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