The Art of Ruskin and the Spirit of Place
John Dixon Hunt
London: Reaktion Books, 2020
Hardback, 288 pp., 180 illustrations, 102 in colour
ISBN 978-1789142761. £35
Reviewed by Laurent Bury
Université Lumière–Lyon 2
The name of John Dixon Hunt should be familiar to all lovers of Ruskin, as he is the author of one of the recent biographies of the most famous of Victorian art critics: The Wider Sea, published in 1992. An Emeritus Professor in the History and Theory of Landscape at the University of Pennsylvania, Hunt is back some thirty years later with a book explicitly devoted to Ruskin as a draughtsman rather than a writer; or, to say it differently, Ruskin as primarily a draughtsman, since Ruskin considered, among other things, that over the centuries, drawing had proved an art more necessary to mankind than writing. In this new volume published by Reaktion Books, John Dixon contends that, far from being mere illustrations to his writings, Ruskin’s drawings were the first necessary step in his approach to beauty, words coming second. The aim of the book is to examine how Ruskin saw things, how he learnt to look at places, in particular, and how to represent them. As suggested by the title, Ruskin had his own conception of the genus loci, which was reflected in his graphic works. Indeed, Ruskin’s scopophilia hardly had anything to do with human beings: he was interested in nature, in buildings (paintings are very seldom discussed in this book, logically enough), but he seems never to have looked at people, except at his own face, for a few self-portraits, or Rose La Touche’s.
As Hunt deplores repeatedly, there is currently no catalogue raisonné of Ruskin’s graphic production, no database gathering the totality of his drawings, “which admittedly would be an unwieldy mixture of elegant and finished watercolours, fragmentary insights into the visual world, diagrams, and illustrative materials, even drawings inserted into his correspondence” . Ruskin’s drawn and written oeuvre therefore appears as a kind of hydra, a protean proliferation which can only be partially apprehended. The Ruskin Library at Lancaster University does host a precious archive of diaries, letters, drawings, prints and photographs, collected by John Howard Whitehouse, but modern technology could allow for an even more ambitious digital harvest: “in my wildest dreams I envisage a fully annotated, critical and computerized edition of” The Stones of Venice, confronting the manuscript, the published text and “all the relevant drawings that sustained his final analysis” . Faced with that profusion of graphic works, John Dixon Hunt has managed to organise his study along clear lines, focusing on the different categories of – mostly natural, but also man-made – objects which Ruskin saw, drew, and then wrote about. This is no mean feast, since Ruskin “learnt rapidly, enthusiastically, piecemeal and idiosyncratically” , and could be quite a rambling writer or, to phrase it in a more positive way, “he could adopt a dynamic relationship to whatever he took as his subject” .
The book starts by establishing what the author considers the true hierarchy between drawing and writing in Ruskin’s production. Far from being mere footnotes to his written work, Ruskin’s pictures could more productively be seen as the main text, since the two media “worked together, supplemented or even competed with each other” , what Hunt calls “the paragone of drawing and writing” (Chapter 1), the rivalry and collaboration between word and image. Ruskin always preached the necessity of training the eye so as to liberate it from conventional vision; to really see things, one needs a “practised eye”. Ruskin’s own training started very early, and as a child or a teenager, he already wrote his own travel books which he illustrated, imitating his favourite artists, thus forming his memory and his imagination. John Dixon Hunt refers to Coleridge’s theory of primary vs. secondary imagination, Ruskin having first observed, then used his imagination in a more creative way. Hence the idea that there were several transforming events in the history of Ruskin’s vision and art of drawing: the first time he really looked at “a piece of ivy around a thorn stem” and realised, while drawing it, that he “had never seen the beauty of anything” , the moment when he drew an aspen tree in Fontainebleau and finally discerned that a forest fulfilled “the same laws which guided the clouds, divided the light and balanced the wave” . This understanding of nature could only come through drawing, apparently, but those experiences are only known to us thanks to what Ruskin wrote about them, that is thanks to the ekphrasis of possibly lost graphic works (one may occasionally feel that Hunt’s claims tend to go a bit too far when reading about such or such written description “that surely mimics in words what a drawing would have tried to capture” ).
