squire Gallery label that categorically gives it to Acland and the 1907 Alpine Club exhibition.

Rather it appears to have been an Esmond Morse purchase [presumably from Squires], and the note on the Abbot Hall label reflects a mistaken presumption of Mrs Guy Barton (nee Morse). The entry for this study in the catalogue of Ruskin’s drawings in the Library Edition of Ruskin’s Works no.441 refers to the exhibition at the Alpine Club in 1907 and expressly says ‘This beautiful drawing was specially made for Sir Henry Acland’.

Ruskin’s muse in this drawing was the geologist James David Forbes. His great book, ‘Travels in the Alps of Savoy’, first published in 1843, was by far one of the most scientifically important studies of the Alps. This book was the first to properly describe the true nature of the motion and agency of glaciers. If that were not important enough, it also proposed a conception of the ebb and flow of glaciers over deep time. He was already well-known by the time Ruskin began to cultivate serious Alpine ambitions of his own. Forbes had done most of his fieldwork for the book on the Mer de Glace in 1842. Ruskin was himself at Chamonix in 1842, but might not have been aware of Forbes’s work at that time, but he was certainly aware of his reputation when their paths crossed at the Simplon Pass inn in 1844, and Ruskin was starstruck and not a little embarrassed when his parents inveighed the great man to look at their talented son’s own Alpine work.

Forbes had a not-altogether-welcome advisory role in Ruskin’s visit to Chamonix in 1846. A letter to George Richmond from Lucerne of 30 August gives important material on Chamonix for that year (Works 36/62-63):
‘I wonder you did not give up everything when you found yourself overworked and come out with Acland—or at least make an appointment with him somewhere. I had the good fortune to meet with him at Chamouni, and we had one day together—Mrs. Acland giving him up for a glacier ramble, and waiting for us at the edge of the ice, to make tea in the most benevolent and delightful way conceivable, and then walking, or to speak more correctly, skimming, down the hill with us like a swallow; but they professed themselves obliged to go away the next day. I did not like to press them to stay, and I think perhaps they had some notions which on my account prevented their staying, when they could; however, away they went, much to my sorrow, for Acland had unluckily met with Forbes the day before, and Forbes had set him on a nasty, useless, ugly, bothering glacier walk—in which we lost our day—and I couldn’t take him to any of the noble places. We found some beasts in the ice, however, which pleased him, and perhaps for practical purposes he learned as much upon it as he could anywhere, but he got no conception of Chamouni. I was only there four days myself. I didn’t want to go at first, because it always gives me too much vexation to leave it. But we went because it was said some rocks were bared on the Mont Blanc in unusual places. All newspaper—the Mont Blanc is as changeless as the blue sky above it; but though we had wretched weather, I never thought Chamouni so unearthly—it is quite awful, and quite alone—nothing that I have yet seen can be compared with it in any wise; its inexhaustibleness and perpetual freshness to me I am truly thankful for—other scenery palls. I never entered it with so much wonder, nor left it with so strong regret.’

Acland’s connection with this watercolour is made even more compelling (and poignant) by Ruskin’s reminiscence of Acland in Praeterita (Works 35/197-98): They first met when Ruskin went up to Oxford to begin his studies at Christ Church College:
‘Henry Acland, by about a year and a half my senior, chose me; saw what helpless possibilities were in me, and took me affectionately in hand. His rooms, next the gate on the north side of Canterbury [quad], were within fifty yards of mine, and became to me the only place where I was happy. He quietly showed me the manner of life of English youth of good sense, good family, and enlarged education; we both of us already lived in elements far external to the college quadrangle. He told me of the plains of Troy; a year or two afterwards I showed him, on his marriage journey [1846], the path up the Montanvert; and the friendship between us has never changed, but by deepening, to this day.

The 1846 walk on the glacier with Acland might almost provide an occasion for this study, except for the fact that in that year Ruskin was only at Chamonix for four days, and the documentation proves that, apart from the excursion to the Mer de Glace with Acland, he was rained off or otherwise engaged. We do not know how or when the watercolour passed to Acland; nonetheless their shared exploration of the subject certainly must have given it special significance.

The principal documentation for Ruskin’s Alpine travels, apart from drawings and letters, is the diaries and notebooks kept by Ruskin himself, mostly at the Ruskin Library at the University of Lancaster, and also in the case of tours of 1846, 1848 and 1849 a diary kept by his valet, personal assistant and general factotum, John Thomas Hobbs, now at the Morgan Library, New York.


Ruskin was at Chamonix three times in 1849, and both his and Hobbs’s diaries contain copious detail. Sifting through it, however, it is clear that Ruskin’s main work was on the Tapia, the extensive sloping area of moraine, glacier and rubble that stretches between the foot of the aiguilles and the forest above the valley from the Montanvers to Plan de l’Aiguille. His main objectives were to try and understand the true forms of the aiguilles and the proper character of their geology. I hope to find opportunities to continue exploration of the work of 1849, but the Mer de Glace and the Montanvers remained somewhat peripheral until the end of Ruskin’s third visit of that summer to Chamonix, 15-30 August when the opportunity arose to make the present watercolour.

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The Tapia between Montanvers and Plan de l’Aiguille above Chamonix
Google Earth 3D rendering]

Unfortunately Hobbs’s diary finishes on 18 August. Presumably it must have been continued in a separate volume as yet undiscovered, but by way of some compensation the Morgan Library volume does close with a pressed Alpine Gentian, collected on the Tapia on that final day.

Ruskin’s Diaries, however, are exceptionally detailed for this period. We discover that he was walking up to the Tapia from Chamonix almost daily – a climb of over 1000m, and then often the best part of another 1000m up to the foot of the aiguilles. At thirty years of age, he must have been in the best physical shape of his whole life, but even so, he decided to reduce the labour for a few days by staying at the hotel at the Montanvers for three nights, 22-25 August. The interlude came as a revelation: On 22nd he wrote ‘I think I never enjoyed any evening so much as this in my life.. I had no idea what this place was, until I sat at the window quietly today, watching the sunset and the vast flow of the ice, swelling down the gorge – a dark and billowy river – yet with the mountainous swell and lifted crests that the iron rocks have all round it..

His principal work continued up at the foot of the Aiguilles Charmoz and Blaitiere, but on the final day, the 25th, he makes an explicit reference to this watercolour:

I have certainly not lately nor often in old times, felt stronger emotion than in watching the dawn from the Montanvert these three mornings past. Yesterday I saw it when it was still very dark and Orion burning beyond the Grandes Jorasses, and the whole river of heaven, between the hills, full of stars; and again later, when, as I was watching the increase of the serene, clear, cold morning light, a beacon intensely flashed out on the summit of the Dru. It was the morning star. I was up early to-day, and drew the Aiguille Charmoz before breakfast; then worked on glacier; then took a little ramble among the myrtilles on the hill-side: came in again and finished glacier, and [afterwards] descended to Source of Arveron [and thence back to Chamonix].

Whilst Ruskin was drawing and making geological observations, his assistant John Hobbs (or ‘George’ as Ruskin called him) was working on a parallel project of equal, if not even greater significance. In 1845 Ruskin had become interested in the new photographic process of daguerreotype. In 1839 Louis Daguerre sold his patent to the French government and in 1841 a British patent was bought by Richard Beard in London. Briefly, the process involved a copper plate with a coat of polished silver being sensitised to light with fumes of iodine and bromine. The image could be developed with mercury fumes, and fixed with a salt and soda solution. Despite the complexity and uncertainly, not to mention toxicity, of the process, daguerreotyping was rapidly improved and commercialised, and the equipment produced in sufficient quantity for ‘home’ use. Ruskin invested in his own equipment and Hobbs trained in its use. The diaries of 1849 feature a variety of references to Hobbs lugging the equipment around and carrying it on his back up lengthy climbs sometimes made arduous, even delirious, by hot weather and thirst. From the references it is plain that Hobbs attempted a significant number of daguerreotypes for Ruskin. The fallibility of the process mean that many of his effort resulted in disappointment,, but there were also several moments of exhilaration. After John Hobbs moved on from Ruskin’s service in the early 1850s, Ruskin trained a subsequent assistant Frederick Crawley from 1853 to make many more. A large number of daguerreotypes survive, many at the Ruskin Library and another large collection with Ken and Jenny Jacobson. In 2015 the Jacobsons published a complete catalogue of all those surviving in a splendid book, ‘Carrying Off the Palaces: Ruskin’s Lost Daguerreotypes’.

Thus Ruskin and Hobbs were in the avant-garde of Alpine photography. Ruskin even claimed that Hobbs took the very first photograph of the Matterhorn when they were at Zermatt in 1849. That might actually be the case, and in any event Ruskin and Hobbs were most certainly at the cutting edge of representational technology and philosophy. A daguerreotype of exactly this view of the Mer de Glace survives at the Ruskin Library, Lancaster (RF Dag 75) and although it is given to Crawley and dated 1854 by both the Jacobsons and the catalogue of the Ruskin Library, it seems almost certain that Hobbs must have taken the subject during his stay at the Montanvers in August 1849. Were it not for the attribution by the Jacobsons and the Ruskin Library, it would seem an straightforward conclusion that the two views were taken at the same time.



Ruskin Library catalogue

The comparison of photograph and drawing illustrates the capabilities and limitations of each practice. The perspective of the photograph is entirely dictated by the optical specification of the lens. The perspective, scope and movement of the drawing is dictated by living conception and perception. The photograph mechanically records, within the limits of its resolution and its orthography, the forms of every detail. The drawing on the other hand transmutes that detail into rhythm and relation. If I am correct about the date of the drawing, then it was made towards the end of one of the most sustained and intense periods of scrutiny of rock and mountain form every undertaken by any artist. Drawing is an accumulative and assimilative process. Every drawing enters into an understanding of the subject, every understanding deepens and shapes perception. Over this summer Ruskin had entered more deeply than anyone into the nature of the ice-moulded and shattered rock form of the Mont Blanc massif. Though the drawing registers the outline and spatial contours of its subject, its draughtsmanship transmits a sense of the transmutation of material across time. One wonders what he would have thought of the hoard of visitors today, who come up on the train, wielding every kind of photographic apparatus from phones to high-end cameras, 4k video, or even (and I do so much want one) a drone (!).

Throughout the tour of 1849 Ruskin used Forbes’s Travels in the Alps as a guidebook. Not only did Forbes’s insights shape what Ruskin looked for, and what he saw, but so Ruskin’s observations illuminated what he read in Forbes, and established an amplifying loop. Ruskin later gave a terrific account of viewing the Mer de Glace for the first time in the light of Forbes in Fors Clavigera (Letter 34, October 1873) Works 27/639-40):
‘In 1843 [Forbes] solved the problem of glacier motion for ever, – announcing, to everybody’s astonishment, and to the extreme disgust and mortification of all glacier students, – including my poor self (not the least envious, I fancy, though with as little right to be envious as any one), – that glaciers were not solid bodies at all, but semi-liquid ones, and ran down in their beds like so much treacle.
“Cela saute aux yeux,” we all said, as soon as we were told; and I well remember the intense mortification of first looking down on the dirt bands of the Mer de Glace, from the foot of the Little Charmoz, after I had read Principal Forbes’ book. That we never should have seen them before! – so palpable, so inevitable now, with every inch of the ice’s motion kept record of, in them, for centuries, and every curve pencilled in dark, so that no river eddies, no festooned fall of sweeping cascade, could be more conclusive in proof of the flowing current. And of course it flowed; how else could it have moved but by a series of catastrophes? Everything explained, now, by one shrewd and clear-sighted man’s work for a couple of summer months; and what asses we had all been!’

Given how large the Mer de Glace figured in Forbes’s research it is perhaps surprising that it features relatively infrequently in Ruskin’s work. There are numerous other subjects in the locality, but his generally looked in other directions or for alternative locations. It is perhaps the case that after Forbes had made so much of it, Ruskin viewed the Mer de Glace as exhausted in terms of its personal potential.


Ruskin Library catalogue link
Image source

He did, however, return to this exact subject in 1874 in a watercolour of The Mer de Glace from the Montanvers above Chamonix at the Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster (RF 1996P1206). This returns to the classic view of the Mer de Glace from the Montanvers, and looks to have been painted direct from nature, and very likely from a room in the Montanvers Hotel.

Mer de Glace from Montanvers
Photograph by David Hill, 1990

This drawing is dated 1874 in the catalogue in Ruskin’s Works, but in the recent literature has most frequently been dated to 1849. It currently stand thus in the online catalogue of the Ruskin Library at the University of Lancaster. This drawing, however, is surely that documented in a letter dated 14 October 1874 to Mrs Simon from Chamonix (Works 37/145) in which Ruskin mentions going up to the Montanvers to make a drawing of the dirt bands from the window of the cabane for his forthcoming Oxford lectures. Works speculates that this might be the Lancaster drawing. Ruskin’s Diary for 17 October 1874 records that he spent the morning finishing his glacier drawing.

Click on any image to open gallery with images full-size. Scroll from image to image and then close (top right) to return to this page.

The comparison with the King’s College drawing is illuminating. The handling of the Lancaster drawing is subtly developed and refined. Whilst on the one hand more relaxed, it is also equally as observant; the treatment of the Aiguille du Tacul in the centre, being both more deft and better assimilated. The use of colour to infuse the scholarly content with imaginative depth is also extremely marked, and a significant degree of development in Ruskin’s artistic power becomes evident albeit employed with considerable restraint and subtlety.



It is interesting to compare the state of ice in the Lancaster drawing with that recorded in that at King’s. It seems clear from the glacier edges to the left and right that the ice is lower in the later drawing by three or four metres at least. It is now perhaps thirty metres lower still, and in the summer a slew of rocky debris. The glaciers around Chamonix reached their peak in recent history in 1822, so were in retreat during Ruskin’s entire career. He was one of the first to sound the alarm about climate change. By the 1870s, to him it was yet more evidence of the onset of an era of corruption and debasement. He would not be at all surprised by the continued trend of the last 150 years.

David Hill, December 2018

Kirkby Lonsdale: What Ruskin really said.

This article visits the famous ‘Ruskin’s View’ at Kirkby Lonsdale in Cumbria. It is so christened after a particularly purple description of the scenery by Ruskin. Hardly anyone, however, has ever considered his commentary in full. In what follows we will retrace Ruskin’s footsteps and discover that he said rather more than is generally admitted.

The Lune Valley from Church Brow, Kirkby Lonsdale – ‘Ruskin’s View’ Photograph by David Hill, taken 12 May 2009, 11.48 GMT
The Lune Valley from Church Brow, Kirkby Lonsdale – ‘Ruskin’s View’
Photograph by David Hill, taken 12 May 2009, 11.48 GMT

On a sunny and frosty winter’s morning on 22 January 1875, the famous art critic John Ruskin walked through the churchyard at Kirkby Lonsdale to enjoy the wonderful view over the Lune valley. The site had been sketched by the great artist J.M.W.Turner in 1816, and popularised through an engraved watercolour, but had been celebrated in prose several times before that.

