Ruskin assembled the collections for his students to copy over a period of fifteen years. They are very diverse, ranging from highly finished watercolours by J.M.W. Turner to cheap book illustrations. They include drawings, reproductive prints and photographs of works of art, buildings, geology, and natural history. Many of the drawings were made by Ruskin himself or commissioned from his disciples, among them Burne-Jones.
Ruskin divided the Collection into four main series. The Standard and Reference Series contained exemplary works of art or reproductions of them, whilst the Educational and Rudimentary Series provided practical examples. The Rudimentary Series was for students from outside the University; the Educational was for undergraduates. 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).