In the perception of places, the picturesque is obviously a central issue (Chapter 2). It is quite fascinating to witness, by looking at four drawings selected by Hunt, how Ruskin went through a radical change in his style as a draughtsman, moving away from the quaintly picturesque works of the 1830s and early 1840s to the daring, Romantic visions of the 1860s and 1870s (though he only died in 1900, Ruskin’s progressive sinking into madness means that he produced a far less substantial body of artworks after 1880). The picturesque was a matter of composition – what Ruskin called “grouping” – of movement, depending on how we walk toward the object to be admired, and of “associations” which could almost only be expressed in words. There again, a crucial change modified Ruskin’s perception, while he was in Switzerland in 1845, as he came to realise that Samuel Prout’s works were examples of the predictable or “lower” “surface picturesque”, as opposed to Turner’s “noble”, “modern” version, which expressed a deeper truth by gathering ideas, sensations and associations. Hence this somewhat surprising assertion, for someone who considered that nature had to be faithfully, even slavishly imitated: “Great landscape art cannot be a mere copy of any given scene” .
John Dixon Hunt proceeds by studying the “most ardent and sustained interests” for Ruskin’s eye, hand, and mind, starting with “geology, mineralogy, mountains” (Chapter 3). A collector of stones since his childhood, which he delighted in cataloguing in “dictionaries”, Ruskin almost compulsively sketched rocks, strata and summits in his diaries so as to “adequately illustrate the variety and richness of nature’s work”  or simply to forget some painful circumstances of his private life. The study of geology helped him master the “techniques of publishing with images”  and the use of visual aids for his lectures. His love for the Alps, those “natural cathedrals”, and Chamonix in particular, encouraged him to “let the visual speak for itself” . Ruskin’s passion for “water, rivers, meteorlogy” (Chapter 4) expressed his fascination for changefulness, which was also manifest in his interest for mountains perceived as ruins of a fallen world. To reflect the flow of water through bridges, the rapid transformation of clouds, he had to provide more than a mere mirror record.
“Places and genius loci” are the subject of Chapter 5. Hunt alludes to the writings of modern (French) thinkers like Alain Roger and Augustin Berque on the notion in order to determine through which elements, visual or emotional, Ruskin sought to make sense of a place, or how Turner’s “visionary topography” could reflect the “truth of a scene” and “portray the noumena of a place” . During his trips on the continent, Ruskin made repeated stays in a few cities where he drew, measured and photographed the buildings in an obsessive manner: Abbeville, Lucca, Pisa and Verona (his project of writing a book entitled Stones of Verona never came to fruition, even though this city “virtually represented the fate and the beauty of Italy to me” ). Venice obviously deserved its own specific focus (Chapter 6), since John Dixon Hunt deplores the fact that not enough attention has yet been paid to what Ruskin drew in the Serenissima, as opposed to what he wrote about it. Here again, Hunt asserts that “his drawings actually shaped what he wrote ... his published ideas were shaped by his illustrations, not vice versa” [184-185]. Faced with a complex layering of historical styles, Ruskin went collecting “bits”, architectural details, assisted by a whole team of painters and photographers, gathering the materials, “graphic studies and visual thinking by which he came to his final verbal and illustrated volumes” . What daguerreotypes recorded could later be translated into watercolours, “be subject to the processes of his own imagination”, allowing him “to mark his own subtle emphases and focus, not the camera’s” .
Chapter 7 is devoted to “drawing, learning and teaching”. Neither an amateur (he reached too high a level of competence to deserve that name) nor a professional artist (he never sold any of his works), Ruskin initially emulated the picturesque style of Prout’s engravings; Turner was an influence on his writing rather than on his drawing. He later turned into a pedagogue, teaching extremely varied audiences, in F.D. Maurice’s Working Men’s College or as a Slade Professor in Oxford. The concluding chapter offers “an iconography and geography of Ruskin’s imagination”, widening the scope of the very word “place”: “In any one ‘place’, whether that ‘place’ is a location, painting or an idea, may be clustered a range of different themes and approaches” . And the book ends on this apparent paradox that, though Ruskin’s drawings speak for themselves as reflections of his many scientific and aesthetic interests, one has to use words to write about them, beside the superb and numerous reproductions provided by the publisher.
☞ Illustrated version on The Victorian Web :
All rights are reserved and no reproduction from this site for whatever purpose is permitted without the permission of the copyright owner.
Please contact us before using any material on this website.