J.M.W.Turner The Lune Valley from Kirkby Lonsdale Churchyard, c.1818 Watercolour, 286 x 415 mm Private Collection ex Bonhams London 26 January 2012, lot 12 (sold for £217,250) Image, David Hill. To see the image in Bonhams online catalogue click on the following link, then use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/19571/lot/12/ Ruskin knew of the view from the engraving of this watercolour that was published in Turner’s ‘History of Richmondshire’ in 1822, but the view was already feted by others, including William Wordsworth in his Guide to the Lakes published in 1810. It is not clear when it was decided to call it ‘Ruskin’s View’, but it was still known as Turner’s view well into the twentieth century.
J.M.W.Turner
The Lune Valley from Kirkby Lonsdale Churchyard, c.1818
Watercolour, 286 x 415 mm
Private Collection ex Bonhams London 26 January 2012, lot 12 (sold for £217,250)
Image, David Hill. To see the image in Bonhams online catalogue click on the following link, then use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page:
https://www.bonhams.com/auctions/19571/lot/12/
Ruskin knew of the view from the engraving of this watercolour that was published in Turner’s ‘History of Richmondshire’ in 1822, but the view was already feted by others, including William Wordsworth in his Guide to the Lakes published in 1810. It is not clear when it was decided to call it ‘Ruskin’s View’, but it was still known as Turner’s view well into the twentieth century.
Turner’s View, Kirkby Lonsdale Photograph by David Hill taken 12 May 2009, 12.25 GMT
Turner’s View, Kirkby Lonsdale
Photograph by David Hill taken 12 May 2009, 12.25 GMT

None, however, extolled it quite so effectively as did Ruskin:

“The valley of the Lune at Kirkby is one of the loveliest scenes in England—therefore, in the world. Whatever moorland hill, and sweet river, and English forest foliage can be at their best, is gathered there; and chiefly seen from the steep bank which falls to the stream side from the upper part of the town itself. There, a path leads from the churchyard out of which Turner made his drawing of the valley, along the brow of the wooded bank, to open downs beyond; a little bye footpath on the right descending steeply through the woods to a spring among the rocks of the shore. I do not know in all my own country, still less in France or Italy, a place more naturally divine, or a more priceless possession of true “Holy Land.”

Signpost to Ruskin’s View Photograph by David Hill taken 21 March 2016, 15.36 GMT
Signpost to Ruskin’s View
Photograph by David Hill taken 21 March 2016, 15.36 GMT

The passage has been feted by promoters of Kirkby Lonsdale. Despite the fact that the view was thought of by Ruskin as Turner’s, and indeed was known by locals as Turner’s view almost within living memory, the view is now resolutely associated with Ruskin. It is iterated on every signboard in the area. Signposts guide you from all quarters to ‘Ruskin’s View’ and signboards at regular intervals repeat his glowing endorsement. The sentiment is ubiquitous in the tourist promotion of Kirkby Lonsdale, and the following from ‘Explore South Lakeland’ might be taken as representative:

‘Approach the beautiful Norman Church of St Mary the Virgin by a pretty alleyway beside the Sun Inn and linger for a while in its lovely churchyard, especially if the sun is shining – there are plenty of seats. From the far corner of the churchyard, follow the signs to Ruskin’s View where the path opens into Church Brow, a promenade high above the River Lune. There you can feast your eyes on a breathtaking panorama of the Lune Valley and Underley Hall – the famous, heavenly Ruskin’s View.

http://www.exploresouthlakeland.co.uk/hidden-gems/item/14/Ruskin-s-View–Kirkby-Lonsdale/

[Click on image to enlarge]

Signboard at Ruskin’s View Photograph by David Hill, taken 25 March 2016, 11.05 GMT
Signboard at Ruskin’s View Photograph by David Hill, taken 25 March 2016, 11.05 GMT
Ruskin’s View Photograph by David Hill, taken 25 March 2016, 11.05 GMT
Ruskin’s View
Photograph by David Hill, taken 25 March 2016, 11.05 GMT

Ruskin made his comment in the fifty-second of a series of monthly ‘Letters to the Workmen of England’ published in April 1875 and collected in the fifth annual volume of ‘Fors Clavigera’ [FORS CLAVIGERA: VOL. V, LETTER 52 (APRIL 1875), ‘Vale of Lune’, pp. 92-99; Works XXVIII, 298-304]. As a whole, the complete eight volumes are not an easy read, but they do contain a thorough critique of the political and spiritual state of British society in the later nineteenth century. Much of what he has to say seems as topical today as it did then, and before Christmas I got round to a retirement project to read it in its entirety. Arriving at the familiar passage on Kirkby Lonsdale, I was more than a little surprised to see the full context in which it was set.

Ruskin’s comment was made to emphasise the beauty endowed to the site by nature, but as a pointed contrast to the folly, filth, and impoverishment of spirit of the contemporary works. At the risk of my being barred entry to Kirkby Lonsdale for evermore, I think we need to hear what Ruskin really said about that view.

[Click on any image to enlarge]

“I have been driving by the old road from Coniston here, through Kirkby Lonsdale, and have seen more ghastly signs of modern temper than I yet had believed possible.

“The valley of the Lune at Kirkby is one of the loveliest scenes in England—therefore, in the world. Whatever moorland hill, and sweet river, and English forest foliage can be at their best, is gathered there; and chiefly seen from the steep bank which falls to the stream side from the upper part of the town itself. There, a path leads from the churchyard out of which Turner made his drawing of the valley, along the brow of the wooded bank, to open downs beyond; a little bye footpath on the right descending steeply through the woods to a spring among the rocks of the shore. I do not know in all my own country, still less in France or Italy, a place more naturally divine, or a more priceless possession of true “Holy Land.”

[Click on any image to enlarge in a gallery, and to see captions]

“Well, the population of Kirkby cannot, it appears, in consequence of their recent civilization, any more walk, in summer afternoons, along the brow of this bank, without a fence. I at first fancied this was because they were usually unable to take care of themselves at that period of the day: but saw presently I must be mistaken in that conjecture, because the fence they have put up requires far more sober minds for safe dealing with it than ever the bank did; being of thin, strong, and finely sharpened skewers, on which if a drunken man rolled heavily, he would assuredly be impaled at the armpit. They have carried this lovely decoration down on both sides of the woodpath to the spring, with warning notice on ticket,—“This path leads only to the Ladies’ well—all trespassers will be prosecuted”—and the iron rails leave so narrow footing that I myself scarcely ventured to go down,—the morning being frosty, and the path slippery,—lest I should fall on the spikes. The well at the bottom was choked up and defaced, though ironed all round, so as to look like the “pound” of old days for strayed cattle: they had been felling the trees too; and the old wood had protested against the fence in its own way, with its last root and branch,—for the falling trunks had crashed through the iron grating in all directions, and left it in already rusty and unseemly rags, like the last refuse of a railroad accident, beaten down among the dead leaves.

[Click on any image to enlarge in a gallery, and to see captions]

“Just at the dividing of the two paths, the improving mob [* I include in my general term “mob,” lords, squires, clergy, parish beadles, and all other states and conditions of men concerned in the proceedings described] of Kirkby had got two seats put for themselves—to admire the prospect from, forsooth. And these seats were to be artistic, if Minerva were propitious,—in the style of Kensington. So they are supported on iron legs, representing each, as far as any rational conjecture can extend—the Devil’s tail pulled off, with a goose’s head stuck on the wrong end of it. Thus: and what is more—two of the geese-heads are without eyes (I stooped down under the seat and rubbed the frost off them to make sure), and the whole symbol is perfect, therefore,—as typical of our English populace, fashionable and other, which seats itself to admire prospects, in the present day.

[Click on any image to enlarge in a gallery, and to see captions]

“Now, not a hundred paces from these seats there is a fine old church, with Norman door, and lancet east windows, and so on; and this, of course, has been duly patched, botched, plastered, and primmed up; and is kept as tidy as a new pin. For your English clergyman keeps his own stage properties, nowadays, as carefully as a poor actress her silk stockings. Well, all that, of course, is very fine; but, actually, the people go through the churchyard to the path on the hill-brow, making the new iron railing an excuse to pitch their dust-heaps, and whatever of worse they have to get rid of, crockery and the rest,—down over the fence among the primroses and violets to the river,—and the whole blessed shore underneath, rough sandstone rock throwing the deep water off into eddies among shingle, is one waste of filth, town-drainage, broken saucepans, tannin, and mill-refuse.

[Click on any image to open in gallery, and see captions]

[…some comment on Clapham and Bolton Abbey omitted here]

“Very certainly, nevertheless, the young ladies of Luneside and Wharfedale don’t pant in the least after their waterbrooks; and this is the saddest part of the business to me. Pollution of rivers!—yes, that is to be considered also;—but pollution of young ladies’ minds to the point of never caring to scramble by a riverside, so long as they can have their church-curate and his altar-cloths to their fancy—this is the horrible thing, in my own wild way of thinking. That shingle of the Lune, under Kirkby, reminded me, as if it had been yesterday, of a summer evening by a sweeter shore still: the edge of the North Inch of Perth, where the Tay is wide, just below Scone; and the snowy quartz pebbles decline in long banks under the ripples of the dark clear stream.

“My Scotch cousin Jessie, eight years old, and I, ten years old, and my Croydon cousin, Bridget, a slim girl of fourteen, were all wading together, here and there; and of course getting into deep water as far as we could,—my father and mother and aunt watching us,—till at last, Bridget, having the longest legs, and, taking after her mother, the shortest conscience,—got in so far and with her petticoats so high, that the old people were obliged to call to her, though hardly able to call, for laughing; and I recollect staring at them, and wondering what they were laughing at. But alas, by Lune shore, now, there are no pretty girls to be seen holding their petticoats up. Nothing but old saucepans and tannin—or worse—as signs of modern civilization.

On the shingle at Kirkby Lonsdale Photograph by David Hill, taken 12 May 2009, 14.40 GMT
On the shingle at Kirkby Lonsdale
Photograph by David Hill, taken 12 May 2009, 14.40 GMT

“But how fine it is to have iron skewers for our fences; and no trespassing (except by lords of the manor on poor men’s ground), and pretty legs exhibited where they can be so without impropriety, and with due advertisement to the public beforehand; and iron legs to our chairs, also, in the style of Kensington!” Doubtless; but considering that Kensington is a school of natural Science as well as Art, it seems to me that these Kirkby representations of the Ophidia are slightly vague. Perhaps, however, in conveying that tenderly sagacious expression into his serpent’s head, and burnishing so acutely the brandished sting in his tail, the Kirkby artist has been under the theological instructions of the careful Minister who has had his church restored so prettily;—only then the Minister himself must have been, without knowing it, under the directions of another person, who had an intimate interest in the matter. For there is more than failure of natural history in this clumsy hardware. It is indeed a matter of course that it should be clumsy, for the English have always been a dull nation in decorative art: and I find, on looking at things here afresh after long work in Italy, that our most elaborate English sepulchral work, as the Cokayne tombs at Ashbourne and the Dudley tombs at Warwick (not to speak of Queen Elizabeth’s in Westminister!) are yet, compared to Italian sculpture of the same date, no less barbarous than these goose heads of Kirkby would appear beside an asp head of Milan. But the tombs of Ashbourne or Warwick are honest, though blundering, efforts to imitate what was really felt to be beautiful; whereas the serpents of Kirkby are ordered and shaped by the “least erected spirit that fell,” in the very likeness of himself!

“For observe the method and circumstance of their manufacture. You dig a pit for ironstone, and heap a mass of refuse on fruitful land; you blacken your God-given sky, and consume your God-given fuel, to melt the iron; you bind your labourer to the Egyptian toil of its castings and forgings; then, to refine his mind you send him to study Raphael at Kensington; and with all this cost, filth, time, and misery, you at last produce—the devil’s tail for your sustenance, instead of an honest three-legged stool.

“You do all this that men may live—think you? Alas—no; the real motive of it all is that the fashionable manufacturer may live in a palace, getting his fifty per cent. commission on the work which he has taken out of the hands of the old village carpenter, who would have cut two stumps of oak in two minutes out of the copse, which would have carried your bench and you triumphantly,—to the end of both your times.”

Serpent bench at Kirkby Lonsdale Photograph by David Hill, taken 25 March 2016, 10.48 GMT “..with a goose’s head stuck on the wrong end of it..”
Serpent bench at Kirkby Lonsdale
Photograph by David Hill, taken 25 March 2016, 10.48 GMT
“..with a goose’s head stuck on the wrong end of it..”

POSTSCRIPT
This article started out as a bit of a wild goose chase. I quickly discovered from photographs taken on previous visits that Ruskin’s benches had disappeared from their original setting. However it was clear that the railings survived in serried spears and so thought it worth the risk to trace Ruskin’s footsteps nonetheless. And it was pleasant enough this March to wander in the churchyard, test one’s fingers on the railings, pick one’s way down the path to the Ladies’ Well, fail to find the old spring, search municipal gardens and spaces for Ruskin’s benches; wonder whether they might be secreted in some private garden, and come away disappointed thinking that they must have been melted down for scrap.

So driving away up the A65 it was a shock to suddenly see them sitting forlorn at the side of the main road. And I doubt anyone has been so gladdened to see them. Few since Ruskin can have been seen kneeling on the floor to see whether the heads do indeed lack eyes. Ruskin would probably have thought it grimly appropriate that what eyes there are look out now only upon wheels scuttering by, and are covered not in frost but in road grit.

Ruskin’s Benches: Kirkby Lonsdale Photograph by David Hill, 25 March 2016, 10.51 GMT They stand today by the side of the A65 near its junction with Main Street. It’s not quite the view to which they had grown accustomed.
Ruskin’s Benches: Kirkby Lonsdale
Photograph by David Hill, 25 March 2016, 10.51 GMT
They stand today by the side of the A65 near its junction with Main Street. It’s not quite the view to which they had grown accustomed.
Google Earth Aerial view of Kirkby Lonsdale Placemarks indicate the principal sites discussed in the article.
Google Earth Aerial view of Kirkby Lonsdale
Placemarks indicate the principal sites discussed in the article.

[Best viewed full size; click on image to enlarge]

Still it seems against all odds that they do survive; albeit rather battered and bruised. Three of the four castings have lost their tails, and the quality (although Ruskin might have harrumped at the word) of the detail has degraded through rust and successive repaintings.

So what to do? Maybe put them back? Certainly Ruskin’s description and illustration seems to qualify them as museum-quality objects. And it does seem a shame that they have been removed from what is otherwise a high-grade survival of the environment that he described. They aren’t perhaps as sturdy as they once were, but there might well be a case for restoring them to the Church Brow, somewhere. The entrance to the new graveyard is very near their original situation. Ruskin would certainly oppose any notion of restoration; but preservation he might not oppose. After all his meditation on the site was intended to render urgent the capacity to fully appreciate its beauty and to provoke constant struggle against the erosion of that appreciation. That threat is as relevant today as it was then. Kirkby Lonsdale is truly a great place to have one’s eyes open.

Ruskin’s railings. Photograph by David Hill, taken 25 March 2016, 11.30 GMT
Ruskin’s railings.
Photograph by David Hill, taken 25 March 2016, 11.30 GMT

 

PPS.
I cannot close this without referring the reader to the work of Paul Dobraszczyk. He is a photographer, artist and cultural commentator specialising in the built environment. He has a wonderful website at

http://ragpickinghistory.co.uk/

His recent book, Iron, Ornament and Architecture in Victorian Britain: Myth and Modernity, Excess and Enchantment (Ashgate, 2014), begins by thinking about Ruskin’s benches at Kirkby Lonsdale, though he does not seem to have known that they survived. He points out that this style of bench is very widespread, and they can be found the length and breadth of Britain. Dobraszczyk makes the point that it was probably their very municipal proliferation that galled Ruskin so much. Indeed companies still manufacture to the pattern. It is the officially adopted style of park bench in Harrogate and Knaresborough. Still, none received quite such a critical sandblasting as the two at Kirkby Lonsdale.

News: Ruskin’s watercolour of Bellinzona

On 29 September 2014 Sublimesites.co published an article, ‘In Ruskin’s Footsteps at Bellinzona’. This focused on an important watercolour that Ruskin painted there in 1868, and for the first time identified his exact viewpoint. I notice with some interest therefore that Lowell Libson is exhibiting Bellinzona at the Maastrich Art Fair 11-20 March 2016.

