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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The Gipsy Prophesying Esther Frances Alexander

  • Curator’s description:


    In the upper part of the sheet, Christ sits on the Virgin's knee, holding out his palm which is being read by the gypsy woman to the right; Joseph sits on the left. Between the two panels of text are depicted several growing flowers. The main drawing illustrates the ballad of the Madonna and the Gypsy, in which a gypsy gives shelter to the Holy Family during the flight into Egypt, and recounts their story to them, as well as prophesying Christ's future.

    This is folio 28 from a book of Tuscan songs, written out by hand and decorated with drawings, created by Francesca Alexander, which she intended to sell to raise money for charity. It contains the texts and music of a series of songs and stories which she largely collected in the Appenines north of Pistoia and Lucca, a region noted for the purity of its Tuscan (and therefore Italian); she learned many of them from the famous 'improvisatrice' Beatrice Bernardi, of Pian degli Ontani, whose portrait formed the frontispiece to the book and is now no. 1 in the Francesca Cabinet in the Oxford collection.

    The drawing illustrates the poem entitled 'La Madonna e la zingarella', the second part of which was published in part VI of "Roadside Songs of Tuscany".

    Ruskin met Alexander in Florence early in October 1882, and offered her £1000 for the book; her father had fixed the price at £600, and Ruskin eventually paid 600 guineas (£630), acquiring the book by 10 October. On 19 May 1883 he showed the drawings of Beatrice Bernardi and Saint Christopher in his third lecture on recent English art, which focussed on Leighton and Alma-Tadema; and on 5 June "Francesca's Book" was the subject of a 'drawing-room lecture' at the house of Mrs Bishop, in Prince of Wales' Terrace in Kensington.

    As with so many of his illustrated books, Ruskin dismantled "Tuscan Songs". Twelve folios of illustrations were placed at Oxford in their own case, the 'Francesca Cabinet', as well as another twenty-five folios of text, which, however, Ruskin later removed and distributed elsewhere. Ruskin published selections of the text from the book, together with much additional material he secured from Alexander and 20 plates, as "The Roadside Songs of Tuscany", issued in twelve parts from 1884 to 1885; the ballad of the Madonna and the gypsy was published in parts V and VI. In the mid-1890s, Alexander's mother, Joan Severn and Ruskin traced 108 of the manuscript's 122 folios, which were reproduced as facsimiles in "Tuscan Songs", published by Houghton Mifflin in 1897.

    Ruskin valued Alexander's work highly: he wrote in excitement to her mother, on first seeing "Tuscan Songs": 'I've taken a new pen - it is all I can! - I wish I could learn an entirely new writing from some pretty hem of an angel's robe - to tell you with what happy and reverent admiration I saw your daughter’s drawings yesterday; reverent not only of a quite heavenly gift of genius in a kind I had never before seen, but also of the entirely sweet and loving spirit which animated and sanctified the work, and the serenity which it expressed in the purest faiths and best purposes of life. - (It thunders as I write, as if all the fiends of the air were trying to hinder me from saying what is in my heart.) - In absolute skill of drawing, and perception of all that is loveliest in human creatures, and in the flowers that live for them, I think these works are in their kind unrivalled, and that they do indeed represent certain elements of feeling and power peculiar to this age in which we are entering on new dispensations of thought and hope…' (Ruskin to Mrs Francis Alexander, 7 October 1882 = XXXII.xxi-xxii).

    Despite this, Ruskin pointed out defects in Alexander's drawing in his editorial comments "The Roadside Songs of Tuscany": 'there are often slight errors in gesture or position' (XXXII.127), 'her figures are wanting in general ease of action' (XXXII.222), or pointing out her 'carelessness of light and shade' (XXXII.127). But these defects were 'inoffensive faults, because they are not caused either by affectation, indolence, or egoism' (§ 2 = XXXII.53), and Ruskin also praised her work for the reasons he had outlined in his letter to her mother: it was 'sincere and true as the sunshine; industrious, with an energy as steady as that by which a plant grows in spring; modest and unselfish, as ever was good servant's work for a beloved Master' (§ 2 = XXXII.53), as well as being a 'faithful expression of human feeling' (XXXII.109) and displaying 'power of giving expression by gesture' (XXXII.222).

