In Focus: The exquisite yet tiny botanical study by John Ruskin that took him four years to complete

Lilias Wigan looks at a key work by the trailblazing thinker, artist and philanthropist John Ruskin, whose focus on nature seems ever more apt with each passing year.

Critic, artist, philanthropist and social thinker, the Victorian visionary John Ruskin (1819–1900) saw potential in people and objects that society overlooked. His efforts to reform the lives of industrial workers began in Sheffield in 1875, with his founding of the St. George’s Museum, to which he donated artefacts from his own collection. He wanted to inspire an appreciation of beauty, and through it an understanding of the natural environment, which he believed would encourage individuals to realise their talents. To Ruskin, Beauty in art was an essential means of improving the world.

It’s exactly 200 years since Ruskin’s birth, and to mark that milestone a new exhibition entitled John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing is on show at Two Temple Place, London, a show that’s a collaboration between Museums Sheffield, the Guild of St George and the Bulldog Trust. A second show will follow at The Millennium Gallery in Sheffield: John Ruskin: Art & Wonder, which will run from May 29–September 15. There is also another show celebrating his life and work, Ruskin, Turner & the Storm Cloud: Watercolours and Drawings, which is at York Art Gallery until June 23 and then moves to Abbot Hall, Kendal, July 11-October 5.

Ruskin’s formal art tuition, at school and by his father, prioritised the conventionally picturesque and aesthetically pleasing. A particular inspiration was a book of Samuel Rogers’s poem Italy, illustrated with etchings by Turner, that was given to him when he was 13. His father was a collector of contemporary watercolours and he learnt much from growing up surrounded by paintings and observing them close at hand.

“Ruskin’s vision was trailblazing — he anticipated many aspects of environmentalism and sustainability that have an abiding resonance today”

In 1843, after graduating from Oxford University, Ruskin published the first volume of his Modern Painters, in which he applauded and fiercely defended Turner’s style. He had first met the artist in 1840, recording in his diary: ‘Introduced to-day to the man who beyond all doubt is the greatest of the age; greatest in every faculty of the imagination, in every branch of scenic knowledge; at once the painter and poet of the day.’ Four more volumes would follow, in which Ruskin explored a range of topics relating to art and science and challenged the reader to engage rather than to passively experience; to question and be curious.

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Ruskin’s childhood fascination with geology developed into a passion for analysing the forms and details of Nature through sketching, just as Turner did — indeed, he attributed the beauty of Turner’s work not so much to his ability with the paintbrush, as to his facility for making detailed preliminary studies in pencil. Through these sketches, Turner was able to unleash his freedom of expression and respond to the atmosphere of a scene. Turner believed that landscape art should put the viewer in the place of the artist, as though they were experiencing it first-hand.

Study of Moss, Fern and Wood-Sorrel, upon a Rocky River Bank (1875-79) demonstrates Ruskin’s ability to find wonder in the smallest, most overlooked details of Nature. The texture of the budding plants crawling over the rocks is brilliantly conveyed; you can almost sense the moss breathing below the creeping wisps of sorrel. Yet, at the same time, he transmutes the ferns into intricately formed crystals, as if to depict the minerals he so avidly collected — indeed, the intimate scene might well be mistaken for a sculpture of a mountainous landscape.

The otherworldly blue hues are illusionary. Ruskin suffered from severe attacks of depression at this time, which constantly interrupted his work. Despite its modest scale — the size of a page in a diary — this exquisite botanical study took him four years to complete.

Ruskin’s vision was trailblazing. Through his championing of art and Nature and their capacity to improve the world, he anticipated many aspects of environmentalism and sustainability that have an abiding resonance today.