The Elements of Drawing, John Ruskin’s teaching collection at Oxford

The Elements of Drawing, John Ruskin’s teaching collection at Oxford

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A sixteenth-century Persian illuminated Manuscript of the "Shāhnāma" of Firdausī anonymous Persian

  • Curator’s description:


    The text is written in four columns of twenty-three lines, each column surrounded by borders of ruled coloured and gilt lines; there are illuminated headings to the chapters, and the lines in a few pages are reduced in number and set obliquely, between small, triangular illuminated panels. The illuminated illustrations usually fill three-quarters of the page or more; some occupy both folios of an opening. The single-page illuminations are usually set in irregularly-shaped fields spanning the text and border; the borders of both folios of these openings are filled with freely-painted plants and animals executed in thin gold paint. The double-page illuminations are set within more formal borders of arabesques and foliate patterns, predominantly blue and gold. The illuminations are: 1 verso-2 recto: court scene 2 verso-3 recto: title-page 8 recto: The court of Sultan Mahmūd of Ghazna 18 verso: Gayūmarth the first king and his court 39 verso: Minūchihr killing his great-uncle Salm 60 verso: Rustam and Kay Qubād on Mount Alburz 69 verso: Rustam and the White Demon 89 recto: The death of Suhrāb 148 verso: Tūs and Humān parleying before joining battle 167 verso: Rustam spearing Gahār of Gahan 177 recto: Rustam lifting Pūlādwand above his head 200 verso: Rustam rescuing Bīzhan from the pit 206 recto: Single combat of Pīrān and Gīw? 211 verso-212 recto: The enthronement of Luhrāsp 262 verso: Rustam shooting Isfandiyār in the eyes 306 verso: The defeat of Ardashīr by the Kurds 332 recto: Bahrām Gūr hunting with Āzāda 362 verso: The return of Bahrām Gūr to Persia after visiting Shangul, King of India 400 verso: The introduction of chess at the court of Nūshīrwān 475 verso: Shīrīn visiting Khusraw 490 verso: Shīrīn mourning the murdered Khusraw before stabbing herself on his coffin 506 verso-507 recto: An outdoor court scene

    The manuscript contains Firdausī's "Shāhnāma", together with the preface by Bāisunghar on folios 2 verso to 14 recto. It is in a modern, European binding of red leather; the edges are gilt. It contains 21 miniature paintings, described by Robinson as 'in the Shiraz style of the third quarter of the sixteenth century', by at least two different illuminators.

    The manuscript may be one of the 'Three persian', valued at £50 and entered as no. 16 in Ruskin's list of the manuscripts in his Oxford Rooms, made for insurance purposes in his diary for 15 December 1872 (Ruskin Library, MS 18, p. 129). It was first listed in the Teaching Collection by Cook and Wedderburn in 1906, as 'A Persian MS. (in a glass case)', numbered amongst the items 'On the Walls of the School, or standing on cabinets, etc.' which had been presented by Ruskin (XXI.300). Although the degree of discolouring on the pages varies, there is little to indicate which openings (if any) were usually displayed by Ruskin. However, folios 306 verso-307 recto are marked with several ink spots, suggesting that they may have been made available to a careless student.

    In "The Queen of the Air" (§ 108-109 = XIX.394-395), Ruskin described a leaf of a Persian manuscript, either an opening from this one or one of the two single leaves (which may or may not be from this manuscript) listed amongst the unframed objects: 'wrought with wreathed azure and gold, and soft green, and violet, and ruby and scarlet, into one field of pure resplendence. It is wrought to delight the eyes only; and it does delight them; and the man who did it assuredly had eyes in his head; but not much more. It is not didactic art, but its author was happy: and it will do the good, and the harm, that mere pleasure can do.' He contrasted it with an early Turner drawing of the Lake of Geneva, which was singularly lacking in pleasure for the eye compared to the manuscript - but the Turner, like all lovely art, was rooted in virtue, and was didactic, 'chiefly by being beautiful; but beautiful with haunting thought'.

  • Details

    anonymous Persian (artist, scribe)
    Object type
    manuscript, drawing
    Material and technique
    ink, bodycolour and gold paint on paper; the binding leather over board
    507 folios, each 368 x 243 mm (approx.); the binding 385 x 260 x 78 mm

    placed on deposit in the Bodleian Library by the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art

    No. of items
    Accession no.
  • Subject terms allocated by curators:


  • References in which this object is cited include:


    Dearden, James S., ‘John Ruskin, the Collector: With a Catalogue of the Illuminated and Other Manuscripts Formerly in His Collection’, The Library, 5th ser., 21, (1966), no. 73

    Robinson, B. W., A Descriptive Catalogue of the Persian Paintings in the Bodleian Library (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), pl. 847

    Ruskin, John, ‘Diary: 1871 - 1873’, [1873], Lancaster, Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster

    Sachau, Hermann Ethé and A. F. L. Beeston, eds, Catalogue of the Persian, Turkish, Hindûstânî, and Pushtû Manuscripts in the Bodleain Library, 3 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1889-1954), no. 2538 (vol. III, p. 21)

    Ruskin, John, ‘The Ruskin Art Collection at Oxford: Catalogues, Notes and Instructions’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 21, cat. Wall

    Ruskin, John, ‘The Queen of the Air: Being a Study of the Greek Myths of Cloud and Storm’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 19


    • Bodleian Library, Oxford

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