John Ruskin: Artist and Observer

‘Nature is painting for us, day after day, pictures of infinite beauty’ declared John Ruskin ‘if only we have eyes to see it’. Like nature, Ruskin was a force of continual creation, a man who lived and breathed the world he lived in and whose methods of observation – as the title of this exhibition attests – have often been overlooked despite the infinite beauty of his work.

This is an exquisite insight into the work of one of the greatest drawers the world has known: every line is a craft, exact yet relaxed.

John Ruskin is something of a mammoth in the Art History world. Not merely an incredibly influential and important critical voice, Ruskin was also a talented artist in his own right and a draughtsman of immense skill. Working throughout his life, the exhibition ranges from his very earliest sketches made as a boy to his deteriorating watercolours of old age. As the curators comment on ‘1847 Trees in a Lane’, one of the many sketches Ruskin intended as a didactic exercise, what is striking about these simple observational drawings is that they ‘transcend’ mere observation. The comment could easily be used for the entirety of Ruskin’s work, his eye really does appear to see more clearly than most, and the joy of his work is that he makes us see more clearly too. A piece of brick becomes a centre piece that one can gaze on for hours in his mesmerizing ‘Study of a piece of Brick, to show Cleavage in Burnt Clay’ in which he manages to artfully animate the inanimate, giving life and colour to overlooked and neglected subjects. He studies foliage, stones, splinters of grass, then bolts, door handles, even the delicate casts at the top of columns in anticipation for his seminal ‘Stones of Venice’.

The show also brings together intriguing notion of form, daguerreotypes interspersed with related drawings and watercolours that enable us to view the strange progression and regression in which Ruskin interacted with the photographic eye to enlighten his own. Splashes of colour exemplify acutely that Ruskin’s true craft is ultimately one of capturing light itself, his drawings dealing with the transience of the natural world, and its incredible intricacy. A series of works on ‘Cloud Beauty’ attempt valiantly to capture the wonders of clouds, sunsets, sunrises: the ever changing canvas of Nature.

In his ‘Study of Gneiss Rock, Glenfinlass’ (1853) rock runs like the water, fluid and full of motion. He makes the scene appear grand, reducing mountains to intricate patterns on paper, from swathes of pine forests to a simple study of boulders. Natural and man made worlds are equally addressed with equal attention and precision. For Ruskin drawing was not merely a process in order to create a product, it was a process that unto itself was of immense importance for the manner in which he engaged with the world around him, his sketches were mental notes, merely hints, ‘syllables’, of the way he saw the world.

This is an exquisite insight into the work of one of the greatest drawers the world has known: every line is a craft, exact yet relaxed. Ruskin’s work changes the way you look at the world, and this exhibition is a triumphant lesson in the art of this observation.

Reviews by Thea Hawlin

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★★★★
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The Blurb

John Ruskin (1819-1900) is renowned as the greatest British art critic of the nineteenth century and the champion of Turner, but his role as an artist remains relatively little known. This exhibition will illustrate the role of John Ruskin as an artist, through examples of his drawn and painted work. An artist who took inspiration from the natural world and architectural subjects, Gothic palaces in Venice, wild and spectacular Scottish and Alpine landscapes, and minutely defined and brilliantly coloured birds and plants will all be highlights of the show.

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