The Church of San Quirico above Bellinzona, looking north towards the St Gotthard Pass Photograph by David Hill, 2 November 2012, 15.36
The Church of San Quirico above Bellinzona, looking north towards the St Gotthard Pass
Photograph by David Hill, 2 November 2012, 15.36
John Ruskin The Church of San Quirico at Daro above Bellinzona, Switzerland, looking north towards the St Gotthard Pass. Called Cure's Garden at Bellinzona, 1858 Pencil, watercolour and bodycolour on light blue tinted paper, 20 1/2 x 14 ins, 520 x 355 mm See SublimeSites.co, 29 September 2014, for discussion of the exact viewpoint. Image courtesy of Lowell Libson. To see the full catalogue entry on Lowell Libson’s website click on the following link, and use you browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://www.lowell-libson.com/pictures/bellinzona-switzerland-looking-towards-the-st-gotthard-pass
John Ruskin
The Church of San Quirico at Daro above Bellinzona, Switzerland, looking north towards the St Gotthard Pass. Called Cure’s Garden at Bellinzona, 1858
Pencil, watercolour and bodycolour on light blue tinted paper, 20 1/2 x 14 ins, 520 x 355 mm
See SublimeSites.co, 29 September 2014, for discussion of the exact viewpoint.
Image courtesy of Lowell Libson. To see the full catalogue entry on Lowell Libson’s website click on the following link, and use you browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page:
http://www.lowell-libson.com/pictures/bellinzona-switzerland-looking-towards-the-st-gotthard-pass

Alongside that Lowell Libson has two more fine Ruskin Swiss subjects and one Venetian. One of the points I make in the original article is that Ruskin’s Bellinzona appears to be but one part of a mosaic of studies that together would have formed a continuous panorama of the view of Bellinzona from near the church of St Quirico at Daro. As its happens, Lowell Libson is showing a very good example of just that procedure in one of the other Swiss subjects, a watercolour of Baden, Switzerland, made up of several separate drawing put together.

John Ruskin Baden, Switzerland, 1863 Pencil and watercolour on five sheets of paper, 517 x 380 mm Exhibited by Lowell Libson at TEFAF, Maastrich, 11-20 March 2016 Image courtesy of Lowell Libson. To see the full catalogue entry on Lowell Libson’s website click on the following link, and use you browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://www.lowell-libson.com/pictures/baden-switzerland
John Ruskin
Baden, Switzerland, 1863
Pencil and watercolour on five sheets of paper, 517 x 380 mm
Exhibited by Lowell Libson at TEFAF, Maastrich, 11-20 March 2016
Image courtesy of Lowell Libson. To see the full catalogue entry on Lowell Libson’s website click on the following link, and use you browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page:
http://www.lowell-libson.com/pictures/baden-switzerland

The drawing of Thun that completes the Swiss triad, must also have formed part of a similar mosaic of studies.

John Ruskin View of Thun, 1854 Pencil and watercolour 336 x 470 mm Exhibited by Lowell Libson at TEFAF, Maastrich, 11-20 March 2016 Image courtesy of Lowell Libson. To see the full catalogue entry on Lowell Libson’s website click on the following link, and use you browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://www.lowell-libson.com/pictures/view-of-thun
John Ruskin
View of Thun, 1854
Pencil and watercolour 336 x 470 mm
Exhibited by Lowell Libson at TEFAF, Maastrich, 11-20 March 2016
Image courtesy of Lowell Libson. To see the full catalogue entry on Lowell Libson’s website click on the following link, and use you browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page:
http://www.lowell-libson.com/pictures/view-of-thun

For a comprehensive listing of Lowell Libson current stock and past catalogues go to:
http://lowell-libson.com/

For TEFAF Maastrich go to:
http://www.tefaf.com/

John Ruskin The Fondamenta Nuove, Venice, 1877 Pencil and watercolour 90 x 265 mm Exhibited by Lowell Libson at TEFAF, Maastrich, 11-20 March 2016 Image courtesy of Lowell Libson. To see the full catalogue entry on Lowell Libson’s website click on the following link, and use you browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://www.lowell-libson.com/pictures/john-ruskin
John Ruskin
The Fondamenta Nuove, Venice, 1877
Pencil and watercolour 90 x 265 mm
Exhibited by Lowell Libson at TEFAF, Maastrich, 11-20 March 2016
Image courtesy of Lowell Libson. To see the full catalogue entry on Lowell Libson’s website click on the following link, and use you browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page:
http://www.lowell-libson.com/pictures/john-ruskin

In Ruskin’s Footsteps at Bellinzona: The Salita della Nocca

This article returns the attention of Sublimesites.co to the southern Swiss city of Bellinzona to investigate another site drawn by John Ruskin. Bellinzona has been the subject of two previous articles published on 29 September 2014. The new site is the Salita della Nocca, a narrow, cobbled path that climbs outside the walls to Montebello Castle from the near the old south gate to the city. Ruskin made three works there during his visit to the city in 1858. Two of these, a pencil drawing and a watercolour are at the Bowdoin College of Art Museum, Maine, USA, and the third, a daguerreotype photograph is in the collection of Ken and Jenny Jacobson. The occasion of this article is the first publication of the daguerreotype in a superb catalogue raisonnee of Ruskin’s daguerreotypes by Ken and Jenny Jacobson, recently published by Bernard Quaritch. The three works have all previously been identified as Bellinzona, but this article for the first time identifies the exact site. (1)

Bellinzona: View from the Salita della Nocca Photograph by David Hill taken 1 November 2012, 15.24 GMT Ruskin seems to have taken advantage of the natural rock seat at the bottom left corner of this image. The building behind the trees in the centre is the present-day youth hostel. To the right are the walls and vineyard terraces of Montebello Castle. The site would have provided Ruskin with a shaded place to work in the heat of his visit in June-July 1858. Click on image to enlarge
Bellinzona: View from the Salita della Nocca
Photograph by David Hill taken 1 November 2012, 15.24 GMT
Ruskin seems to have taken advantage of the natural rock seat at the bottom left corner of this image. The building behind the trees in the centre is the present-day youth hostel. To the right are the walls and vineyard terraces of Montebello Castle. The site would have provided Ruskin with a shaded place to work in the heat of his visit in June-July 1858.
Click on image to enlarge
John Ruskin Bellinzona: The Salita della Nocca going up to Montebello Castle, 1858 Pencil on brown wove paper, 8 15/16 in. x 10 7/8 in, 227 x 276 mm Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, USA, Gift of Miss Susan Dwight Bliss 1956.24.264d as ‘Landscape Study (Bellinzona)’ This drawing has long been identified as Bellinzona, but the viewpoint is here precisely identified for the first time. Photograph courtesy of Bowdoin College Museum of Art To view this image in Bowdoin’s own online catalogue, please click on the following link and use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://artmuseum.bowdoin.edu/Obj4228?sid=27317&x=16558
John Ruskin
Bellinzona: The Salita della Nocca going up to Montebello Castle, 1858
Pencil on brown wove paper, 8 15/16 in. x 10 7/8 in, 227 x 276 mm
Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine, USA, Gift of Miss Susan Dwight Bliss
1956.24.264d as ‘Landscape Study (Bellinzona)’
This drawing has long been identified as Bellinzona, but the viewpoint is here precisely identified for the first time.
Photograph courtesy of Bowdoin College Museum of Art
To view this image in Bowdoin’s own online catalogue, please click on the following link and use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page:
http://artmuseum.bowdoin.edu/Obj4228?sid=27317&x=16558
Google Earth aerial view of Bellinzona Marking the viewpoint of the Salita dell Nocca in yellow, and Ruskin viewpoints discussed in previous articles in magenta. Other landmarks have white placemarks. Click on image to open full size
Google Earth aerial view of Bellinzona
Marking the viewpoint of the Salita dell Nocca in yellow, and Ruskin viewpoints discussed in previous articles in magenta. Other landmarks have white placemarks.
Click on image to open full size

Going up from the present youth hostel, the Salita della Nocca climbs steeply between a rock face on the right and a stone wall on the left. After a straight ascent the path turns left and on the corner is a natural rock seat. From here there is a view straight back down the path over the valley towards Lago Maggiore. Over the wall to the right are the vineyards and walls of Montebello Castle. Today, the Salita della Nocca is a quiet backwater, not often found by tourists. Its obscurity certainly explains why it has not previously been recognised, and also begs some questions as to what brought Ruskin to it. The large building in the centre of the pencil drawing is the modern youth hostel, but before that it housed a school, the Instituto Santa Maria. Beyond that on the Piazza San Rocco outside the Porta Lugano stood the hotel, the Aquila d’Oro, in which Ruskin stayed in 1858. I have not yet managed to exactly pinpoint the original hotel on the ground, but Ruskin does record that it had a good view south. It seems doubtful that he would have found out the Salita as a subject if he had not been staying nearby, and had it not been for him an obvious route of ascent to Montebello Castle.

One particular advantage of the Salita as a vantage point would have been its shade. Despite being amongst the mountains Bellinzona has a southern climate. When I visited in November 2012 it was still too warm to sit out in the direct sun for very long. Ruskin was there in June and July when the days heat up very rapidly, and he worried over the heat and drought. The south-west aspect of this view would have meant that he was nicely shaded right through the morning.

The Bowdoin pencil drawing takes in the wider field of view, with the walls of Montebello Castle tumbling down to the old south gate, the Porta Lugano. The centre of the composition is dominated by the still-standing building that became the Instituto Santa Maria, and to the left is the Salita, flanked on the left by its rock wall, and on the right by a rough stone wall that takes advantage of some outcrops of native rock. The viewpoint is perfectly recognisable today. The native rock is still present in the wall, although less prominently than in Ruskin’s time and the ledges of rock to the left are remarkably unchanged. The building in the centre is the current youth hostel, and compares well with the present building from this angle. The vineyards to the right and fortified walls descending from Montebello Castle are also perfectly recognisable, but obscured somewhat by the growth of trees and the increased height of the foreground wall. When I photographed the view at about 4.30 pm (local) on 1 November 2012, the sun was almost directly contre-jour along the line of the path. The subject would be better in the morning with the light behind or to the left, and Ruskin seems to have applied himself to it after breakfast.

Going up to Montebello Castle, Bellinzona Photograph by David Hill taken 1 November 2012, 15.32 GMT Taken from further up the Salita della Nocca, above Ruskin’s viewpoint, close to that of Turner’s sketch TB CCCXXXVI 14. Were Ruskin to visit today he would no doubt have something to say about the overhead power cables and the near redundancy of the chapel to the left. Click on image to enlarge
Going up to Montebello Castle, Bellinzona
Photograph by David Hill taken 1 November 2012, 15.32 GMT
Taken from further up the Salita della Nocca, above Ruskin’s viewpoint, close to that of Turner’s sketch TB CCCXXXVI 14. Were Ruskin to visit today he would no doubt have something to say about the overhead power cables and the near redundancy of the chapel to the left.
Click on image to enlarge
J M W Tuner Bellinzona: Looking South-West from Castello Montebello, 1843? Pencil, pen, and watercolour on paper, 227 x 327 mm Tate Britain, Turner Bequest TB CCCXXXVI 14 (D33592) Shortly before his visit to Bellinzona in 1858, Ruskin spent some considerable time sorting through the tens of thousands of Turner sketches and drawings that were given to the National Gallery. He knew the late Swiss subjects such as this especially well, and in making his way up the Salita della Nocca to Montebello Castle might well have been searching out the exact viewpoint of this sketch. Turner’s viewpoint is near the top of the Salita, some distance higher than Ruskin’s.  Photograph courtesy Tate To see this image in the Tate’s own online catalogue click on the following link and use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-bellinzona-looking-south-west-from-castello-montebello-d33592
J M W Tuner
Bellinzona: Looking South-West from Castello Montebello, 1843?
Pencil, pen, and watercolour on paper, 227 x 327 mm
Tate Britain, Turner Bequest TB CCCXXXVI 14 (D33592)
Shortly before his visit to Bellinzona in 1858, Ruskin spent some considerable time sorting through the tens of thousands of Turner sketches and drawings that were given to the National Gallery. He knew the late Swiss subjects such as this especially well, and in making his way up the Salita della Nocca to Montebello Castle might well have been searching out the exact viewpoint of this sketch. Turner’s viewpoint is near the top of the Salita, some distance higher than Ruskin’s.
Photograph courtesy Tate
To see this image in the Tate’s own online catalogue click on the following link and use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page:
http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/turner-bellinzona-looking-south-west-from-castello-montebello-d33592

He might have been attracted to the view by the knowledge that Turner had drawn a similar subject, but from a slightly higher viewpoint in TB CCCXXXVI 14 (Tate Britain). He spent the winter before his visit to Bellinzona sorting through the tens of thousands of sketches and drawings that Turner had Bequeathed to the National Gallery. He was particularly fond of sketches from Turner’s later tours to the Alps and he would have been particularly interested in those of Bellinzona. Ruskin’s treatment of the material is, however, completely different. Turner takes the attention immediately to the broad spaces of the middle distance and from there to the distant Lago Maggiore and flanking hills. Ruskin on the other hand resolutely keeps the attention in the foreground, even in the more expansive of the two compositions, and only reluctantly allows the eye to escape into the valley and distance. He had a professional interest in wine growing – his father was a major sherry importer – and he cast a knowledgeable and critical eye over the cultivation of the terraces in the area.

Another of Ruskin’s major interests was geology and he was particularly interested by the gneiss rock of Bellinzona, which reminded him of his native Scotland, particularly of Glen Garry and Glenfinlas that he had studied carefully in previous years.

The rocks to the left especially caught his attention, and having thoroughly comprehended their structural character in pencil, he set on to develop his complete his understanding of their material nature in colour. Ruskin worked slowly in colour, and the Bowdoin watercolour is a typically intense product of observation and consideration, applied to a limited field of view, probably over several days. It is remarkable how unchanged is the rock; it appears to have hardly weathered at all in the one hundred and fifty four years that separates his drawing and my photograph. The character of the exposure is, however, rather different. In Ruskin’s day the surface appears to have been relatively clean and dry. In November 2012 the path was overshaded by trees, and much damper, so that the rock was covered in algae, liverwort and moss and the bedding fractures festooned with autumn leaves. In many ways the site presented an even more typically Ruskinian subject to my camera than it had to his pencils and watercolour, though he would have no doubt been dismayed by the drainage pipe now affixed to his subject.

He finished his visual investigations by having his assistant, Frederick Crawley take a photograph of an even more concentrated view of the bedding fractures. This was discovered in the treasure-trove of unrecognised Ruskin Daguerreotypes that Ken and Jenny Jacobson secured in 2006. As they recount in their catalogue, the subject (quite understandably) resisted identification. Initially it was thought to be a landscape-format composition, and a suggestion was made that it might have been taken at Fribourg [an important subject for Ruskin and the subject of several other daguerreotypes] until the scholar Ian Warrell realised it might be a portrait-format and thus made the connection with the drawings at Bowdoin. It was only when the book arrived in the post last weekend, that I had my first sight of the daguerreotype, and realised that I had photographed the exact subject in 2012 when researching the Bowdoin drawings. Cropping one of my original photographs to the field of view of the daguerreotype, I was surprised just how exactly it could be made to match. The pipe is perhaps not such a photogenic object, and before the growth of the trees the surface of the rock was drier and more exclusively lichenous, but the roofline at the foot of the path lined up precisely, and the colours turned out to be remarkably in tune with Ruskin’s palette in many of his studies of rocks and vegetation.

