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

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

Ruskin's Educational series, 1st ed. (1871)

Ruskin's first catalogue of 300 works for the instruction of undergraduates and his notes on the use of particular examples.

Educational 1 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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Enlarged Drawing of Apollo's Laurel Sceptre in the Engraving from the so-called "Mantegna Tarocchi" John Ruskin

  • Ruskin text

    8. Outline of Laurel.

    Measure and copy this, with thick dry colour in your brush. It will show you in the outset, that refinement in design does not depend on the minuteness or fineness of work, but on its precision and care. These lines look coarse, but you will find they cannot be altered in the curvature even by a small fraction of an inch without losing grace, and that it is very difficult to follow their curvatures without altering them, owing to their continual subtlety of change.

    Also, it is not possible to express the general characters of growth in noble vegetation, with fewer or simpler lines. It is easy to make leaves and stems graceful, but not to make them springy and vigorous as well: and the especial beauty of this group of foliage as terminating the rod of Apollo is the strength with which it is springing, and the visible presence in the god’s virgin sceptre of the life which in the king’s is lost. Look at the words of the vow of Achilles.

    Note the quaint little leaf at the bottom, which you would think had been drawn wrongly. In vulgar design, everything is equally graceful; but in fine design, there are local uncouthnesses, as, in fine music, discords.

    For the rest, the diminution of the stem for each leaf is much greater than it would be in reality: this is a necessary conventionalism, in order to terminate the strong rod within brief limits; but nothing can be more perfect than its rendering of the universal law of ramification; and even the apparent coarseness of the lines is only caused by enlargement of scale, for this example is much magnified; in the original it is only about an inch high, and the lines are thickened by cross strokes, not by deeper engraving.

  • Details

    Artist/maker
    John Ruskin (1819 - 1900)
    after Gerardo Fiorini (active 1449 - 1486) (engraver)
    Object type
    drawing
    Material and technique
    watercolour over black chalk on wove paper
    Dimensions
    488 x 344 mm
    Inscription
    Recto:
    top right, in graphite: 2
    bottom, towards right, in graphite: E 8

    Verso:
    top, left of centre, in graphite: 3
    below centre, the Ruskin School's stamp
    Provenance

    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
    1
    Accession no.
    WA.RS.ED.008
  • Subject terms allocated by curators:

    Subjects

  • References in which this object is cited include:

    References

    Ruskin, John, Catalogue of the Educational Series (London: Smith, Elder, 1871), cat. Educational no. 5

    Ruskin, John, Catalogue of the Educational Series (London: Spottiswoode, 1874), cat. Educational no. 8

    Taylor, Gerald, ‘John Ruskin: A Catalogue of Drawings by John Ruskin in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford’, 7 fascicles, 1998, Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, no. 141

    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. Educational no. 8

    Ruskin, John, Catalogue of Examples Arranged for Elementary Study in the University Galleries (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1870), cat. Educational no. 3

Location

    • Western Art Print Room

Position in Ruskin’s Collection

Ruskin's Catalogues

  • Ruskin's Educational series, 1st ed. (1871)

    5 Laurel in conventional outline. (Apollo’s Sceptre) after Baccio Bandini . M
  • Ruskin's Educational series, 2nd ed. (1874)

    8. Laurel in conventional outline. (Apollo’s Sceptre) after Baccio Bandini. M
  • Ruskin's Catalogue of Examples (1870)

    Laurel. Head of the Sceptre of Apollo. (R.) Outline from an Italian early engraving, probably by Baccio Baldini of Florence.

    This is the first of a series of studies of the plants and flowers either directly connected with the Greek mythology, or expressive of more recent phases of thought or sentiment which have risen out of the more ancient myths. And I place these floral exercises first, because they will test what faculty you have for real drawing in the simplest way; and will at once draw your attention to some of the most interesting features both of Greek decoration, of mediæval sculpture, and of pictorial backgrounds of the best periods towards the close of the fifteenth century. And even should you do no more than endeavour to measure and trace one or two of them, they will open your eyes to the differences between fine ornamentation and the rigidities and equalities of modern vulgar design.

    After these, the eight examples, 13 to 20, with their sequels, when completed, will illustrate the conventional system of the early schools of colour, and their special methods of ornamental line, as derived from vegetation or other organic forms.

    Then the group 21 to 30, with their sequels, will illustrate the Greek treatment of ornamental line, and the forms of good architectural decoration in every school.

    The following group, 31 to 40, introduces the practice of chiaroscuro, and the complete methods of ornamentation founded on perfect draughtsmanship and perception of light and shade.

    Lastly, the group 41 to 50 is for practice in colours in the methods of the fully accomplished schools of painting.

    It is of so great importance in any series of examples arranged for general service, that the references should be fixed and clear, that I shall sacrifice at once to this object every pretence to formal succession in arrangement. I have begun almost miscellaneously, with slight exercises in various methods of work: to these, I shall gradually add more difficult and interesting ones. But I will not alter the numbers of this first group; but distinguish the supplementary ones by letters after the numbers. Some even of the drawings intended for this opening series are not yet prepared; but I have named them in the catalogue notwithstanding, and will complete and add them as soon as may be.

    I have several reasons for choosing this conventional branch of laurel for your first exercise. It will show you in the outset, that refinement in design does not depend on minuteness or fineness of work, but on its precision and care. These lines look coarse, but you will find they cannot be altered in curvature by a very small fraction of an inch without losing grace, and that it is very difficult to follow their curvatures without altering them, owing to their continual subtlety of change.

    Also, it is not possible to express the general characters of growth in noble vegetation, with fewer or simpler lines. It is easy to make leaves and stems graceful, but not to make them springy and vigorous as well: and the especial beauty of this group of foliage as terminating the rod of Apollo is the strength with which it is springing, and the visible presence in the god’s virgin sceptre of the life which in the king’s is lost. (Look at the words of the vow of Achilles.)

    Also, note the quaint little stiff leaf at the bottom, which you would think had been drawn wrongly. In vulgar design, everything is equally graceful; but in fine design, there are local uncouthnesses, as, in fine music, discords.

    For the rest, the diminution of the stem for each leaf is much greater than it would be in reality: this is a necessary conventionalism, in order to terminate the strong rod within brief limits; but nothing can be more perfect than its rendering of the universal law of ramification; and even the apparent coarseness of the lines is only caused by enlargement of scale, for this example is much magnified; in the original it is only about an inch high, and the lines are all thickened by cross strokes, not by deeper engraving.

    In copying it, take the finer outline, 3 B; measure all the rectilinear dimensions accurately, and having thus fixed the points of the leaves, draw the contours with light pencil, as in 3 B, as truly as you can, then finally draw them with the brush (as in 3), with violet carmine mixed with Indian red, keeping the outside edge of the broad colour line, terminated by the fine pencil one. But first, read the directions given for colour under No. 14; and observe also that, even in the most complicated forms, as 11 D, for instance, you are to fix points with absolute accuracy by rectilinear measurement, and not to use squares over the whole. Squaring is good for reduction, and for advanced practice, but at first all must be measured point by point.

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