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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Print of the Decoration on a Greek Amphora, showing Athena and Hermes Kaeppelin et Compagnie

  • Curator’s description:


    The lithograph shows Athena, holding her spear and helmet, and Hermes, holding his caduceus. It reproduces the decoration of a red-figure amphora in the British Museum. It was plate LXXVI in the first volume of Lenormant and de Witte's "Elite des monuments céramographiques", published in 1844. It was presumably taken from Ruskin's copy of the work now preserved in the Ruskin Library (inventory no. 1996B2621), which is missing many of its plates.

    The print was first catalogued by Ruskin in 1870, as no. 204 in the Standard Series, framed with another print from Lenormant and de Witte of a black-figure illustration of Helios, Athena and Hermes; they formed part of a series 'arranged chiefly with the view of showing the change in Greek conception of deity'. It retained its number in the 1871 catalogue of the Standard and Reference Series but, by the time Cook and Wedderburn were compiling their edition of the catalogues (published in 1906), the frame had been moved to no. 186. Cook and Wedderburn note (XXI.45 n. 1) that it carried its original number (204) on the edge of its frame, but the new number (186) on the face. Presumably, it was easier to engrave and attach a new ivory label on the edge of the frame than it was to remove or gild over the painted number on the face.

    According to Ruskin, the change in the ancient Greek conception of deity took place between the sixth and fourth centuries BC, and was marked by a development from conceiving of the gods as embodiments of physical forces to individual, characterised intelligences; from active to passive figures; and from grotesque to deliberately-selected beautiful depictions. At the same time, ceramic decoration changed from painting black figures on the red ground to painting a black background, letting the red ground show through in the figures themselves - though this soon led to careless execution. He believed the best vases were red-figure vases produced just after the transition (Catalogue of Examples, pp. 25-27; Standard and Reference catalogue, pp. 28-30).

    Ruskin described the print as showing 'Athena and Hermes, the Olympian Deities', that is, as the passive figures depicted after the change in conception.

    Discussing the frame in his lecture on "Light" on 16 March 1870, Ruskin expanded upon this development, noting that the figures in the print above were 'excessively rude, and of the archaic period; the deities being yet thought of chiefly as physical powers in violent agency', whilst the image below showed 'the repose, and entirely realised personality, of the deities as conceived in the Phidian period'. As he expected, however, they were 'rudely drawn on the vase, and still more rudely in this print from Lenormant and De Witte. For it is impossible (as you will soon find if you try for yourself) to give on a plane surface the grace of figures drawn on one of solid curvature, and adapted to all its curves: and among other minor differences, Athena's lance is in the original nearly twice as tall as herself, and has to be cut short to come into the print at all' (Lectures on Art, § 153 = XX.145-147).

    Ruskin also referred to the image in "Aratra Pentelici", where he reproduced it in reverse (pl. IV: XX, f.p. 242), describing how it served to indicate the existence of 'a Spirit of wisdom, perfect in gentleness, irresistible in anger; having also physical dominion over the air which is the life and breath of all creatures, and clothed, to human eyes, with ægis of fiery cloud, and raiment of falling dew' - but it did not suggest that the goddess was always embodied in this form (§ 67 = XX.242-3).

    According to Cook and Wedderburn (XX.242 n. 1), Ruskin had copies of his reproduction of the image printed separately, to be sold in connection with his discussion in Fors Clavigera, where he compared the fall of Athena's hair with that of Leucothea in an Etruscan relief: 'You see precisely the same disposition of the hair; but she has many tresses instead of one, falling in front of her shoulders; and the minute curls above her brow are confined by a close cap, that her helmet may not fret them. Now, I have often told you that everything in Greek myths is primarily a physical, - secondly and chiefly a moral - type. This is first, the Goddess of the air, secondly and chiefly, celestial inspiration, guiding deed; specially those two deeds of weaving, and righteous war, which you practise at present, both so beautifully, "in the interests of England." Those dark tresses of hair, then, physically, are the dark tresses of the clouds; - the spots and serpents of her ægis, hail and fire; - the soft folds of her robe, descending rain. In her spiritual power, all these are the Word of God, spoken either by the thunder of His Power, or as the soft rain upon the tender herb, and as the showers upon the grass. Her spear is the strength of sacred deed, and her helmet, the hope of salvation.' (Letter 78, § 5 = XXIX.128.) Ruskin himself copied Athena's hair from this print, in a coloured study by Ruskin of her head and shoulders now in the Yale Center for British Art (B1979.12.810).

  • Details

    Kaeppelin et Compagnie (active c. 1839 - c. 1860) (printer)
    Object type
    Material and technique
    watercolour and bodycolour over lithograph on wove paper
    315 x 445 mm (stone); 348 x 485 mm (sheet)
    Recto, all printed, around the image:
    top right: PL. LXXXVI.
    bottom left: Lith. de Kaeppelin et Cie.

    Verso, in the left half:
    bottom right, in graphite (recent): 186 B R.
    bottom centre, the Ruskin School's stamp

    Verso, in the right half:
    bottom left, in graphite (recent): 186 B Left
    bottom, to the left, the Ruskin School's stamp

    Presented by John Ruskin to the Ruskin Drawing School (University of Oxford), 1875; 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, Catalogue of Examples Arranged for Elementary Study in the University Galleries (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1870), cat. Standard no. 204

    Lenormant, Charles, and Jean de Witte, Elite des monuments céramographiques: Matériaux pour l'histoire des religions et des moeurs de l'antiquité, 4 vols in 8 (Paris: Leleux, 1844-1861), vol. I, pl. LXXVI

    Ruskin, John, Catalogue of the Reference Series Including Temporarily the First Section of the Standard Series (London: Smith, Elder, [1872]), cat. Reference no. 204

    Ruskin, John, ‘Aratra Pentelici: Six Lectures on the Elements of Sculpture, Given Before the University of Oxford in Michaelmas Term, 1870’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Widderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 20

    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. 186

    Ruskin, John, ‘Fors Clavigera’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 27-29

    Ruskin, John, ‘Lectures on Art: Delivered Before the University of Oxford in Hilary Term, 1870’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 20


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Ruskin's Catalogues

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