Rock study on the Salita della Nocca, Bellinzona Photograph by David Hill taken 1 November 2012, 15.27 GMT This photograph is cropped to exactly the same field of view as the daguerreotype taken for Ruskin by Frederick Crawley. The daguerreotype is currently exclusively available in the new publication, ‘Bringing Home the Palaces: The Lost Daguerreotypes of John Ruskin’ by Ken and Jenny Jacobson (Quaritch, 2015). I did not know of the daguerreotype when I visited Bellinzona in 2012, but give that Ruskin was taking advantage of a natural rock seat as his vantage point it is not coincidental that I Photographed the same view. Even so it was exciting to see just how well preserved are the details today. Ruskin might not have been so enamoured of the drain pipe now fixed to the rock. Click on image to enlarge
Rock study on the Salita della Nocca, Bellinzona
Photograph by David Hill taken 1 November 2012, 15.27 GMT
This photograph is cropped to exactly the same field of view as the daguerreotype taken for Ruskin by Frederick Crawley. The daguerreotype is currently exclusively available in the new publication, ‘Bringing Home the Palaces: The Lost Daguerreotypes of John Ruskin’ by Ken and Jenny Jacobson (Quaritch, 2015). I did not know of the daguerreotype when I visited Bellinzona in 2012, but give that Ruskin was taking advantage of a natural rock seat as his vantage point it is not coincidental that I Photographed the same view. Even so it was exciting to see just how well preserved are the details today. Ruskin might not have been so enamoured of the drain pipe now fixed to the rock.
Click on image to enlarge

Understandably, with their collection of Ruskin daguerreotypes just published, the Jacobsons want to restrict dissemination of images to their book for the time being. In due course, when an image becomes available, I will post it alongside my photograph. In the meantime I can say that it is well worth seeking out the book. It is a foundational contribution to Ruskin scholarship, and a real labour of love.

The comparison of the daguerreotype with the drawings is instructive. The pencil drawing, for example, imputes a much more sinuous character to the rock, capturing the processes of deformation and fluid plasticity that the rock has endured. This is still more intensively entered into in the watercolour. Peculiarly, neither drawing nor watercolour give anything like the visual prominence to the surface lichen that is one of the most striking features of the daguerreotype. It is noted to some degree in the watercolour, but sparingly. One striking elision from the watercolour, especially, is of the vegetation that the photograph, and to some degree the pencil drawing, shows growing along the line of fracture of the bedding planes. Ruskin normally took full account of such matters, as intrinsic expressions of the nature of the subject. His principal motive here, however, was the plastic nature of the rock. There are one or two indications of the vegetation, but in this case carried no further than that. The most striking difference between photograph and drawings is that the photograph projects a sense of solid, static mass, the drawings project a sense of fluidity, dynamism, movement and change. The one freezes time and process, the other takes time and enacts process and comprehends change in both short and long durations. The one is raw data, the other processed, and remoulded by the questions, clarifications and frameworks of perception of the intelligent understanding.

Note
1 John Hayman, John Ruskin and Switzerland, 1990, nos. 41, 42 identifies the Bowdoin drawings as from the Castello Grande looking towards Locarno, noting that there is no longer any access to the rocky path. Ken and Jenny Jacobson’s catalogue of the daguerreotypes, Carrying off the Palaces: John Ruskin’s Lost Daguerreotypes, 2015, no.309 and pp.110-11 describes the subject as ‘Castelgrande. Rock face in castle grounds’.

Acknowledgement
I am grateful to Joachim Homann (Curator) and Michelle Henning (Assistant to the Registrar) at Bowdoin College for permission to reproduce the drawings by John Ruskin in their care.

Bellinzona Salita small image

In Ruskin’s Footsteps: the Balconies of Bellinzona

In November 2012 I made a short site visit to the southern Swiss town of Bellinzona. It stands at the entrance to the Ticino valley above Locarno and for centuries served as the southern gateway to the St Gotthard Pass, controlling traffic between northern Italy, especially Lago Maggiore, Milan and Turin, and northern Switzerland including Lucerne and Zurich.

Its castles and bridge provided both Turner and Ruskin with numerous subjects, more of which I hope to illustrate through photographs in future articles, but for the present I want to concentrate on some incidental details that not only proved to be more readily identifiable that I anticipated, but also indicative of Ruskin’s attenuated alertness to quality in artistic expression.

Click on any image to read captions:

Ruskin noticed these wrought-iron balconies during a visit to Bellinzona in 1858. He had them photographed by his assistant Frederick Crawley using the daguerreotype method, and the following year published the images as a frontispiece to his lecture ‘The Two Paths’. The lecture included an illustrated discussion of their quality of craftsmanship and the spirit of that time, which put C19 manufacture to shame. The original daguerreotype plate of the upper image survives in the Ruskin Library at the University of Lancaster. That for the lower image is presently untraced unless it forms part of an extensive private collection of Ruskin daguerreotypes belonging to K&J Jacobson. That collection is soon to be fully published.

Click on any image to read captions:

The actual balconies are here identified with the photographs for the first time. The upper balcony in Ruskin’s illustration is on a house immediately to the south of the Collegiata, and the lower is on a house on the west side of the northern angle of the Piazza. Both images may be presumed to be reversed in the daguerreotypes, but there is too much symmetry in the pattern to be entirely certain. Ruskin also took a separate photograph of the lower balcony as seen from a side angle, and the original plate of that survives in the Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster. ‘The Two Paths’ also includes several engravings to support Ruskin’s discussion of the extraordinary attention to detail in the balconies. These were evidently taken from drawings in a notebook of 1858, including one of an oblique view, reproduced below.

Click on any image to read captions:

There is a further daguerreotype at the Ruskin Library of a balcony at Bellinzona. This was catalogued as ‘An Arcade at Bellinzona’. Close inspection, however reveals that the image is reversed (normal in a daguerreotype), and that the street sign to the right reads ‘Piazza Nosetto’. This enables the subject to be here identified for the first time as the entrance to the courtyard of the Old Palazzo Civico in Bellinzona. The building was demolished in 1924 and replaced by the present building, although from the evidence of this photograph the columns and capitals were retained. The balcony of the new building is a much more elaborate Venetian affair, but it is seems probable that the original high quality wrought iron balcony was preserved somewhere.

Frederick Crawley for John Ruskin. The Balcony of the Old Palazzo Civico in the Piazza Nosetto, Bellinzona. Called 'An arcade at Bellinzona', 1858 Daguerreotype Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster, RF Dag 112 Photograph by courtesy of the Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster.
Frederick Crawley for John Ruskin.
The Balcony of the Old Palazzo Civico in the Piazza Nosetto, Bellinzona. Called ‘An arcade at Bellinzona’, 1858
Daguerreotype
Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster, RF Dag 112
Photograph by courtesy of the Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster.

For all those that have passed through these squares, very few have noticed these balconies as did Ruskin. His drawing requires quite a peculiar station, tucked in the angle of the adjacent house, but only here is it possible to see the projecting nature of the relief. In adopting such a position, Ruskin is revealing himself to be someone of unusual, even eccentric, perceptivity. It might be fairly said that visitors to this square generally have more obvious occupation – companions, business, or recuperation – and the excellence of wrought-iron balconies makes little claim to consideration. But Ruskin was not of any ordinary consciousness and his underlying argument was that normal business dimmed the senses of those with a mind for finer perceptions. There was once a time he fancied when finer standards prevailed. But all he saw now was a contemporary culture blind to everything but its own business.

Ruskin balcony detail #350

In Ruskin’s Footsteps at Bellinzona

This article identifies the exact subject of one of John Ruskin’s most highly regarded Alpine watercolours.

The Swiss town of Bellinzona guards the southern entrance to the Alps from Lake Maggiore, and commands the St Gotthard route from Italy to the north. In 1858 Ruskin found there one of the most important subjects of his career. He stayed there from 12 June to 8 July and worked on this subject each afternoon for at least two weeks. Eventually he left off frustrated, but despite that it appears to modern eyes to be one of his most complete and beautiful works and it achieved a world record price for a work by Ruskin of £274,050 when it was sold at Christie’s in London in 2003.

Click on image to see captions

The picture has always been known to show Bellinzona, but despite the celebrity of the picture no-one seems ever to have enquired into the exact site. I confirmed the location as the Church of San Quirico at Daro, which overlooks Bellinzona from nearby to the north east, on a visit in November 2012. The church and view north up the Ticino is almost unchanged, except for the railway and new building in the middle distance. The most remarkable survival is the garden below the terrace, complete with its steep steps and terraces. Ruskin was especially fond of this garden and seems to have felt that it peculiarly exemplified the beauty and hardness of the Ticino. When I photographed the site the clouds capped the distant hills and the afternoon sun illuminated the church and terraces in almost exactly the same way as recorded by Ruskin.

The Terrace at Daro provided the vantage-point for two watercolour studies of the Castel Grande and pencil sketch of San Giovanni. Together these seem to have been intended to form parts of a grand overview of Bellinzona, which the view of San Quirico would have closed to the right.

The two watercolour studies are today untraced, but were reproduced in the Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin published in 1902-12.

Click on images for captions

These watercolours were made from the same viewpoint, and record the same view of the Castel Grande, but under different effects of light. In the first, it appears to be earlier in the afternoon with the towers silhouetted against southerly light. Conditions are clear, and the higher hills over Lago Maggiore beyond the castle can be seen clearly. In the second, late afternoon light rakes across the Castle from the right, catching the base of the Torre Bianco, and the leading edges of the rocks at the base. There appears to be a lot of cloud to the left, and it may be that Ruskin is recording a late afternoon clearance after rain.

John Ruskin Bellinzona: the Church of San Giovanni, from Daro, 1858.  Pen and ink and wash, 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 ins, 135 x 220 mm.  Pprivate Collection, sold Christie's 8 June 1999 no.172 Image from Christie's website: follow link for full Christie's catalogue:http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/lot_details.aspx?intObjectID=1472395
John Ruskin
Bellinzona: the Church of San Giovanni, from Daro, 1858.
Pen and ink and wash, 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 ins, 135 x 220 mm.
Pprivate Collection, sold Christie’s 8 June 1999 no.172
Image from Christie’s website: follow link for full Christie’s catalogue:http://www.christies.com/lotfinder/lot_details.aspx?intObjectID=1472395

The pencil drawing represents the exact continuation to the right of the two treatments of the Castel Grande. The identification as Bellinzona was first suggested by Ian Warrell in the online catalogue notes when it was sold at Christie’s in London in 1999, but this is the first detailed identification of the subject as San Giovanni, and the first association with the two views of the Castel Grande. The relationship illustrates a practice that was by now routine for Ruskin of working in mosaic. He preferred to approach an expansive subject through small individual studies which might then be pieced together, either physically or in a new drawing, to achieve a comprehensive treatment. There are good examples of this approach to Swiss town subjects in his work at Baden and Fribourg. There are a number of references to unidentified and untraced sketches of Bellinzona by Ruskin and it is possible that more pieces of this particular mosaic remain to be discovered.

Bellinzona from the Church of San Quirico at Daro Photograph by David Hill, 1 November 2012, 14.21 Ruskin appears to have been working on the complete panorama of Bellinzona, as seen from the terrace of San Quirico.
Bellinzona from the Church of San Quirico at Daro
Photograph by David Hill, 1 November 2012, 14.21
Ruskin appears to have been working on the complete panorama of Bellinzona, as seen from the terrace of San Quirico.
Click on image to enlarge

Throughout Ruskin’s tour of 1858 he kept a diary in the form of daily letters to his father. The full correspondence was published by John Hayman in John Ruskin: Letters from the Continent, 1858, University of Toronto Press, 1982. These letters (together with a few others) contain a number of references to this work, and other comments that shed light on his thoughts.

Ruskin arrived at Bellinzona on 12 June 1858. After a few days he settled into a routine and on 17 June reported:
My days pass now in a most settled & tranquil way… finding on the whole that I do best work by taking the day quietly… breakfast about seven; and then get to work in a shady place about ½ past 9. Then draw till 12: take umbrella & good (long) brisk walk till ½ past two – always some new place to explore: – home & dress for dinner – dine at 3 – rest a little & get to afternoon work about 5, on a beautiful little terrace commanding the valley west and north, so that I am sure of sunset. Home to tea about eight, and in bed by 1/2 past ten.

The weather was good but unsettled. In the same letter of the 17th he observed; ‘It has been warm for three days – but is now quite cool, and pleasant – some thunder having headed its way among the hills’. On the 18th: ‘Here, we have no east wind, but the weather has clouded over every day at three for these three days back, giving one thoroughly wet afternoon, and two gloomy ones, with growls of thunder. It spoils the sentiment of the place a great deal not to have calm evenings: but I hope for better things.’ The next day it was particularly fine and he reported happy progress with his work at Daro:

It has been a lovely day for drawing, and I have worked long, but I am learning a great deal; having taken up my old field of sketching; and I find many curious matters discoverable therein.. I have got quite a little San Miniato to go to in the afternoons, a church on the hillside with a garden among the rocks, hopelessly beautiful, to give any idea of in drawing; steps descending hither and thither, half rock, half laid stone; just flowers and grass enough to make the rocks lovely without in the least hiding them. The priest is polite in meaning, but boorish in manner, compared to the French ones. He has a nice dog – who was a long time before he would give up barking at me; but is now on the most intimate terms; and picked up my handkerchief for me when I dropped it today like a (gentleman) groom of the chamber.

The following day the weather continued fine: ‘It is quite cloudless today, cloudless with purpose of remaining so; and the green vines & mountains all in sacred peace. I still think this place the most beautiful I have yet found among the hills. Write still here. I have no intention of moving for at least ten days.’

On the 23rd all remained sunny and happy, although Ruskin could felt obliged to remark on the apparent lack of industry amongst the peasants:
The grapes here seem to get larger visibly. They are in many vineyards as large as this [sketch] already – and if the Xeres ones are in as good health as there here I don’t think there will be any more in need of rise in price. But it seems a pity that the beautiful tree should encourage at once idleness and drunkenness. The vines are planted only that the peasants may have nothing or as little as possible to do. It is true the ground in some of the better farms is sown with potatoes between the rows of vines; or with maize; but more frequently, nothing but the mountain grass grows there; the people taking evidently no trouble with either grass or grape, but mow the one in hay time – and pluck the other. You have it appears as much heat in London as we have here. It is not in the least oppressive though the snow is beginning to gleam sparingly on the mountain peaks; and the cascades fade away one by one.’

By the 27th, with the fine weather persisting, Ruskin began to see that the area was beginning to dry out rather alarmingly, and was perhaps beginning to find his spirits flagging, despite the fact that it was a feast day:
I see an account of an awful hailstorm at Chatsworth. Hail or thunder, the poor people would have been glad to have had it here. They are being ruined by drought. It is more than two months since they had a serviceable shower – and today is as bright as if it had just set in fine after two months of rain, intensely bright, everywhere. It is a festa & shawls and bed covers are hung out of windows all over the town so what with sunshine and shawls, the place looks gay, but the people are not; and all my beautiful cascades are becoming mere tricklets of water here and there among white pebbles & scorched rocks. But it is not hot. It is the wind that keeps off the rain, they say.

One 30 June he reported that he was beginning to see an end to his work and the next day (1 July) reported that the summer drought had taken a firm grip:
Coutet [his guide and assistant, Joseph Couttet of Chamonix] says it is ‘too fine’ – there will be heavy storms to make up for it. It is a sad thing to see the grapes falling from their stems – or shrinking to narrow ovals instead of full rounds: – the trees too are all taking their autumnal tints already. I never saw a country so truly suffering from drought – it is very sad.

Ruskin does appear to be over-reacting to the dry conditions. This is, after all, the Southern Alps in high summer. He might have reflected that the climate was the explanation for the nature of local cultivation – it was simply too dry in high summer to permit the kind of agricultural industry he would have preferred to see.

