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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Laurel Leaf, seen Underneath and in Profile John Ruskin

  • Ruskin text

    5. 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

    John Ruskin (1819 - 1900)
    Object type
    Material and technique
    watercolour and bodycolour over graphite, with additional markings in pen and ink, on wove paper
    183 x 140 mm
    Recto, bottom left, in graphite (recent): Ed9

    Verso, just to the right of and below centre, 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:


    Taylor, Gerald, ‘John Ruskin: A Catalogue of Drawings by John Ruskin in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford’, 7 fascicles, 1998, Oxford, Ashmolean Museum, no. 140

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

    Ruskin, John, Catalogue of the Educational Series (London: Spottiswoode, 1874), cat. Educational no. 9

    Ruskin, John, ‘Educational Series 1878’, 1878, Oxford, Oxford University Archives, cat. Educational no. 9

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

    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. 9


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Ruskin's Catalogues

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