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 Dragon of the Hesperides Arthur Burgess

  • Curator’s description:


    The drawing shows a long, thin monster or dragon sitting on top of a rocky pinnacle, its head to the right with flames apparently coming out of its mouth. It has two pairs of feet, and a small bat-like wing springing from its rear haunches.

    It reproduces the monster on top of a rock in the background of Turner's "The Goddess of Discord choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides", exhibited at the British Institution in 1806 and now no. 477 in Tate (Wilton no. P57). This detail was reproduced, reversed, as pl. 78 in Modern Painters, vol. V (VII, f.p. 402), with the title "Quivi Trovammo". The reproduction was made after Ruskin's own drawing, no. 1724 in Cook and Wedderburn's catalogue.

    Ruskin seems to have been involved with two further copies after this detail. One, by Bunney, was exhibited as no. 28 in the "Abbeville" catalogue (XIX.274) and appears to be the drawing now in the collection of the Guild of Saint George (no. R.97; see XXX.231, and Morley, Appendix p. 37). This should be the work recorded by Wedderburn in the memorial to Bunney prefacing the 1882 Fine Art Society exhibition which included his work (p. 7): 'at about this time [1859] he also made a drawing from Turner for one of the plates -- the dragon-plate entitled "Quivi trovammo" -- in the fifth volume of "Modern Painters".' However, the drawing in the Guild collection, its dimensions matching those given by Morley, is unfinished, and inscribed in graphite on the verso of the mount 'Outline from Turner's Garden of the Hesperides | Wm Ward copy | £2 - 2 - 0', suggesting that it is in fact by Ward, and so not necessarily the work created by Bunney.

    The other drawing, by Burgess, appears to be the work in the Ashmolean, and is identified as such by Cook and Wedderburn (XXX.231; cf. their apparent uncertainty in the catalogue of the Drawing School works, XXI.42 n. 2). If, as seems likely given its scale, it was made in connection with Ruskin's comments upon the Turner original in his Lectures on Landscape, delivered in January and February 1871, then it was most likely executed in late 1870 or early 1871.

    As noted by Cook and Wedderburn, Ruskin's catalogue of the Standard and Reference Series contained no nos 155-175, and so this drawing was first catalogued by Cook and Wedderburn in 1906.

    Ruskin considered the dragon, as depicted in Bunney's copy, as an embodiment of Gothic: it represented 'Northern Gloom in Contemplation of Death', with 'Flamboyant curvature in flames and clouds' ("Abbeville" Catalogue, no. 28 = XIX p. 274).

    However, the title he gave to the plate in "Modern Painters" comes from Dante, "Inferno" VI: 'Quivi trovammo Pluto il gran nemico', 'There we found Pluto the great enemy'. In his extensive discussion of Turner's painting there, Ruskin identified the dragon portrayed by Turner in the Garden of the Hesperides with Dante's Pluto, whom he considered to be 'the demon of all evil passions connected with covetousness; that is to say, essentially of fraud, rage, and gloom' (vol. V, ch. X, § 15 = VII.401); in "Munera Pulveris", he specifically associated Dante's Pluto with cruelty. (Munera Pulveris, S 88 = XVII.290).

    Ruskin described how the small reproduction in "Modern Painters" diminished the depiction's power: 'his length, especially, seems to diminish more than it should in proportion to his bulk. In the picture he is far in the distance, cresting the mountain; and may be, perhaps, three-quarters of a mile long. The actual length on the canvas is a foot and eight inches' - which is roughly the size of the two monsters in Burgess's drawing (Modern Painters, vol. V, ch. X, § 16 = VII.401).

    Ruskin was greatly impressed by Turner's appreciation of the dragon's nature, as Ruskin understood it: 'among all the wonderful things that Turner did in his day, I think this nearly the most wonderful. How far he had really found out for himself the collateral bearings of the Hesperid tradition I know not; but that he had got the main clue of it, and knew who the Dragon was, there can be no doubt; the strange thing is, that his conception of it throughout, down to the minutest detail, fits every one of the circumstances of the Greek traditions. There is, first, the Dragon's descent from Medusa and Typhon, indicated in the serpent-clouds floating from his head ... then note the grovelling and ponderous body, ending in a serpent, of which we do not see the end. He drags the weight of it forward by his claws, not being able to lift himself from the ground ("Mammon, the least erected spirit that fell" [Paradise Lost I.679]); then the grip of the claws themselves as if they would clutch (rather than tear) the rock itself into pieces; but chiefly, the designing of the body. Remember, one of the essential characters of the creature, as descended from Medusa, is its coldness and petrifying power; this, in the demon of covetousness, must exist to the utmost; breathing fire, he is yet himself of ice. Now, if I were merely to draw this dragon as white, instead of dark, and take his claws away, his body would become a representation of a great glacier, so nearly perfect, that I know no published engraving of glacier breaking over a rocky brow so like the truth as this dragon's shoulders would be, if they were thrown out in light; there being only this difference, that they have the form, but not the fragility of the ice; they are at once ice and iron. "His bones are like solid pieces of brass; his bones are like bars of iron; by his neesings a light doth shine." [Job XLI.18] 'The strange unity of vertebrated action, and of a true bony contour, infinitely varied in every vertebra, with this glacial outline; - together with the adoption of the head of the Ganges crocodile, the fish-eater, to show his sea descent (and this in the year 1806, when hardly a single fossil saurian skeleton existed within Turner’s reach), renders the whole conception one of the most curious exertions of the imaginative intellect with which I am acquainted in the arts.' (Modern Painters, vol. V, ch. X, §§ 15-18 = VII.401-403.)

    Presumably referring to this drawing in his 1871 Lectures on Landscape, Ruskin repeated the analogy between the dragon's figure and the natural landscape: 'His claws are like the Clefts of the Rock, his shoulders like its pinnacles; his belly deep in into its every fissure - glued down - loaded down; his bat's wings cannot lift him, they are rudimentary wings only.' (Lectures on Landscape, § 89 = XXII.63.)

  • Details

    Arthur Burgess (1843 - 1886)
    after Turner (Joseph Mallord William Turner) (1775 - 1851)
    Object type
    Material and technique
    watercolour and bodycolour on paper, with mounting lines indicated by light scoring, pen and ink, and graphite
    450 x 678 mm

    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:


    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. Reference no. 156

    Ruskin, John, ‘Lectures on Landscape: Delivered at Oxford in Lent Term, 1871’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 22


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