He worked on at Bellinzona until 8 July when he moved on to Isola Bella on Lago Maggiore. On 9 July he wrote to his father:
No pity nor respect can be felt for these people, who have sunk and remain sunk, merely by idleness and wantonness in the midst of all blessings and advantages: who cannot so much as bank out—or in—a mountain stream, because, as one of their priests told me the other day, every man always acts for himself: they will never act together and do anything at common expense for the common good; but every man tries to embank his own land and throw the stream upon his neighbours; and so the stream masters them all and sweeps its way down all the valley in victory. This I heard from the curate of a mountain chapel at Bellinzona*, when I went every evening to draw his garden; and where, by the steps cut in its rock, and the winding paths round it, and the vines hanging over it, and the little patch of golden corn at the bottom of it, and the white lily growing on a rock in the midst of it, and the white church tower holding the dark bells over it, and the deep purple mountains encompassing it, I got so frightfully and hopelessly beaten. It was partly the priest’s fault too, for he cut the white lily to present to the Madonna one festa day [see 27 June]—not knowing that it was just the heart of my subject—and a day or two afterwards he cut his corn (and planted languid little lettuces or some such thing in its stead), which took away all my gold as before he had taken all my silver, and so discouraged me [see 30 June ‘I am beginning to see an end to my work..’].

On 24 August while settled in Turin he wrote jocularly to artist John Frederick Lewis to reflect on his difficulties in drawing of the summer;

..not that I have made quite so much of my summer as I had hoped; but I am much the better of even its catastrophes. I can hardly call them less. I got quite sulky about it at one time, and have never been fit to write to any of my friends – for I should have been merely grumbling. When I came abroad first, this year, I had come to the conclusion that I was beginning to be too fond of minor detail; and resolved accordingly to sketch a great many subjects of the Grand kind in an impressive and ‘eclectic’ manner. The result of this experiment was that I made myself entirely miserable in a week – feeling as if I never could touch pencil again. After (drawing) taking breath a little, I resolved to try the old plan again fairly; and began a drawing in complete light and shade. Having executed a little bit so as to give some promise of coming satisfactorily, I proceeded to calculate how long it would take to finish the drawing: and found the period required to be Fifteen years, six months, & some days. Not having this time at my disposal at Bellinzona, where I made the experiment – I packed up my drawing materials – and endeavoured to find some profit in doing nothing…’

In 1866 Ruskin presented this drawing to Rev J Moore and on 22 October wrote to describe the circumstances under in which it was painted :

Dear Mr Moore
I have made no drawings at any time but for notes of fact: more for pleasure of sketching- so that I have had great difficulty in finding one that seemed the least fit for presentation to you. Nor can I ever conceive any one taking any pleasure in my imperfect work. However the sketch I send looks pretty well at a distance, and it is of an interesting scene enough, in its way. The little rocky garden & the view of village near Bellinzona – which being much too steep for the old priest to trouble himself by walking- much less working in – had near perished by drought when I sketched it- though a mountain stream dashed by only a hundred yards below.- from which- when I was tired of drawing, my quick hand brought up sundry bucketsfull of snow water to the poor garden- much to its refreshment- and the villagers’ astonishment and our own piece of mind- for that afternoon. The valley in the distance is the ascent (crossed through) access to the pass of the St Gothard.- you are looking north. This sketch belonged to my mother but she likes you to have it. And so do I, if you like it. I wish the fig leaves had stalks to them- (or stitches together at any rate)- but I got tired at the time of the tailoring, and I can’t do it now rightly,
Ever affectionately Yours J Ruskin

Another aspect of this picture that does not ever seem to have occasioned any comment is the way in which it determines not to be a picture of Bellinzona. The ancient city and its castles are all behind us, and we look away north towards the St Gotthard. The composition isolates a vignette of a southern Alpine situation, with pockets of habitation and cultivation on steep rock. The composition is of a garden-scale intimacy completely tuned to a habitat of rock and vine, and one evidently situated to maximize awareness of being, at the very least to enjoy the view, but more subtly to come especially to life when the bells start ringing and the sound measures the substance and nature of the space in which it sits. Despite his diffidence with regard to its claims as art, it is an object lesson in Ruskin’s thinking himself into place through a detail. He finds real beauty in the situation, and makes something beautiful out of it.

Nevertheless, he was also finding his quest for beauty constantly reminded of human and natural realities. So he saw that the climate engendered hardness and difficulty, and he was conflicted by his own vanity and self-indulgence, even narcissism and ultimately went off to luxuriate in Turin. Ruskin was in transition and was preparing to launch an assault on the social and creative impoverishment of political economy in the contemporary world. It is perhaps indicative of the importance of his visit to Bellinzona that he returned to his experiences on this terrace in his first major book of political injustice, Unto This Last, published in 1860:
The most accurately nugatory labour is, perhaps, that of which not enough is given to answer a purpose effectually, and which, therefore, has all to be done over again. Also, labour which fails of effect through non-co-operation. The curè of a little village near Bellinzona, to whom I had expressed wonder that the peasants allowed the Ticino to flood their fields, told me that they would not join to build an effectual embankment high up the valley, because everybody said that would help his neighbours as much as himself. So every proprietor built a bit of low embankment about his own field; and the Ticino, as soon as it had a mind, swept away and swallowed all up together.

He referred to this again in letters on Roman Inundations.
There is yet one further evil. The snow on the bared rock slips lower and melts faster; snows which in mossy or grass ground would have lain long, and furnished steadily flowing streams far on into summer, fall or melt from the bare rock in avalanche and flood, and spend in desolation in a few days what would have been nourishment for half the year. And against all this there are no remedies possible in any sudden or external action. It is the law of the Heaven which sends flood and food, that national prosperity can only be achieved by national forethought and unity of purpose.
In the year 1858 I was staying the greater part of the summer at Bellinzona, during a drought as harmful as the storms of ten years later. The Ticino sank into a green rivulet; and not having seen the right way to deal with the matter, I had many a talk with the parroco of a little church whose tower I was drawing, as to the possibility of setting his peasants to work to repair the embankment while the river was low. But the good old priest said, sorrowfully, the peasants were too jealous of each other, that no one would build anything or protect his own ground for fear his work might also benefit his neighbours.

Part of his later feelings about his drawing at Bellinzona was perhaps that through it he discovered the imperfection of the world and rendered himself unwilling and unable to connive in the propagation of an aesthetic fiction. He constantly told his father that he was learning a lot through his drawing whilst achieving little in it. He does not say, however, what it was that he was learning, and perhaps he did not yet see that clearly enough except for it to express itself in unease and dissatisfaction, but not yet definition and resolution.

When I photographed the subject on 2 November 2012 there were a few figs and olives growing on the terraces, together with one rather untidy Kiwi fruit, but the garden looked unloved. Given Ruskin’s description: ‘hopelessly beautiful, to give any idea of in drawing; steps descending hither and thither, half rock, half laid stone; just flowers and grass enough to make the rocks lovely without in the least hiding them’, and his obligation to tend it with ‘sundry bucketsfull of snow water… much to its refreshment- and the villagers’ astonishment’, it might be a worthwhile project for the citizens of Bellinzona to bring back something of that loveliness to these terraces as a living memorial to Ruskin’s association with the city.

At San Quirico, I November 2012 Photograph by David Hill
At San Quirico, I November 2012
Photograph by David Hill

In Ruskin’s Footsteps: Three newly identified architectural subjects at Lucerne

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.

Google Earth aerial view of Lucerne White placemarks indicate the sites of Ruskin’s subjects. Click on image to englarge
Google Earth aerial view of Lucerne
White placemarks indicate the sites of Ruskin’s subjects.
Click on image to enlarge

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.

Wall plaque on Kasernenplatz#2 Recording the restoration in 1986-88 Photograph by David Hill, 27 May 2014, 14.07
Wall plaque on Kasernenplatz#2
Recording the restoration in 1986-88
Photograph by David Hill, 27 May 2014, 14.07

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.

Google Earth aerial view. Looking west over the Hotel Hofgarten, with a placemark indicating Ruskin’s exact viewpoint.
Google Earth aerial view.
Ruskin’s viewpoint of the Hotel Hofgarten looking west, with a placemark indicating Ruskin’s exact viewpoint.
Franz Xaver Schumacher Pictorial Map of Lucerne, 1792 Detail of engraving showing the Hofgasse area, with Ruskin’s subject to the right of centre. A fully-zoomable version of the map can be viewed on the website of the Staatsarchiv of Lucerne. Click on the following link and use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://www.staatsarchiv.lu.ch/stadtansicht_schumacher.htm
Franz Xaver Schumacher
Pictorial Map of Lucerne, 1792
Detail of engraving showing the Hofgasse area, with Ruskin’s subject to the right of centre.
A fully-zoomable version of the map can be viewed on the website of the Staatsarchiv of Lucerne. Click on the following link and use your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://www.staatsarchiv.lu.ch/stadtansicht_schumacher.htm

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.

Lucerne: The Hotel Goldener Adler from the Hirschenplatz Photograph by David Hill, 27 May 2014, 15.46 The building proudly proclaims its association with Goethe who stayed there in 1779. Some Commemoration of its association with Ruskin seems called for now that can be shown to have had a role in him formulating one of the most influential aesthetic theories of the modern era.
Lucerne: The Hotel Goldener Adler from the Hirschenplatz
Photograph by David Hill, 27 May 2014, 15.46
The building proudly proclaims its association with Goethe who stayed there in 1779. Some commemoration of its association with Ruskin seems called for now that can be shown to have had a role in him formulating one of the most influential theories of architectural aesthetics of the modern era.

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.

‘Diving Dolphins’ motif on suit of armour made by Milanese metalworkers, 1536 Image sourced from  http://www.cyclopaedia.org/revelation-7/dolphins-7.html No collection given. The ‘diving dolphins are a common motif from the Renaissance to the Baroque, standing for luck and good health, fulfilment in life and its promise of eternal regeneration.
‘Diving Dolphins’ motif on suit of armour made by Milanese metalworkers, 1536
Image sourced from
http://www.cyclopaedia.org/revelation-7/dolphins-7.html
No collection given.
The ‘diving dolphins are a common motif from the Renaissance to the Baroque, standing for luck and good health, fulfilment in life and its promise of eternal regeneration.

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.

Acknowledgements
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.

Notes
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

Golden Eagle

Ruskin drawings at King’s College, Cambridge: #3 The Dent d’Oche range on the south side of Lac Leman from Vevey, Switzerland

This is the third in a series of seven articles that will catalogue an important group of drawings by John Ruskin at King’s College, Cambridge. For general notes on the collection see under article #1.

3. The Dent d’Oche range on the south side of Lac Leman from Vevey, Switzerland, 1846?

John Ruskin The Dent d'Oche range on the south side of Lac Leman from Vevey, Switzerland, 1846? Pencil and watercolour, 9 3/4 x 21 ins, 252 x 530 mm (sight) King’s College, Cambridge Photograph: David Hill, by courtesy of the master of King’s College Cambridge (Double-click to enlarge; use back button to return to this page)
John Ruskin
The Dent d’Oche range on the south side of Lac Leman from Vevey, Switzerland, 1846?
Pencil and watercolour, 9 3/4 x 21 ins, 252 x 530 mm (sight)
King’s College, Cambridge
Photograph: David Hill, by courtesy of the master of King’s College Cambridge
(Double-click to enlarge; use back button to return to this page)

Pencil and watercolour, on a smooth wove paper now somewhat browned and reddened, 9 3/4 x 21 ins, 252 x 530 mm (sight) with a vertical crease 333 mm from left

With an old label on the backboard of William Mason, Carver and Gilder, Ambleside, inscribed in ink by Robert Cunliffe: ‘[On] the Lake of Geneva John Ruskin, original drawing purchased from George Allen. Robt E Cunliffe’

Backboard with label of William Mason, Carver and Gilder of Ambleside, and Robert Cunliffe’s inscription Photograph: David Hill, courtesy of the Master of King’s College, Cambridge.
Backboard with label of William Mason, Carver and Gilder of Ambleside, and Robert Cunliffe’s inscription
Photograph: David Hill, courtesy of the Master of King’s College, Cambridge.

Provenance:

The artist to

George Allen (his printer and publisher)

by whom sold c.1900 to

Robert E Cunliffe and by descent to

Guy Barton, by whom bequeathed 1981 to

King’s College, Cambridge

 

Exhibition and Publication:

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.770 as ‘GENEVA, LAKE OF:— On the Lake; w. c. (9¾ x 20¾). Mrs. Cunliffe. Exh.—R.W.S. 289.’

Connoisseur, August 1969, as Lake of Geneva, 1855?, repr.

Exh. Abbot Hall 1969 no.45 as ‘Geneva, lakes’, lent by Guy Barton.

Ruskin Newsletter, no.25, Autumn 1981, p.11 as no.2 as ‘Geneva, lakes, 9 3/4 x 20 3/4 ins’.

 

Google Earth image showing Lac Leman area, including Ruskin's viewpoint at Vevey
Google Earth image showing Lac Leman area, including Ruskin’s viewpoint at Vevey (Click to enlarge; use back button to return to this page)

 

Commentary:

Hitherto described as ‘On the Lake of Geneva’ or ‘Geneva, Lakes’, this watercolour can here be identified as recording the view across the eastern end of Lac Leman (commonly called Lake Geneva) from the south-facing wine-growing town and resort of Vevey. In it Ruskin meticulously traces the the Dent d’Oche range as seen in early morning light whilst the sun rakes across the north-facing gullies and ridges, rendering them in optimal, but fleeting, relief. Such an effect lasts only about an hour while the sun passes through the east at about 7 am, and the observation is so painstaking that it seems certain that Ruskin must have worked on this drawing on successive mornings. From left to right, the main summits are those of Le Grammont (2172m), followed by (left of centre) the isolated peaks of the Cornets de Bises (2432m), then, almost dead centre, come the lower summits of the Plan du Pre, followed by the Roc du Chateau d’Oche (2199m) and finally the Dent d’Oche (2222m). The French town of St Gingolph lies on the shore more or less directly below the Plan du Pre, but is not indicated since presumably obscured by mist over the lake. Comparison with a photograph taken from the promenade at Vevey, proves how extraordinarily accurate Ruskin’s observation was. Never before, we may be sure, had this scene been drawn with such effort to understand the mountain forms so particularly.

The Dent d’Oche Range from Vevey, Switzerland Photograph: David Hill, April 2011 (Double-click to enlarge; use back button to return to this page)
The Dent d’Oche Range from Vevey, Switzerland
Photograph: David Hill, April 2011
(Double-click to enlarge; use back button to return to this page)

 

John Ruskin The Dent d'Oche range on the south side of Lac Leman from Vevey, Switzerland, 1846? Pencil and watercolour, 9 3/4 x 21 ins, 252 x 530 mm (sight) King’s College, Cambridge Photograph: David Hill, by courtesy of the master of King’s College Cambridge
John Ruskin
The Dent d’Oche range on the south side of Lac Leman from Vevey, Switzerland, 1846?
Pencil and watercolour, 9 3/4 x 21 ins, 252 x 530 mm (sight)
King’s College, Cambridge
Photograph: David Hill, by courtesy of the master of King’s College Cambridge

 

John Ruskin The Dent d'Oche range on the south side of Lac Leman from Vevey, Switzerland (detail) Detail of peaks from Le Grammont to the Cornets des Bises.
John Ruskin
The Dent d’Oche range on the south side of Lac Leman from Vevey, Switzerland (detail)
Detail of peaks from Le Grammont to the Cornets des Bises.

