'John Ruskin: Artist and Observer', by Christopher Newall - Review

By McEwen, John | The Spectator, May 3, 2014 | Go to article overview

'John Ruskin: Artist and Observer', by Christopher Newall - Review


McEwen, John, The Spectator


Credit: John McEwen

John Ruskin: Artist and Observer Christopher Newall

National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa/ Paul Holberton Publishing, pp.376, £37.50, ISBN: 9781907372575

This stout and well-designed volume nicely complements Tim Hilton's classic biography of John Ruskin. It is the catalogue for the exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (till 11 May) and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery (4 July-28 September).

A Scottish venue is especially appropriate. Ruskin (1819-1900) was a Londoner but proudly Scots by descent. He retained the slight Scottish accent of his father, a successful sherry merchant, who had been brought up in Edinburgh; and already at nine drew a highly competent map of Scotland, which is illustrated but regrettably not exhibited. In common with the fashion of his time, the poems and novels of Sir Walter Scott were his 'chief source of delight'; a formative visual and romantic memory was 'going through Glenfarg, near Kinross, on a winter's morning, when

the rocks were hung with icicles'. Mountains, rocks (geology, another fashion) and wild plants would always be favourite subjects.

Ruskin's literary and cultural importance are beyond dispute, but how seriously should we take him as an artist? This catalogue suggests very seriously indeed. At his best, writes Conal Shields, he is 'among the greatest of English painters and draftsmen'. Ruskin had drawing lessons and was never without a sketchbook; but he regarded his drawing as an aid, not as art. …

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