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

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

Ruskin's Standard & Reference series (1872)

Exemplary works of art. In the catalogue of the Reference series, items marked 'M' are drawings "by my own Hand" (by Ruskin), P are photographs, E engravings and A by Ruskin's Assistant, Arthur Burgess.

Standard & Reference Cover

Ruskin's Catalogues: 1 object

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Ruskin assembled a diverse collection of artworks for his drawing school in Oxford, including watercolours by J.M.W. Turner and drawings by Ruskin himself.  He taught students to draw as a way of educating them in how to look at art and the world around them.  

Ruskin divided his Teaching Collection into four main series: Standard, Reference, Educational and Rudimentary. Each item was placed in a numbered frame, arranged in a set of cabinets, so that they all had a specific position in the Collection (although Ruskin often moved items about as his ideas changed). 

When incorporated into the Ashmolean’s collection in the last century, the works were removed from the frames and the sequence was lost.  Here, Ruskin's original catalogues, notes and instructions - in his chosen order and in his own words - are united with images of the works and links to modern curatorial descriptions.

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Study for Detail of the Market-Place, Abbeville John Ruskin

  • Ruskin text

    61 Market-place, Abbeville. Pencil study for detail M
  • Curator’s description:


    The drawing shows the buildings around two sides of the broad market square in Abbeville, with the turrets, towers and roof of the (ecclesiastical) north facade of the flamboyant Gothic church of Saint Wulfram appearing above the far side, in the centre. There is a pile of baskets in the near foreground, and another of sacks with a large covered wagon further back.

    Cook and Wedderburn dated the drawing to 1868, when Ruskin stayed at Abbeville from 25 August to 21 October (save for three days, 6-8 October, in Paris). In his diary for 19 September, Ruskin described himself 'looking at black signs in square today, and showing [William] Ward how much less dark they were than the open windows' (XIX.xl).

    In June 1869, Ruskin displayed the work as no. 43 in his 'Abbeville' exhibition, listing it as 'Abbeville. - St. Vulfran and the Great Square.... Showing gabled wooden houses of the sixteenth century (though all much defaced, the two in the angle are characteristic), and quoined brick and stone houses of the seventeenth century.' He considered referring to it in his first lecture on landscape (26 January 1871), although it was first catalogued in the Oxford collections only in 1872, as no. 61 in the Reference Series, where it was placed alongside drawings of buildings and sculptures in Verona and Venice.

    Although pleased with his work at Abbeville, Ruskin seems to have found it difficult to do much which would meet his highest standards, noting in a letter to his mother on 30 September that 'I am well satisfied with the work I am doing, and even with my own power of doing it, if only I can keep myself from avariciously trying to do too much, and working hurriedly. But I can do very little quite well each day; with that little, however, it is my bounden duty to be content' (XIX.xlii) and, just before his departure, on 19 October, 'I am glad to come home, though much mortified at having failed in half my plans, and done nothing compared to what I expected. But it is better than if I were displeased with all I had done. It isn't Turner; and it isn't Correggio; it isn't even Prout; but it isn't bad.' (XIX.xliii.) He seems to repeat this dissatisfaction in a draft for his first lecture on landscape. Discussing pictures that would give 'the kind of feeling that [the viewer] would have had at the place itself - the pleasure and thrill of being there', rather than an accurate depiction of what was there, he wrote 'I confess that there is something in this realistic power which I have never been able to analyze, for it exists sometimes in the slightest amateur sketches, as well as in the most accomplished art. But certainly the first condition of it is that the objects shall impress themselves upon the eye in their own order and way, that you shall not be forced to look at anything, whether you like it or not, any more than in the real scene, and that there shall be no sense either of toil or affectation in the work. (Show Abbeville as failure.)' He presumably felt that it was too laboured in appearance. (XXII.29-30 n. 1.)

  • Details

    John Ruskin (1819 - 1900)
    Object type
    Material and technique
    graphite on off-white paper
    360 x 517 mm
    Associated place

    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:


    Taylor, Gerald, ‘John Ruskin: A Catalogue of Drawings by John Ruskin in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford’, 7 fascicles, 1998, Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, no. 101

    Cook, Edward T., Studies in Ruskin: Some Aspects of the Work and Teaching of John Ruskin (Orpington: George Allen, 1890), pl. I, f.p. 300

    Penny, Nicholas, Ruskin's Drawings, Ashmolean - Christie's Handbooks (London: Phaidon, 1988), no. 20

    Ruskin, John, Catalogue of the Reference Series Including Temporarily the First Section of the Standard Series (London: Smith, Elder, [1872]), cat. Reference no. 61

    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, no. 43 = XIX.276

    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), vol. XIX, pl. VIII, f.p. 244

    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. 61

    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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Position in Ruskin’s Collection

Ruskin's Catalogues

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