 

Peaks from Le Grammont to the Cornets des Bises. Photograph: David Hill, April 2011
Peaks from Le Grammont to the Cornets des Bises.
Photograph: David Hill, April 2011

 

During the mid-1840s notions of truth became Ruskin’s core artistic and aesthetic preoccupation. He wholly committed himself to this in 1845 and during subsequent years consistently elaborated its practice. One strand (see Ruskin Drawings at King’s College, Cambridge, #2) concentrated on form in architecture, resulting in Seven Lamps of Architecture published in 1849, and Stones of Venice published in 1851-53. The other strand concentrated on form in nature and landscape, particularly mountains. The Alps were Ruskin’s principal obsession in the early 1840s, and particularly the Mont Blanc massif. He would certainly have been well aware that the mountains to the left of this prospect rose in 70 km of successive waves towards the summit of Mont Blanc. For ten years between 1846 to the publication of the fourth volume of Modern Painters in 1856 the high Alps provided the ground on which he built his philosophy of geological understanding, and for ten years afterwards saw them as so vital to his being that he thought of setting up home amongst them. The King’s College Ruskins include two of the early masterworks of that labour and two of the last (to be treated as Ruskin Drawings at King’s College, Cambridge, #4, #5, #7) and another the product of him actually implementing his plan to live amongst the mountains (Ruskin Drawings at King’s College, Cambridge, #6).

The drawing can securely be dated to the mid-1840s on stylistic grounds. It has a much greater sense of volumetric form than drawings before 1845 and rather less graphic confidence than drawings after 1846. In 1845 Ruskin visited Vevey only as a stage on his journey home from Venice. He was tired, suffering from a cold, travelling with all haste, and it seems impossible that this can have been made on that occasion. In 1846 however he made a stay of several days in early to mid-August. He was working much more at his leisure, accompanied by his parents, and enjoying all the pleasures of the resort: We can confidently ascribe the drawing to this visit.

The visit of 1846 was his fourth. He visited with his parents during their first two continental tours of 1833 and 1835. On the first occasion they were recrossing the Alps after exploring Italy and as a prelude to further exploration of Switzerland at Lausanne, Fribourg, Bern and Interlaken. In 1835 they arrived on 24 July following a crossing of the St Bernard to Aosta and Courmayeur. They stayed four days and then moved on to Yverdun through Lausanne. Ruskin recorded in his diary that it was very warm and he extolled the view of lake and mountains observing a red haze above the water. Later in the same tour they looped back through Vevey on 8 Sept, but on that occasion it was wet.

Ruskin’s early visits to the Alps opened his eyes only to the hills. To his youthful impatience the resorts such as Vevey seemed fit abode only for the Devil and his tribe; a place of luxury and indolence, designed to divert him from his higher destiny. In Poetry of Architecture, 1837-8 he described the north shore of Lake Geneva ‘as monotonous a piece of vine country as any in Europe, studded with villas’ (Works 1/160) In a letter of 1843 (note 1) he prescribed a tour of the Alps for the painter George Richmond but was very offhand about Vevey, saying that Richmond could go there if he liked, but that the south shore at St Gingolph was far superior. In 1844 he travelled to the Alps with his parents who made themselves comfortable at Vevey whilst Ruskin went on an independent tour to Chamonix to grapple with the environs of Mont Blanc. They met up again at Geneva and there is no evidence of him visiting Vevey at all in that year. In 1845, although he only passed through Vevey returning home, he had begun to mellow to the pleasures of such places, and to be able to relax and find valuable work in the environs. There was indeed much to enjoy and in which to luxuriate. In 1842 the Hotel des Trois Couronnes was rebuilt as a neo-classical palace on the lake shore and (by all accounts) remains, with a neo-baroque makeover in 1890, one of the most palatial hotels in Europe.

The Promenade at Vevey, with the Trois Couronnes Hotel Photograph: David Hill, April 2011 The Trois Couronnes was Ruskin’s regular resort at Vevey. The King’s watercolour was probably made from one of its lakefront rooms.
The Promenade at Vevey, with the Trois Couronnes Hotel
Photograph: David Hill, April 2011
The Trois Couronnes was Ruskin’s regular resort at Vevey. The King’s watercolour was probably made from one of its lakefront rooms.

 

Later when in his seventies and writing his autobiography Praeterita, Ruskin remembered Vevey fondly, both on his own account and as one of his parents’ favourite places:

I have already told how fond my father was of staying at the Trois Couronnes of Vevay,when I was up among the aiguilles of Chamouni. In later years, I acknowledged his better taste, and would contentedly stay with him at Vevay, as long as he liked,—myself always perfectly happy in the fields and on the hillsides round the Château Blonay. Also, my father and mother were quite able at any time to get up as far as Blonay themselves; and usually walked so far with me when I was intent on the higher hills,— waiting, they, and our old servant, Lucy Tovey,1 (whom we took abroad with us sometimes that she might see the places we were always talking of,) until I had done my bit of drawing or hammering, and we all went down together, through the vineyards, to four o’clock dinner; then the evening was left free for me to study the Dent d’Oche and chains of crag declining southwards to Geneva, by sunset.

Thus Vevay, year after year, became the most domestic of all our foreign homes. At Venice, my mother always thought the gondola would upset; at Chamouni, my father, that I should fall into the Mer de Glace; at Pisa, he would ask me, “What shall I give the coachman?” and at Florence, dispute the delightfulness of Cimabue. But at Vevay, we were all of a mind. My father was professionally at home in the vineyards,—sentimentally in the Bosquet de Julie; my mother liked apple orchards and narcissus meads as much as I did; and for me, there was the Dent du Midi, for eternal snow, in the distance; the Rochers de Naye, for climbing, accessibly near; Chillon for history and poetry; and the lake, in the whole breadth of it from Lausanne to Meillerie, for Turnerian mist effects of morning, and Turnerian sunsets at evening; and moonlights,—as if the moon were one radiant glacier of frozen gold. Then if one wanted to go to Geneva for anything, there were little steamers,—no mortal would believe, now, how little; one used to be afraid an extra basket of apples would be too much for them, when the pier was full of market people. They called at all the places along the north shore, mostly for country folks; and often their little cabins were quite empty. English people thought the lake of Geneva too dull, if they had ever more than an hour of it (note 2).

My photograph of Ruskin’s view was taken from the promenade in front of the Trois Couronnes. It seems highly likely that the present watercolour was actually made from Ruskin’s room in the hotel.

Our knowledge of Ruskin’s exact itinerary in 1846 is currently patchy. His own diary is fragmentary for this year, but he spent the first part of summer in Italy before heading north into the Alps, no doubt as the summer heat came on. It has one entry written at Vevey on 10 August recording a walk over the hills:

Long walk over the hills between here and the Dent de Jaman [i.e Mont Cubly, towards Les Avants], remarkable for abundant springs and stoneless pasture with splendid pines; the latter on the higher hills distorted and thrown into grand excrescences of trunk, six or eight feet over, with two or three trees growing out of them. Out of one, with many of its branches in full foliage, grew also a large mountain ash, eight or ten feet from the ground where it started from the pine trunk; another smaller shoot below. As I was drinking at a fountain in descending, a peasant standing by said gracefully and solemnly, ‘Qui-conque boira de cette eau-ci aura encore soif, mais celui qui bora de ‘l eau que je lui donnerai, n’aura jamais soif’ (note3).

The passage is isolated between previous entries at Florence on 7 June, and Chamonix on 23 August. Greater detail may be furnished by a diary of the tour kept by John Thomas Hobbs (‘George’), Ruskin’s valet, at the Morgan Library (MA 2539). The diary comprises p.1-166 of a 256 p volume and covers the dates 2 April to 5 October 1846, presumably in some detail. This looks like a potentially useful source, but little has ever been published.

There are a few dated drawings of subjects from this visit. The first is a study of pines dated 10 August at the Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster, evidently taken on the walk mentioned in the diary (note 4). Another drawing at the Ruskin library is dated 12 August and records the nearby Chateau de Blonay (note 5).

On 12 August he wrote to his friend W H Harrison from Vevey:

My drawings are truth to the very letter—too literal, perhaps; so says my father, so says not the Daguerreotype, for it beats me grievously. I have allied myself with it; sith it may no better be… It is certainly the most marvellous invention of the century… As regards art, I wish it had never been discovered, it will make the eye too fastidious to accept mere handling (Works 3/210).

On 13 August he made a now untraced drawing of the Dent d’Oche range from above Vevey (note 6), possibly similar to the drawing presently under discussion, and on 15 August he made and dated a drawing of the of Dent d’Oche range from Les Pleiades above Vevey now at the Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster. This makes interesting comparison with the present drawing, for it shows almost exactly the same mountains but from a much higher viewpoint, and from further east.

John Ruskin The Dent d'Oche range on the south side of Lac Leman from Les Pleiades above Vevey, 15 August 1846 Pencil and watercolour, 3 1/4 x 9 1/2 ins, 82 x 241 mm Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster (RF1081) Photo courtesy of the Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster
John Ruskin
The Dent d’Oche range on the south side of Lac Leman from Les Pleiades above Vevey, 15 August 1846
Pencil and watercolour, 3 1/4 x 9 1/2 ins, 82 x 241 mm
Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster (RF1081)
Photo courtesy of the Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster
Shows the same mountains as the King’s drawing, but from a rather higher viewpoint, and a couple of kilometres further left.

 

John Ruskin The Dent d'Oche range on the south side of Lac Leman from Vevey, Switzerland, 1846? Pencil and watercolour, 9 3/4 x 21 ins, 252 x 530 mm (sight) King’s College, Cambridge Photograph: David Hill, by courtesy of the master of King’s College Cambridge
John Ruskin
The Dent d’Oche range on the south side of Lac Leman from Vevey, Switzerland, 1846?
Pencil and watercolour, 9 3/4 x 21 ins, 252 x 530 mm (sight)
King’s College, Cambridge
Photograph: David Hill, by courtesy of the master of King’s College Cambridge

 

The present drawing represents a more prolonged consideration, but it is possible to gain a real sense of the three-dimensional forms of the hills in the comparison. This was a fundamental part of Ruskin’s practice. He felt that such knowledge of the form was essential to drawing it correctly. He had already quartered the compass around Mont Blanc from near and far, and in his letter to George Richmond of 1843 he contrived to introduce the mountain to his friend from a variety of vantage points so as to build up such a knowledge in his mind (note 7). He ruminated over this for a number of years and implemented it in his thorough examination of the Matterhorn in 1849, which informed a detailed discussion of the problem in the fourth volume of Modern Painters published in 1856, and allowed him to that no-one before him, including level-headed geologists had understood the particularity of mountain form sufficiently to see it correctly (note 8).

The reference to the daguerreotype in the letter indicates that he was developing the interest in the medium that he started in Venice in 1845 (see Ruskin Drawings at King’s College, Cambridge, #2). The letter indicates that he had collected further examples of architectural subjects in Italy, and tantalises us that he might have bought examples taken at Vevey, but if so none appear to have survived to this day. Nevertheless it is clear that he was thinking about the potential redundancy of his extended labour in work such as this. At this early stage in his considerations, he wondered at the effortlessness with which the photographic process could record visual appearances. For him to attempt the same required exhausting attention and conceptual effort, and still in some respects fell short. In the comparison between these two drawings, however, we may see that his drawing was an apparatus for perceptual engagement. As his commentary on photography developed he came to realise the superiority of drawing as a mental practice, and to understand ‘mere handling’ as the articulation of perceptual depth (note 9).

Ruskin furthered his study of the scenery at the head of the lake with another large drawing. This was owned by Sir John Simon, an eminent Doctor of Medicine Sir John Simon, and close friend of Ruskin from the 1850s. It was reproduced in sepia in the Library Edition of Ruskin’s works, Vol.5 pl.E, with the note that it was then in America, but is currently untraced.

John Ruskin The Head of Lac Leman from off Vevey, 1846 Watercolour, 8 x 18 ½ ins Untraced Reproduced here from The Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin, 1903-13, Volume 5, plate E. Effectively continuing the field of view of the King’s drawing to the left. This must have been taken from a boat in the middle of the lake, since the Dents du Midi are hidden behind the hills to the right. Ruskin was a strong rower, and took to the water at every opportunity.
John Ruskin
The Head of Lac Leman from off Vevey, 1846
Watercolour, 8 x 18 ½ ins
Untraced
Reproduced here from The Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin, 1903-13, Volume 5, plate E.
Effectively continuing the field of view of the King’s drawing to the left. This must have been taken from a boat in the middle of the lake, since the Dents du Midi are hidden behind the hills to the right. Ruskin was a strong rower, and took to the water at every opportunity.

 

The head of Lac Leman from Vevey. Photograph: David Hill, April 2011. Showing how prominent are the Dents du Midi from the promenade at Vevey.
The head of Lac Leman from Vevey.
Photograph: David Hill, April 2011.
Showing how prominent are the Dents du Midi from the promenade at Vevey.

 

This records a rather grand sweep of the Head of Lac Leman, and effectively continues the field of view of the present drawing to the right. It is of particular interest is that is taken from the Lake itself. We can be sure of that for the Dents du Midi, which dominate the view of the head of Lac Leman as seen from the shore at Vevey, are hidden behind the slopes to the right. This only occurs when considerably more than a mile off shore. Ruskin was a strong oarsman, and enjoyed being out on the water, and such a distance would have been well within his capabilities. It is intriguing that Ruskin chose to work up this specific view rather than that from the shore. After all, in the view from the shore the Dents du Midi cut an especially dramatic profile for a subject. In those respects Ruskin’s subject in the Simon drawing was decidedly inferior. He presumably expected that any informed viewer would recognise the particularity of his position, and realise that Ruskin’s storyline was at least as much about the view point as the view. Floating in this vast basin between the mountains, surrendered and sundered to the sublime.

Ruskin returned to Vevey on numerous occasions in later years, and made several fine studies there, besides composing a number of very fine pieces of writing in the rooms of the Trois Couronnes. Two pictures are worth detailing here as being directly related.

The first is a drawing at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (1987-19) called ‘Head of Lake Geneva’. This is an extraordinarily intense and graphically fluent study of the mountains sloping down to the southern shore of Lac Leman as seen from Vevey, and most likely from Ruskin’s rooms in the Trois Couronnes. These slopes are effectively the continuation to the left of the field of view of the present drawing, or the same slopes as seen at the far right of the Sir John Simon drawing. When exhibited at the Royal Academy exhibition of The Great Age of British Watercolours in 1993 (no.246, repr. In catalogue as pl.164) the Rijksmuseum drawing was dated c.1846, but this seems too early. In style it sits much better with an extended series of studies made at Chamonix, Zermatt and around the Head of Lac Leman in 1849.

The second is a study at Birmingham Art Gallery (1958P16) ‘Vevey, Lake Geneva’, dated ‘Vevey May 2[?]th’. The current online catalogue:

http://www.preraphaelites.org/the-collection/1958P16/vevey-lake-geneva-sketch-of-a-window/

dates it to 1846 and says: ‘Although there is no firm identification of the subject, it is likely that this watercolour depicts a view of Lake Geneva looking out from the town of Vevey, located at the northern end of the lake. A faint inscription at the bottom of the paper reads ‘Vevey May 2[?]th’ suggesting that this identification is the correct one.’ The subject is in fact exactly the same view of the mountains on the south shore of Lac Leman as the Rijksmueum study albeit under misty conditions. The inscription dates it to 1849 by the fact that this was the only occasion on which he was at Vevey during the last ten days of May.

It is beyond the scope of the current article to make any more extended study of Ruskin’s associations with Vevey but it would certainly be worth dwelling on (and indeed in) Vevay at some length. As Ruskin would have said, DV that may come to pass.