    Ruskin also praised Alexander's Pre-Raphaelite truthfulness, depicting religious scenes as they would have been imagined by Tuscans, in the Tuscan countryside - in contrast to the English Pre-Raphaelites who could only conceive of such scenes happening in Hampstead Heath or the Strand. Whilst Alexander selected models whose life in some way reflected the people they portrayed, the English simply hired the first person they could find (§ 3 = XXXII.53-54).

    In his lecture in May 1883, Ruskin described how Alexander's drawings exemplified the way in which contemporary art had to depict 'the countenance and the heart of man, glorified by God' - as opposed to Greek art, which had portrayed 'the body and the mind of man, glorified in mortal war' (The Art of England, §§ 84-87 = XXXIII.323-326). "The Roadside Songs of Tuscany" - together with "The Story of Ida" and "Christ's Folk in the Apennine", both also by Francesca Alexander, and Julia Firth's translation of "Ulric the Farm Servant" - was thus part of a group of texts devoted to peasant life which Ruskin edited and published in the 1880s, as examples of a happy, unmechanised peasant life characterised by 'voiceless religion and uncomplaining duty' (Fors Clavigera, letter 84, § 4 = XXIX.288).

    The drawings also served as examples of technique, something Ruskin had discussed in his letter to Mrs Alexander: 'One more quite personal favour - I scarcely like to ask, but yet still venture - that I might see Miss Alexander draw a little bit of a flower. I have really no conception how that work can be done, and I am the more personally interested in it, because it is the glorification and perfection of a method once recommended in my "Elements of Drawing", and afterwards rejected as too difficult.' (Cook and Wedderburn suggest that Ruskin is referring to 'the production of mixed tints by interlaced touches of the pure colours out of which they are formed: Elements of Drawing, § 175 = XV.152.) In his fifth lecture on recent English art (Leech and Tenniel, delivered on 7 November 1883), he stated Alexander's drawings had been included in the collection as 'standards of method in drawing, from the life' for 'students capable of ... determined industry' (Art of England, § 147 = XXXIII.364).

  • Details

    Esther Frances Alexander (1837 - 1917)
    Object type
    Material and technique
    pen and brown ink on wove paper
    380 x 271 mm
    Recto, all in ink:
    top right: XXIII
    in a panel, lower left: Naught do I invent or make, | From my heart the words I take | Oh, prepare thee, Mother dear, | Sad and fearful things to hear! || When some years have passed away, | Jesus to Saint John will say, | In the Jordan's stream, by thee, | Will I now baptizèd be.
    in a panel lower right: Io non faccio ste parole, | Me le pico dallo cuore: | Bella Madre di clemenza, | Preparatevi a penitenza. || Passati alcuni anni, | Gesù dirà a San Giovanni, | Voglio essere nel Giordano, | Battezzato di tua mano.

    Presumably presented by John Ruskin to the Ruskin Drawing School (University of Oxford); first recorded in the Ruskin Drawing School in 1906; transferred from the Ruskin Drawing School to the Ashmolean Museum c.1949

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


  • References in which this object is cited include:


    Alexander, Francesca, trans., John Ruskin, ‘Roadside Songs of Tuscany’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 32, pl. XV, f.p. 159

    Ruskin, John, ‘The Art of England: Lectures Given in Oxford by John Ruskin ... During His Second Tenure of the Slade Professorship’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 23

    Ruskin, John, ‘The Works of John Ruskin’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912)

    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. Francesca Cabinet no. 6

    Ruskin, John, ‘Francesca's Book: A Drawing-Room Lecture (1883)’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: LIbrary Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 32


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