To London last week for a few days of Culture. I decided to go down the night before my first assignation, rather than turn up at Two Temple Place (which does not have cloakroom facilities) with two stuffed gorillas and a glue gun in my luggage. The only downside to this is that the morning call in my well-appointed guest-house comes in the form of an ear-shattering crash as the door is flung open (with the knob yet further indenting the side wall) at 6.30 a.m. by a flatteringly excited two-year-old …
Later, after recovering with tea and toast, I set off for the Thames embankment. The bicentenary of the birth of John Ruskin on 8 February 1819 is being widely commemorated – most appropriately so at a time when so many of his most disturbing predictions on the environment, the economy and the fractured nature of society seem to be coming true.
The Two (or II) Temple Place exhibition, ‘John Ruskin: The Power of Seeing’ (until 22 April) gives a beautifully curated overview of the intertwining of Ruskin’s aestheticism with his views on culture and society. (Though I have to say that the building itself, formerly the London home of William Waldorf Astor, would probably have brought out the most excoriating aesthetic condemnation by Ruskin.) The layout of the show is broadly chronological, and one of the first things you see on entering is a watercolour of the Piazzetta in Venice from the water, by the prolific Samuel Prout (1783–1852), Painter of Water Colours in Ordinary to George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria.
Ruskin appreciated Prout’s drawings and prints, saying in Modern Painters that ‘There is no stone drawing, no vitality of architecture like Prout’s’, but seems to have been less keen on his watercolours; and I have to say that, carefully executed though this picture is, I find it dull – and you really have to try quite hard to make an image of the Piazzetta dull.
Nearby is an early piece of work by Ruskin himself – a map of Scotland, copied from an atlas when he was nine years old. The neatness and detail of this little work demonstrate amazing fine motor skills for a child of that age – and presumably explain his later ability to work at the most minute scale, as witnessed by this peacock feather.
There are, unsurprisingly, many Turners, and many watercolour sketches by Ruskin himself in Turneresque style. Possibly the most startling individual image (I heard several people gasp as they looked at the caption) is this Turner peacock’s head, from c. 1815, now in Leeds Art Gallery.
But possibly the most interesting sections of the display are the works created by the team of artists and assistants recruited by Ruskin over the years to continue and expand his own work in three areas: the recording of endangered architecture (most famously in Venice) before it fell victim to neglect or (in some ways worse) restoration; the copying of masterpieces for the edification and instruction of the very large numbers of people who would never see the originals; and the depiction through close observation of the miracles of nature.
So we have George Allen‘s Study of Thorns (above), John Wharlton Bunney’s famous Western Façade of the Basilica of San Marco, with which observant readers of this blog (I can hope, can’t I?) will be at least partially familiar, and also his 1871 Palazzo Manzoni (the building is now known as Palazzo Contarini-Polignac, and occasionally hosts Biennale events in the warehouse used by Manzoni, an eighteenth-century silk merchant), which Ruskin regarded as ‘a perfect and very rich example of Byzantine Renaissance’: that is, the revival in the 1400s of an architectural style of the 1100s, not the more familiar Renaissance, which Ruskin loathed. (An entertaining list of fifteen things which Ruskin loathed is displayed in the gallery at Two Temple Place: also included are railways and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger.)
Among the copies of great works is a version of Giovanni Bellini’s Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan, bought by the National Gallery for £630 in 1844 from William Beckford, who seems to have paid 13 guineas for it in 1807 (it had presumably been looted during the Napoleonic invasion of Italy).
The copy was executed by Octavia Hill, whom Ruskin encouraged and supported in many ways until an unexplained breach in their relationship which caused her to have a breakdown.
Amid delicate and delightful flower paintings by Ruskin himself, including this gorgeous Fritillaria meleagris
is a study of Florentine roses by another of the assistants, Henry Roderick Newman (1843–1917),
who also depicted San Martino in Lucca in a watercolour from 1885,
and a depiction of cyclamen by Bunney, who presumably was fulfilling the master’s injunction to paint or sketch something every day.
Another assistant/copyist represented is Charles Fairfax Murray (1849–1919), who entered Burne-Jones’s studio in the late 1860s and was also employed by William Morris. Burne-Jones showed Ruskin Murray’s copies of the Camposanto frescoes in Pisa, and as a result Ruskin employed him in Italy, where he settled in Florence. He gradually became a dealer in as well as a creator of art, and a consultant to both individual collectors and institutions. In 1918 he gave the Fitzwilliam Museum one of its most famous paintings – Titian’s Tarquin and Lucretia – and he was also a generous donor of drawings, prints, manuscripts and fine arts pieces.
There is also a section of bird paintings, including a pelican by Audubon, one of Edward Lear’s parrots and a beautiful teal, next to a dead duck by Ruskin himself, the stunning peacock feather, and the peacock’s head by Turner mention above.
Among the books Ruskin gave to the Guild of St George and on display here were a volume of John Gould’s birds as well as Levaillant’s work on birds of paradise, and Bewick’s History of British Birds (Ruskin’s own copy, with his annotations); and for botany, Curtis’s Flora Londoniensis and Sir J.E. Smith’s English Botany with Sowerby’s illustrations – all wonderful examples of how to really see what you’re looking at.
From Two Temple Place, I moved on to the Nunnery Gallery at Bow, to see the lovely exhibition of works by Doreen Fletcher, whose handling of light, and thus creation of atmosphere, is masterly – go if you can! Then after an evening of family fun, and another early-morning reveillé, I headed for St Martin-within-Ludgate for an excellent symposium on memory and context, which ranged from Jesus as a Jew to the burning of Ruskin’s correspondence with Rose La Touche via the little-remembered Anglo-Saxon ecclesiastical Province of Lichfield, the extraordinary story of the contemporary perception (or lack of) of the English Reformation, and the compelling drama of Gammer Gally, cleaning-woman at the Stationers’ Company, versus the Company’s Beadle.
My final destination on the cultural front was the RA’s new exhibition on ‘The Renaissance Nude’ – at which point I realised I had come full circle: one of the first images displayed was Dürer’s print of ‘Adam and Eve’, with its malignant cat – which had also appeared at Two Temple Place, along with a drawing by Arthur Burgess (?1844–87), the wood-engraver whom Ruskin commissioned to create the flower illustrations for Proserpina, of the cat’s head, much enlarged.
And meanwhile, outside, the Stepney microclimate was producing wonders which would undoubtedly have gladdened Ruskin’s heart and caused him to reach for his pencil …