Notes:

Thanks to Professor Stephen Wildman, director of the Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster, for permission to reproduce  and Jen Shepherd, administrator for swift supply of, The Dent d’Oche range from Les Pleiades above Vevey (RF1081), above.

1              See David Hill, ‘Perfection I should call it: A personal Guide to the Alps by John Ruskin’, an annotated and illustrated edition of a major early letter by John Ruskin to George Richmond – in British Art Journal, 13/1, Summer 2012, pp.54-67.

2          Reminiscence of narcissus meads at Vevey in Praeterita, Works 35/168 and of father at Vevey in Works 35/517-8: Mentions writing this passage in a letter to C.E.Norton of 24 June 1886, Works 37/567.

3              The Diary entries here are generally quoted from Evans and Whitehouse (eds), The Diaries of John Ruskin, 3 vols. Oxford University Press, 1956. The original diaries relating to 1846 are at the Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster, Ms3, Ms5c, and Ms7.

4              Study of Pines at Vevey, 1846, Pencil, ink and ink wash, 6 ½ x 9 ½ ins, 165 x 240 mm, Lancaster, Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster, RF 1672.

5              Chateau de Blonay, above Vevey, Switzerland, 1846, Pencil and watercolour on buff paper, 6 1/4 X 8 ½ ins, 159 x 216 mm, Lancaster, Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster RF 876.

6              The untraced drawing of 13 August may be adduced from an inscription on the drawing of 15 August at the Ruskin Library. That sheet is inscribed at the top right ‘Vevey August 13’ but that date obviously relates to a drawing that was formerly on the same sheet, but separated at some point, leaving its date behind. Below that inscription is another that records the relationship between the remaining drawing and that now lost: ‘same range seen from a/ higher point/ Aug 15th’. The implication is that the lost drawing of 13 August showed the same material as that remaining, but from a lower viewpoint, closer to Vevey.

7              Hill 2012, op cit.

8              See especially his account of working out the Matterhorn in Modern Painters, Volume IV, 1856, chapters XIV ‘Aiguilles’ and XVI ‘Precipices’.

9              Compare, e.g. the summary of Ruskin’s later sense of the superiority of drawing given by Michael Harvey in ‘Ruskin and Photography’, Oxford Art Journal, Vol.7, no.2, 1984, p.31 ff.

Ruskin Vevey detail #250

Ruskin drawings at King’s College, Cambridge: #2 Window in the Ca’ Foscari, Venice

This is the second in a series of seven articles that will catalogue an important group of drawings by John Ruskin at King’s College, Cambridge. For general notes on the collection see under article #1.

2. Window in the Ca’ Foscari, Venice, 1845

John Ruskin A Window in the Ca' Foscari, Venice, 1845 Pencil, pen and ink and watercolour, 13 x 9 3/4 ins, 330 x 236 mm King's College, Cambridge Photo: David Hill, courtesy of the Master and Provost of King's College.
John Ruskin
Window in the Ca’ Foscari, Venice, 1845
Pencil, pen and ink and watercolour, 13 x 9 3/4 ins, 330 x 236 mm
King’s College, Cambridge
Photograph: David Hill
By courtesy of the Master of King’s College, Cambridge.

Pencil, pen and ink and watercolour on white (or buff) wove paper measured 12.07.2012 by DH (sight) 330 x 236 mm, 13 x 9 1/4 ins. Found framed in original William Mason frame and backboard, but with a newer mount in need of changing, and a quantity of debris under the glass.

Inscribed in Ink, lower left: ‘Ca’ Foscari No.3′ and in grey watercolour, above; ‘cable thus not as at n [i.e. below right, under capital]’, in pencil, top right; ‘cusp’, ‘section at 1 and at 2’ and in ink; ‘cusp’, ‘section at 1 and 2/ alike and inside the/same’.

With an old label on the backboard of William Mason, Carver and Gilder, Ambleside, inscribed in ink by Robert Cunliffe: ‘SL [i.e. Seven Lamps of Architecture, published 1849] Window in Ca’ Foscari Venice original drawing by J Ruskin from which Plate VIII of Seven Lamps was made purchased from Miss H Baillie’

Window of the Ca' Foscari, Venice, 1845 Detail of backboard, with the label of William Mason of Ambleside, who framed the watercolour for Robert E Cunliffe about 1900.
Window in the Ca’ Foscari, Venice, 1845
Detail of backboard, with the label of William Mason of Ambleside, who framed the watercolour for Robert E Cunliffe about 1900.

Provenance:

The artist to

Miss H Baillie by whom sold c.1900 to

Robert E Cunliffe and by descent to

Guy Barton, by whom bequeathed 1981 to

King’s College, Cambridge

Exhibition and Publication:

John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1849, pl.VIII (and pl.IV), pp. 88-9, 203.

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.1825 as ‘Casa Foscari:—  Window (1845); w. c. Mrs. Cunliffe. Etched in 8, Pl. 8. Ref., 8, 94, 132, 166.’

Exh. Abbot Hall 1969 no.88 as Window in Casa Foscari, Venice, 1845, lent by Guy Barton.

Ruskin Newsletter, no.25, Autumn 1981, p.11 as no.7 as ‘Venice – Window in the Casa Foscari’.

Commentary:

This study is devoted to a single window of the Ca’ Foscari in Venice. More specifically, it is devoted to the window on the second floor (third storey) of the Grand Canal frontage immediately to the left of the balcony.

Google Earth image of Ca' Foscari from the Grand Canal. Ruskin's window is in the second floor, to the left of the balcony.
Google Earth image of Ca’ Foscari from the Grand Canal. Ruskin’s window is on the second floor, to the left of the balcony.

In the context, this might well seem like a remarkably abstruse approach to the site. Ca’ Foscari is a grand Gothic palace built in 1452 by Doge Francesco Foscari on the lower bend of the Grand Canal, closing the view from the Rialto Bridge down the grandest stretch of water in the whole city.

Ca@ Foscari from the Rialto, Venice. Photograph: David Hill (2008)
Ca’ Foscari from the Rialto, Venice.
Photograph: David Hill (2008)

The palace was one of Ruskin’s principal subjects during his visit of 1845 and he devoted several days to its study. This is one of a series of studies that he made at this time and one of the most beautiful and interesting. On this visit he first awoke to the urgency of recording the Byzantine and Gothic remains of Venice before the hand of the restorer or the simple work of time destroyed the original fabric.

Architectural study was not principal purpose of Ruskin’s continental tour of 1845. He spent a long summer studying art for the second volume of Modern Painters. The first volume had been published in 1843, and made him conscious that his art-historical knowledge and experience was lacking. So he committed himself to a taxing itinerary through the major art centres of Italy and arrived in Venice as the finale to study the great Venetian painters of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. He accumulated insight, information and perspective on the tour– and a good deal this duly found its way into the second volume of Modern Painters published in 1846, but he also learned a very great deal about the complexities of ways in which artistic representation could relate to reality. He determined to dedicate his own practice to investigative analysis and understanding. The lessons that he abstracted from that practice were to inform later volumes of Modern Painters. Alongside that, however, following the discoveries that he made in Venice this year, he devoted himself to architecture. The first result of that was his book Seven Lamps of Architecture published in 1849, and that served as a platform from which to launch himself into an intense study of Venice culminating in the three volumes of The Stones of Venice, published 1849-53.

Ruskin explored Venice in 1845 in the company of the artist James Duffield Harding. Ruskin had taken lessons from him in the 1840s, and fashioned his early style in watercolour largely on Harding’s example. They met up on 24 August whilst Ruskin was enjoying a break amongst the mountains of Lago Maggiore (see #1 Isola di Dan Giovanni) and together they travelled on to Venice, arriving on 10 September. Ruskin put up at the Hotel de l’Europe overlooking the Grand Canal, and stayed until 14 October, sketching regularly with Harding.

The tour of 1845 is exceptionally well documented in a series of letters to his father. These were edited and published by Harold Shapiro in Ruskin in Italy, Letters to his Parents, 1845 (1972). Through these we can see that Ruskin’s artistic endeavours in 1845 opened up quite a number of deep issues for the direction of his own practice. Now in his mid-twenties, he began to find himself at odds with much established practice. Through his own extended exercises, he came to see drawing as a process of enquiry, always demanding, often difficult, sometimes soul-destroying, but always driven by the promise of substantive insight, even revelation. One immediate consequence of this was that he realised that most artists – Harding included – fell far short of his own emerging standards of enquiry. In a letter written from Baveno a couple of days after Harding had arrived, he wrote:

I am very glad to have Harding with me & we are going to Venice together – but I am in a curious position with him, being actually writing criticisms on his works for publication, whilst I dare not say the same things openly to his face – not because I would not, but because he does not like the blame, & it does him no good. Yet on my side, it discourages me a little, for Harding does pretty things, such desirable things to have, such pleasant things to show, that when I looked at my portfolio afterwards, & saw the poor result of the immense time I have spent, the brown, laboured, melancholy, uncovetable things that I have struggled through, it vexed me mightily, and yet I am sure I am on a road that leads higher than his, but it is infernally steep, & one stumbles on it perpetually. I beat him dead however at a sketch of a sky this afternoon – there is one essential difference between us. His sketches are always pretty because he balances their parts together & considers them as pictures – mine are always ugly, for I consider my sketch only as a written note of certain facts, & those I put down in the rudest and clearest way as many as possible. Hence, my habits of copying are much more accurate than his, & when, as this afternoon, there is anything to be done which is not arrangeable nor manageable, I shall beat him, but when I looked over my sketches last night – I am afraid you will be sadly, sadly disappointed. I am going to try, now, to get a few a little more agreeable and less full of struggle and effort (note 1).

The letters from Venice show that his resolve to do something more ‘artistic’ was quickly sidelined by the impact that Venice made upon him. He had made two previous visits with his parents, the first in 1835 when he was sixteen, and the most recent in 1841.  Now it seemed as if a millennium had passed, and that the golden age of youth had given way to an age of strife, venality, and almost universal blindness to the perception of anything fine or good. The dominating themes of his mature career burst upon him almost whole as he sailed out onto the lagoon from Mestre and saw the new railway bridge to the mainland looking for all the world like the Greenwich railway cutting through south London; ‘only with less arches and more dead wall, entirely cutting off the whole open sea & half the city, which now looks as nearly as possible like Liverpool at the end of the dockyard wall.’  As he passed under the Rialto Bridge he was aghast to discover ‘Birmingham-fashion’ gas lamps illuminating the Grand Canal up to the Foscari Palace. He realised quickly that Venice was in a period of significant change and modernisation, and he feared for the prelapsarian world he remembered.

On the 11th he noted that ‘The Foscari is all but a total ruin – the rents in the walls are half a foot wide’ but at least that was better than the botched restoration work that was going on at the Ca d’Oro, the Doges’ Palace or at St Mark’s. Almost setting aside his intended work on the Venetian artists, he set to work to record as much of the disappearing fabric as he could in the brief time he could squeeze out of this visit. He made a priority of the Ca Foscari, it being as yet untouched by the restorers.

Poor Harding can hardly have known what hit him. Ruskin rose at 4.30 a.m., so as to be at work at 5.30, commandeering gondoliers to their sole service. On the 16th he forewarned his father that he should need more money for it was expensive work. On the 17th he remarked that he and Harding were progressing well with their work at Ca’ Foscari but he was already aware that Harding was not as wedded as he to the study of particulars:

Harding & I shall do the Foscari pretty well between us. I have got the architecture – mouldings, capitals & all. I began it small. Harding said I should frighten the Daguerreotype into fits, and Coutet (note 2) said ‘Ca ne le resemble pas, c’est la meme chose.’ I found it impossible however to accomplish it so completely, and I am therefore taking large studies of the most interesting parts, leaving the rest to sketch in lightly.

Ruskin’s obsession with finding out his subject developed into a condition of some eccentricity, as he admitted on the 20th September: ‘The outside drawing takes me a terrible time, for it is no use to me unless I have it right out & know all about it. I have gone so far as to gather and draw the weeds that grow on the old Foscari.’

Harding left on the 24th September, but before doing so made a present to Ruskin of a drawing of the Ca’ Foscari. It is something of a frustration that this cannot now be traced. Ruskin worked desperately on, thinking himself in a race against time, but by the 1 October he began to realise the impossibility of realising his artistic ideal:

I am thoroughly thrown on my back with the Palazzo Foscari – don’t know what the deuce to do with it. I have all its measures and mouldings & that is something, but I can’t get on with the general view. I began it as it should be done, taking plenty time..  But this wouldn’t do at all. I should have taken a month to do it & now I can find no expedient nor mode of getting at it that will give me what I want. To take the outline is what has been done a thousand times – the beauty of it is in the cracks and the stains, and to draw these out is impossible and I am in despair….I see things about five times as beautiful as I used to do, and as I can’t draw much better, I am reduced to knocking my fists together and moaning. I shall come away soon now I think. – it’s no use stopping.’

On the 4th October he reflected: ‘I suppose… [I am] trying to do too much, & yet it is just this too much that I want, for as to taking common loose sketches in a hackneyed place like Venice, it is utter folly. One wants just what other artists have not done, & what I am as yet nearly unable to do.’  It is perhaps unfortunate that he could not see that he really was achieving something significant in the area that others had not., but yet the phrase ‘near unable’ is interesting for it suggests that he felt himself close.

He left on 14 October, feeling better about his accomplishments. The weather was fine during his last two weeks, and he remedied the problem of not getting down the general view of his subjects by buying a quantity of daguerreotypes. This photographic process was very new. It had been first patented in 1839, and specialists began to popularise the medium from about 1842. Not that the early exponents all made fortunes. Quite the reverse, as we hear in Ruskin’s report of 7th October:

I have been lucky enough to get from a poor Frenchman here, said to be in distress, some most beautiful, though small, Daguerreotypes of the palaces I have been trying to draw – and certainly Daguerreotypes taken by this vivid sunlight are glorious things. It is very nearly the same as carrying off the palace itself – every chip of stone & stain is there – and, of course, there is no mistake about proportions. I am very much delighted with these and am going to have some more made of pet bits. It is a noble invention, say what they will of it, and any one who has worked and blundered and stammered as I have for four days, and then sees the thing he has been trying to do so long in vain, done perfectly & faultlessly in half a minute, won’t abuse it afterwards.’

One of Ruskin’s daguerreotypes of Ca Foscari survives in the collection of Ken and Jenny Jacobson. I have not been able to see it yet, but it is to be included in a forthcoming book by them that will provide a comprehensive treatment of Ruskin’s collection of daguerreotypes. This is due to be published later this year, and I hope to be able to include an illustration here, and to consider the relationship with the drawing, after the book has been published (note 3).

Picking through the references to Ca’ Foscari in the letters, it is clear that Ruskin compiled a systematic series of studies of details, besides at least one attempt at the whole. The present is drawing is inscribed ‘No.3’, but only one other numbered example is known, No.4, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (note 4), which records a fourth storey window with weeds growing on its lower sill. That watercolour is included in this year’s John Ruskin: Artist and Observer exhibition (note 5, and see article no.1, introduction) and is reproduced in colour. It is the very epitome of Ruskin falling in love with the cracks and stains, though perhaps located in a more conventional tradition of the picturesque than the present drawing.  Numbers ‘1’ and ‘2’ have never been noted, nor, indeed any number ‘5’ or higher.

Cook and Wedderburn recorded several Ca Foscari subjects in their catalogue of works by Ruskin in the Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin (Vol.38, p.293):

Casa Foscari:—

Casa Foscari (1845); w. c. (14 x 17½). South Kensington Museum. [1818]

Inscribed: “Ca Foscari, No. 4, Sept. 1845.” For a ref. to R.’s drawing the Palace in company with Harding, see 8, 131 n.

