[This review orginally appeared in the April 1979 number of the Journal of English and Germanic Philology, pp. 262-64.]

decorated initial 'R' Ruskin the word painter was also very skilled with pencil, pen, and brush. Students of his life and writings have recognized the presence of Ruskin the artist to the extent that they have made it mandatory for editions and studies to include reproductions of his often superb drawings and watercolors; but there has been little serious consideration of the great critic's own artistic productions. Whitehouse, the collector, wrote an essay about them, and I have attempted to use them briefly to explicate his critical theories, yet until Walton, Hardie's Water-colour Painting in Britain contained the only sustained discussion of this subject by a trained art historian. This lack has been unfortunate to students of art and literature alike, because the creations of Ruskin's pencil and brush promise so many entrances into the world of his written works. As both Ruskin and his critics have frequently emphasized, he was a man of the eye, a man who lived by and for visual sensations, and his drawings allow us to perceive how he encountered the world. His drawings therefore deserve our attention both because of their intrinsic excellence and because they present so much of the essential Ruskin.

Walton's clear and gracefully written study does much, if not all, to alleviate this serious lack in Ruskin studies. In the first place, his skillful analyses of Ruskin's various styles and the course of their development, which are them selves very interesting, offer much of value to the student of his life and writings: they not only provide clues that can help us better understand his critical theory and practice but they also furnish clues about Praeterita and its history of his conversions and unconversions. Walton furthermore provides an important — if, perhaps, slightly overemphasized — portion of the background to both Ruskin's art and writing when he explicates nineteenth-century conceptions of the gentleman-amateur as artist. For example, by placing Ruskin within the context of movements to reform amateur art Walton reveals some new sources of Modern Painters. Thus, the attempt of the Society of Painters in Water Colours to vindicate the dignity of the medium by demonstrating its scientific accuracy while debunking the older academic tradition of the ideal seems quite familiar to readers of the first volume of Modern Painters. Similarly, Walton's descriptions of the reasons the rising middle class felt more comfortable with the productions of the Society than with those of the Academy helps us to understand better the nature of Ruskin's own audience. Of course, what is the most interesting about these notions of art for the gentleman-amateur is the way Ruskin moved beyond them to create his own conception of art for himself and others who did not have the highest pictorial genius. According to Walton, "What he finally wanted, and perhaps achieved, was a style expressing a spirit in sympathy with nature through the self-forgetful analysis of visual impressions — a style deliberately renouncing the highest artistic aspirations of past and present. It is this renunciation that gives so much of Ruskin's work and theory a modern aspect."

Walton's discussion of conceptions of the gentleman-amateur provides the essential background for what is the most interesting part of his work — the examination of the drawings themselves. He demonstrates how Ruskin's art developed — from adolescent imitations of engraved travel illustrations to skillful works in the manner of his various teachers until he arrived at a private and very modern art all his own. After working through the influences of Runciman, Fielding, Prout, Harding, Roberts, and, of course. Turner, Ruskin created

a very personal and original achievement. These fragmented visual records [of his mature period] often ignore conventional methods of composition to a far greater extent than the sketches of Turner himself. In Ruskin's drawings the horizon may drop out of sight as he adopts unusual and un-picturesque angles of vision. Landscape planes, repousoirs, and centres of interest may be omitted in arrangements of almost oriental suggestiveness. . . . The inclusion of so much Pre-Raphaelite detail gives these works another individual trait, for there is nothing in Turner like the manner in which minutely detailed colour and form may suddenly start out of blank paper.

The stylistic analyses, which must provide a large part of the value of such a study, are always convincing. Equally important, the evolution of Ruskin's various styles, which Walton so well narrates, is amply illustrated by an abundance of excellent reproductions.

He does an excellent job with his two major themes — the evolution of Ruskin's artistic style and its placement within the context of contemporary notions of the gentleman-amateur. He also makes some suggestive juxtapositions of his subject's graphic and verbal technique. However, when it comes to the topic which most concerns us — the dialogue between Ruskin's art and writing, particularly that dialogue between his art and art theory — Walton does not do nearly so well. At the close of the first chapter, he seems to indicate that Ruskin's art must be seen against the background of Modern Painters and other major writings, but this he conspicuously fails to clarify. In fact, the one work of Ruskin to which he devotes much space is The Elements of Drawing, Ruskin's treatise for amateurs. Perhaps the major point one must make here is that by failing to pay attention to Ruskin's aesthetic and critical theories in any detail, Walton misses many opportunities both to illuminate those theories and to show another order of meaning contained in the drawings themselves. For example, Walton, who does not always seem to have a very firm grasp upon Ruskin's major writings, fails to note that the evolution toward a more subjective, personal style Ruskin demonstrates in the drawings is matched in detail in his conceptions of beauty, meaning, and moral value of art.

Part of Walton's difficulties here stem from the fact that he has, with few exceptions, turned his back on the numerous works that have appeared on Ruskin in the past decade. Thus, although he devotes an interesting section to Ruskin's fascination with portraying the monumentality and sheer mass of stones, he fails to mention (or include in his bibliography) Helen Lemaitre's Les pierres dans L'euvre de Ruskin (1965), and although Harding figures importantly in these pages there is no mention of a study of Harding and Ruskin which has been available for five years. Nonetheless, Walton has given us an extremely valuable brief study of Ruskin's drawings and their background in the practice of contemporary drawing masters. Within its chosen limits this study is generally excellent and it will certainly suggest many parallels and many leads to those concerned primarily with the writings of John Ruskin.


Hardie, Martin. Water-colour Painting in Britain. Ed. Dudley Snelgrove, Jonathan Mayne, and Basil Taylor. 2 vols. London: Batsford, 1967.

Walton, Paul H. The Drawings of John Ruskin. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972. Pp. x+i34; 103 illus.

Last modified 5 February 2007

6 May 2019