A sketch of a mountain crag; a list of towns visited (over fifty); notes of subjects to investigate further – all of these swarm inkily around a single page in a notebook, reproduced here, kept by the young John Ruskin during a family holiday. As he got older, his intellectual curiosity only increased. When his writings were collected together after his death in 1900 they filled thirty-nine hefty volumes, and on top of that he habitually drew the world around him, creating a beautiful and revealing archive of the places and things he thought worth recording. One commentator quoted in The Art of Ruskin and the Spirit of Place wishes he ‘had drawn more and written less’ – a view that may quietly be held by many others – but even so, Ruskin rarely hesitated to reach for his sketchbook. There is no catalogue raisonné of his drawings, but if it existed libraries would have to clear substantial space on their shelves for it.
John Dixon Hunt remarks in his introduction that it takes an immense effort to see Ruskin ‘whole’; I wonder whether it is possible at all. But just as he drew in order to understand the world that fascinated him so much (‘unless I draw a bit of a thing,’ he once wrote, ‘I never arrive at conclusions to which I can altogether trust’), the drawings he made illuminate the man. In this lucid study of the great Victorian polymath’s visual imagination, Hunt uses these sketches, studies and scenes to show us around Ruskin’s curious mind.
We begin with Ruskin unlearning the formulas he had absorbed from drawing masters and artists whose work he admired. Among the latter was Samuel Prout, whose picturesque watercolours of towns, teeming with colourful incident, were a shaping influence