Casa Foscari and the Frari (1876); pencil and tint (20 x 13). Mrs. Cunliffe. Exh.—Coniston 197, R.W.S. 109, M. 96. [1819]

“R.’s note on the drawing is ‘left off beaten.’ He generally knew when to leave off, and what to leave out. Of one of his best Venetian drawings, he often said, ‘What a nice sketch it would have been if— had not persuaded me to put in a sky!’ And here enough is given to show the great mass of building in difficult perspective effect. The gondola was separately studied in a coloured drawing—so much time and trouble was spent over the work.”—Manchester Catal.

Balcony: detail drawing; wash. Exh.—M. 249. [1820]

Capitals of third story (Sept. 1845); wash (14 x 8). Brantwood. Exh.—R. W. S. 237, F.A.S. 141. [1821]

Detail drawing; pencil and white. Exh.—M. 242. [1822]

Detail drawing; wash. Exh.—M. 292. [1823]

Study of living foliage (Sept. 19, 1845); w. c. (9¾ x 14½). S. C. Cockerell. [1824]

Window (1845); w. c. Mrs. Cunliffe. Etched in 8, Pl. 8. Ref., 8, 94, 132, 166. [1825]

Details of Window. Etched in 8, Pl. 4, fig. 8. [1826]

Sadly, very few of these can be identified today. The present drawing is no.1825, at this time in the collection of Robert Cunliffe’s widow, he having died in 1902. The V&A drawing is no. 1818. Quite where the remaining material might be is unclear. There is at least one study of Ca’ Foscari in Ruskin’s notebooks for the 1845 tour, which survive at the Ruskin Library at the University of Lancaster (note 6). This is a study of the interior of the river court – now the reception area of the University of Venice – and is reproduced in The Diaries of John Ruskin, 1956, volume 1, pl.19. This shows the building reduced to less exalted purposes, filled with miscellaneous timbers and fragments of masonry, and its windows closed with crude shuttering. I have not yet had chance to work through whatever other drawings of Ca’ Foscari (if any) the notebooks might contain, but I hope to do that on my next visit to the Ruskin Library, and will report any discoveries here. Of the things listed by Cook and Wedderburn that one might most like to find is the ‘Study of Living foliage’ then in the collection of S.C.Cockerell. Ruskin mentioned this in a letter to his father of 20 September and it would be nice to be able to exemplify his eccentricity.

Ruskin described the subject of the main drawing as ‘one of the lateral windows of the third storey of the Palazzo Foscari. It was drawn from the opposite side of the Grand Canal, and the lines of its traceries are therefore given as they appear in somewhat distant effect’ (note 7). Despite Ruskin’s sense of being limited to only the distant effect, his observations appear remarkably specific. The Grand Canal frontage of the Ca’ Foscari faces just a little north of east so the sun goes round to the left and rakes across it towards noon as seen here before moving round to plunge the front into indirect light. Ruskin has taken elaborate care to record the way in which the light, high to the left, picks out the detail. He even notices that a large chunk has fallen away from the right hand part of the ogee and that the stone surface is pitted and corroded in places so as not to reflect the light fully.

Window of the Ca'Foscari, Venie, 1845 detail of damaged masonry Photograph: David Hill by courtesy of the Master and Provost of King's College
Window of the Ca’Foscari, Venie, 1845
detail of damaged masonry
Photograph: David Hill
By courtesy of the Master of King’s College, Cambridge

He records missing pieces of moulding and chips and cracks all over (note 8). He also remarked that the glazing was generally set deep behind the tracery so as not to interfere with the clarity with which the traceries articulated the division of light and dark (note 9).  In this case the shutters in the upper part of the window are open – that to the right reflects the sky, and below the drapes flap out of the opening. The lower part is glazed and the casement closed, so that the glass reflects blue, in contrast to the lamp black and brown space of the interior as above.

Window in the Ca' Foscari, Venice Detail of glazing Photograph: David Hill By courtesy of the Master and Provost of King's College, Cambridge
Window in the Ca’ Foscari, Venice, 1845
Detail of glazing
Photograph: David Hill
By courtesy of the Master of King’s College, Cambridge

For someone situated at the far side of the canal this is sharp observation, but perhaps his identification of the viewpoint, and the implied constraint of a ‘somewhat distant effect’ is intended to signal the necessity of overcoming the limitations of such a situation (note 10). The other drawings on the sheet record a closer examination of the fabric. At the bottom right is a close study of the carved foliage of one of its capitals.

Window in the Ca' Foscari, Venice, 1845 Detail of left capital Photograph: David Hill By courtesy of the Master and Pprovost of King's College, Cambridge
Window in the Ca’ Foscari, Venice, 1845
Detail of left capital
Photograph: David Hill
By courtesy of the Master of King’s College, Cambridge

Specifically this can be identified as that of the left-hand shaft of the window. This is established by the viewpoint which is quite close and below to the right. The only practical vantage point is the balcony of the central range of windows on that storey. The sheet also contains sections of the mouldings at the top right through two points in the tracery of the upper window and below that through the moulding just above the capital. Above the drawing of the capital Ruskin also made a separate detailed study of the light as it picked out the details of the moulding, and later expressed the opinion that that it was the grandest moulding to catch the light in of any that he had found in Venice (note 11).

Window in the Ca' Foscari, Venice, 1845 Detail of the sections of mouldings Photograph: David Hill By courtesy of the Master and Provost of King's College, Cambridge
Window in the Ca’ Foscari, Venice, 1845
Detail of the sections of mouldings
Photograph: David Hill
By courtesy of the Master of King’s College, Cambridge

Finally he realised that even his detailed study of the capital failed to register the finest part of the detail. In reviewing his treatment of the rope twist carving on the return below the capital he noticed that his treatment, albeit taken from a close viewpoint, was still merely generic. As he remarked in a letter to his father on 14 September, St Mark’s had a good deal of very fine rope-twist carving, made and given educated form by a maritime culture. He took pains in this study to record its form in sufficient detail to articulate properly the sensibility that informed it: ‘Cable thus not as a n’.

Window in the Ca' Foscari, Venice, 1845 Detail of rope-twist carving Photograph: David Hill By courtesy of teh Master and Provost of King's College, Cambridge
Window in the Ca’ Foscari, Venice, 1845
Detail of rope-twist carving
Photograph: David Hill
By courtesy of the Master of King’s College, Cambridge

It is hard to imagine many of today’s visitors to Venice being interested in such arcana. Ruskin’s belief, however, was that such attention is important. The medieval builders and masons demonstrated it and founded their whole aesthetic on it. The Renaissance, he came to believe, replaced that with mensuration and mechanical modes of production, and his own age age (perhaps even more so our own) languished in insentience. As he further remarked to his father on 14 September: ‘the modern work (note 12) has set its plague spot everywhere – the moment you begin to feel, some gaspipe business forces itself on the eye, and you are thrust into the 19th century.’

After completing the second volume of Modern Painters in 1846 Ruskin conceived a larger plan to make a similar impact in the field of architecture as he had in the field of art. After all, he could see plainly that public awareness in architecture was equally requiring of some development, if not rebuilding from the ground up. In many ways the present drawing represents the point of discovery of this new mission, and it is perhaps significant that in the first published product, Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1849, Ruskin chose to include an engraving of this sketch as one of its key illustrations. It is not, after all as if the window figures large as a subject in the text. On the contrary, Ruskin has only one or two direct comments to make. It is more that the image itself functioned as powerful testimony to the intensity of scrutiny that he was advocating, the closeness of his material observation, and the informed and educated frame that rendered such stuff vital and instinct with significance.

John Ruskin Window in the Ca' Foscari, Venice Softground etching by John Ruskin ppublished in the first edition of Seven Lamps of Architecture in 1849. Photograph: David Hill
John Ruskin
Window in the Ca’ Foscari, Venice
Softground etching by John Ruskin published in the first edition of Seven Lamps of Architecture, 1849.
Photograph: David Hill

Ruskin was surprisingly diffident about the illustrations for Seven Lamps. This despite the fact that he personally engraved the images in softground, the etching medium that most directly transmits the quality of the hand at work in making the image. The prints from these plates only ever appeared in the first edition, and despite the fact that they are the most vivaciously drawn and considered etchings of his whole career, he did not have the confidence in them that they deserved.  In the Preface to Seven Lamps he admitted:

Every apology is, however, due to the reader for the hasty and imperfect execution of the plates. Having much more serious work in hand, and desiring merely to render them illustrative of my meaning, I have sometimes very completely failed even of that humble aim; and the text, being generally written before the illustration was completed, sometimes naïvely describes as sublime or beautiful, features which the plate represents by a blot. I shall be grateful if the reader will in such cases refer the expressions of praise to the Architecture, and not to the illustration. § 3. So far, however, as their coarseness and rudeness admit, the plates are valuable; being either copies of memoranda made upon the spot. For the accuracy of the rest I can answer, even to the cracks in the stones, and the number of them; and though the looseness of the drawing, and the picturesque character which is necessarily given by an endeavour to draw old buildings as they actually appear, may perhaps diminish their credit for architectural veracity, they will do so unjustly (note 13).

Even in his diffidence there is, however, a certain firmness of resolve. It is fortunate on the whole that in his general practice he allowed himself to be led by his sense of purpose, rather than by the dictates of consensus and established value. At least the reviewer in The Guardian (6 June 1849), could see the value in what Ruskin was doing:

Though only rough sketches, not always so complete as to be entirely clear, they are executed with masterly boldness, and we doubt not, where that is aimed at, masterly accuracy. No one can look at them, at any rate, the second time, without seeing in them what power and life the sketch of a detail may manifest, and learning, in the purity of their roughest, and the decision and sureness of their wildest, lines, the difference between the rudeness of power and perfect knowledge, and the rudeness of confusion and incapacity (note 14).

In this case his resolve was frustrated in part by technicalities. The soft copperplates were exhausted by the first edition, so when it came to the second edition published in 1855 Ruskin had the plates professionally re-engraved on steel by the very R.P.Cuff. The new versions do not quite have the same sense of life of Ruskin’s originals, nor the personal acquaintance or identification with the material. In the Preface to the second edition Ruskin said:

I have only to add that the plates of the present volume have been carefully re-etched by Mr. Cuff, retaining, as far as possible, the appearance of the original sketches, but remedying the defects which resulted in the first edition from my careless etching (note 15).

The defects in question were by and large matters of numbering and labelling. The key matters of style and aesthetic form were retained.

The drawing and its engraving together constitute almost a manifesto of principles that Ruskin was to elaborate over his remaining career. One final attribute of pre-Renaissance art that he found particularly beguiling, and which he was to dwell upon in later writing, particularly in Stones of Venice, was that of irregularity. We can see here that he has drawn a circle at the top right, as part of the construction of his drawing, and also as part of his analysis of the geometric principles underlying the design of the traceries. He remarked on the design of this particular window in The Seven Lamps of Architecture:

It shows only segments of the characteristic quatrefoils of the central windows. I found by measurement their construction exceedingly simple. Four circles are drawn in contact within the large circle. Two tangential lines are then drawn to each opposite pair, enclosing the four circles in a hollow cross. An inner circle struck through the intersections of the circles by the tangents, truncates the cusps (note 16).

Window in the Ca' Foscari, 1845 Detail of the geometric construction Photograph: David Hill By courtesy of the Master of King's College, Cambridge
Window in the Ca’ Foscari, 1845
Detail of the geometric construction
Photograph: David Hill
By courtesy of the Master of King’s College, Cambridge

What he found particular attractive, however, was that despite there being measure and method the execution was never merely mechanical, so the forms were never quite exact; the forms approximated as well as human care desired. As he argued in Stones of Venice, the Renaissance imposed a precision and uniformity that stripped affect from the handiwork. The drawing is an enactment of the same human engagement. It is frankly the product of hand and eye. Furthermore this required real imaginative engagement. Though detail might have been recorded more expeditiously by the new daguerreotype process, its detail was unfiltered through living perception nor mediated through the potentially fallible hand. As he later came to realise and discuss (note 17), the comparison of drawing and photography serves in the end to clarify the former’s unique ability to mediate quality of mind in the very act of it attempting to apprehend quality of form. In retrospect thus, we may see in this drawing one of the more important catalysing exercised of his early career.

Notes and acknowledgements:

I am am grateful to Ken Jacobson and Professor Stephen Wildman for reading the first incarnation of this article and suggesting improvements.

1         H. Shapiro, Ruskin in Italy, Letters to his Parents, 1845, 1972, no.115 written from Baveno, 26 August, 1845, pp. 189-90. Subsequent references to letters are given by the date only.

2         Joseph Marie Couttet. A very experienced Alpine guide from Chamonix who served as a sort of equerry to Ruskin on his continental tours. He was a seriously accomplished Alpinist, and rather like a fish out of water in Venice. We shall hear more of him once back amongst the mountains with other examples from the King’s College collection.

3         The Jacobson collection of Ruskin’s daguerreotypes comprises 188 examples. For a link to their website click the following and then press your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://www.jacobsonphoto.com/news/viewnews.html?id=26. A few examples from the Jacobson collection are included in the 2014 exhibition John Ruskin: Artist and Observer at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and afterwards at the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh. The Ruskin Library at the University of Lancaster has a further 125 examples a selection of which are included in the 2014 exhibition: John Ruskin – Photographer and Draughtsman at the Watts Gallery, Compton, near Guildford. Professor Stephen Wildman curated a series of exhibitions at Lancaster of the Ruskin Library collection, focusing on Tuscany in 2010, France in 2011, Switzerland in 2012, and finally Venice and Verona in 2013.

4         A window in the Foscari Palace, Venice, 1845, pencil and watercolour on paper, Height: 46.6 cm, Width: 31.6 cm, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, D.1726-1908. To see the watercolour in the V&A’s own online catalogue click the following link and then press your browser’s ‘back’ button to return to this page: http://collections.vam.ac.uk/item/O78112/watercolour-ruskin-john/.

5         This is included in the John Ruskin: Artist and Observer exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, 2014 as exhibit number 3.

6         Ruskin’s notebooks of 1845 are MSS 5a and 5b at the Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster.

7         Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) in Cook and Wedderburn (eds.) Works of John Ruskin, 1903-12, Vol.8, p. 131.

8         It is instructive to compare the watercolour with his engraving, for the latter considerably clarifies the exact blemishes being noted.

9         Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) in Cook and Wedderburn (eds.) Works of John Ruskin, 1903-12, Vol.8, p. 132.

10     The issue of how things may be represented when seen at a distance came to exercise Ruskin at length. The matter was brought to a head by a later drawing in the King’s College group, The Buttress of an Alp at Martigny, which will be treated in article five in this series.

11     Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) in Cook and Wedderburn (eds.) Works of John Ruskin, 1903-12, Vol.8, p. 166.

12     This is as given by Shapiro 1972, p.201, but perhaps the word ‘work’ is a misreading of ‘world’?

13     Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), p. vi;  in Cook and Wedderburn (eds.) Works of John Ruskin, 1903-12, Vol.8, p. 4.

14     Quoted in in Cook and Wedderburn (eds.) Works of John Ruskin, 1903-12, Vol.8, p. xlv.

15     Cook and Wedderburn (eds.) Works of John Ruskin, 1903-12, Vol.8, p. 14.

16     Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), p. 203;  in Cook and Wedderburn (eds.) Works of John Ruskin, 1903-12, Vol.8, p. 131.

17     An excellent introduction to this topic is given by Michael Harvey, ‘Ruskin and Photography’, in Oxford Art Journal , Vol. 7, No. 2, (1984) , pp. 25-33 , published by: Oxford University Press and available online through JSTOR at URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1360290.

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