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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Coat of Arms with a Death's-Head Albrecht Dürer

  • Curator’s description:


    The print shows an elegant young woman being caressed by a hairy Wild Man; before them, held by a leather strap and propped up against a stick, is a coat of arms, comprising a shield bearing a naturalistically-drawn skull, and a helm with a crest in the form of pair of wings and elaborately-dagged mantling.

    There has been some confusion over the numbering of this particular print. In the 1870, it was listed as no. 36 in the Educational Series (Catalogue of Examples), where it sat alongside several other Dürer prints. In 1871, it had moved slightly, to no. 32, now clearly placed in Case III, "Illustrations of Northern Gothic, with its resultant Art" (Educational catalogue, 1st ed.). In 1872, it was referred to as being no. 51 in the Educational Series, although it was never formally catalogued under that number (Catalogue of Reference Series, p. 9); but later that year it was moved to its current position amongst the Dürers as no. 65 in the Rudimentary Series (Rudimentary Series, 3rd ed.), its place in the Educational Series being filled by Burne-Jones's designs of "Cupid and Psyche" (WA.RS.ED.064-072). (Cook and Wedderburn's note (XXI.81 n. 1) that the print was 'Now No. 36 in the Rudimentary Series' confuses the print's positions in the "Catalogue of Examples" and Rudimentary catalogues.)

    Ruskin valued the print highly, placing it second only to Dürer's "Adam and Eve" (WA.RS.STD.010) in quality of execution (Catalogue of Examples, p. 11), considering it the best of Dürer's works for his students to try copying (ibid., p. 54), and calling it 'one of Dürer's finest ... as good as can be' (Rudimentary Manuscript). However, lecturing to his students in 1872, he described how Dürer's knowledge of anatomy handicapped his art: 'No man who has studied the skull as carefully as Dürer did, ever could engrave a face beautifully, for the perception of the bones continually thrusts itself upon him in wrong places, and in trying to conquer or modify it, he distorts the flesh. Where the features are marked, and full of character, he can quit himself of the impression; but in the rounded contour of women’s faces he is always forced to think of the skull; and even in his ordinary work often draws more of bones and hair, than face.' (The Eagle's Nest, § 256 = XXII.228.)

    In "The Stones of Venice", he described how Dürer's melancholic temperament elevated any imperfection, playfulness or apathy in his work to 'nobler terribleness' and 'perfect sublime': the drapery and woman's crown embodied his playfulness, but the skull remained grotesque and dreadful (vol. III, ch. iii, § 51 = XI.172-3). He included it as an example of 'Northern gloom in contemplation of death' in his "Abbeville" catalogue of 1869, embodying a typically northern 'strange fear and melancholy' which 'took ... a feverish and frantic tendency towards the contemplation of death' and 'brought a bitter mockery and low grotesque into ... art' (§ 24 & no. 26 = XIX.260 & 274).

  • Details

    Albrecht Dürer (1471 - 1528) (engraver)
    Object type
    Material and technique
    engraving on laid paper
    220 x 158 (sheet); 330 x 261 mm (mount)
    In the print, engraved, bottom centre:
    On a plaque, Dürer's characteristic 'AD' monogram
    On the edge of the stone supporting the shield: 1503

    On the mount, recto, top centre, in ink: 90.

    On the mount, verso:
    bottom left corner, in graphite (recent): 36
    bottom left, in graphite (recent): B 101(a)
    bottom centre left, the Ruskin School's stamp
    bottom just left of centre, in graphite (recent): Rud 65

    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, ‘The Eagle's Nest: Ten Lectures on the Relation of Natural Science to Art, Given Before the University of Oxfored, in Lent Term, 1872’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 22

    Ruskin, John, ‘References to the Series of Paintings and Sketches, From Mr. Ruskin's Collection, Shown in Illustration of the Relations of Flamboyant Architecture to Contemporary and Subsequent Art’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 19

    Ruskin, John, Catalogue of the Educational Series (London: Smith, Elder, 1871), cat. Educational no. 32

    Ruskin, John, Instructions in the Preliminary Exercises Arranged for the Lower Drawing-School (London: Smith, Elder, 1872), cat. Rudimentary no. 65

    Bartsch, Adam von, The Illustrated Bartsch, founding editor Walter L. Strauss, general editor John T. Spike (New York: Abaris Books, 1978-), no. 1001.101

    Meder, Josef, Dürer-Katalog, ein handbuch über Albrecht Dürers stiche, radierungen, Holzschnitte, deren zustände, ausgaben und wasserzeichen (Wien: Gilhofer & Ranschburg, 1932), no. 98

    Ruskin, John, ‘The Stones of Venice’, Edward T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds, The Works of John Ruskin: Library Edition, 39 (London: George Allen, 1903-1912), 9-11

    Ruskin, John, Instructions in Practice of Elementary Drawing, Arranged with Reference to the First Series of Examples in the Drawings Schools of the University of Oxford (n.p., [1872]), cat. Rudimentary no. 65

    Bartsch, Adam von, Le Peintre Graveur, 21 vols (Vienna: J. von Degen, 1803-1821), cat. vol. VII, p. 109, no. 101

    Schoch, Rainer, Mende, Matthias, and Scherbaum, Anna, Albrecht Dürer: das druckgraphische Werk, 3 (Munich/London/New York: Prestel, 2001-2004), no. 37

    Ruskin, John, Instructions in the Preliminary Exercise Arranged For the Lower Drawing-School (London: Spottiswoode, 1873), cat. Rudimentary no. 65

    Hollstein, F. W. H., German Engravings Etchings and Woodcuts, ca. 1400 - 1700 (Amsterdam: Menno Hertzberger, 1954-), cat. vol. VII, p. 89, no. 98

    Ruskin, John, Catalogue of Examples Arranged for Elementary Study in the University Galleries (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1870), cat. Educational no. 36

    Ruskin, John, ‘Rudimentary Series 1878’, 1878, Oxford, Oxford University Archives, cat. Rudimentary no. 65

    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. Rudimentary no. 65

    Ruskin, John, The Ruskin Art Collection at Oxford: Catalogue of the Rudimentary Series, in the Arrangement of 1873, ed. Robert Hewison (London: Lion and Unicorn Press, 1984), cat. Rudimentary no. 65, RUD.065


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