In the last year of the war, with everything very difficult to obtain, the Savoy Hotel printed its menu by means of ‘hectograph jelly’, not a dessert but a form of inking process involving a bright mauve colour. The carte was restricted by rationing and the menu measured rather less than the modern A5 size. As it was in French it still had a certain allure.
My friend, also named Brian, lived a few doors away from me in Glengarry Road and his father was head waiter at the Savoy. Every week Brian’s father brought home a stack of these menu cards which were made from a superb smooth white card just perfect for ink or pencil drawing. Brian, who was several years older than me, was a brilliant artist, even from a young age. He loved drawing seascapes, especially ones with galleons in full sail. To this day he still paints seascapes (see Brian Slack artist and sculptor).
Over the years we created a model alpine railway in my back garden; a process which took so long there was usually no time left to actually run the trains and it was also usual for the enterprise to end in an argument, at which Brian would take up all his track and return to his house in a huff.
A few years later the arguments would centre on art and the art of J M W Turner in particular. Brian adored Turner’s work and was indeed a later-day Ruskinite. I would argue with Brian that as Turner grew older, he ‘lost it’, in searching for the metaphysical in his paintings. Brian would have none of it, only agreeing that as Turner aged his painting changed. Thus I unknowingly shared some of the opinions of the Rev John Eagles, the art critic of Blackwood’s magazine - “Turner’s eyes must play him false, it cannot truly represent to his mind either his forms or colours - or his hallucination is great”. Like the general public of Turner’s day, I too regretted the change in style of my old favourite.
Contemporary fans of Turner’s work were the Ruskin family. John James Ruskin had started to buy the artist‘s water colours at the Royal Academy exhibitions and his enthusiasm for Turner was shared by his son John. So great did the young Ruskin;s admiration for Turner become that his indulgent father gave him Turner’s oil, The Slave Ship, as a twenty-first birthday present, buying it directly from the 1840 summer Exhibition.
Ruskin and Turner
It had been a review in Blackwood’s of the Royal Academy exhibition, four years earlier, in 1836 to which John Ruskin, then aged 17 was first roused to respond to by writing a letter to the magazine refuting its critic’s view. Perhaps it was fortunate that Turner’s opinion was sought first. In the event Turner replied that he took no notice of the views of his critics. Thus the letter was never sent. Eagles’ review had savaged Turner’s exhibit of a Venetian scene, Juliet and her Nurse as “perfectly unintelligible…Turner revels in fancy and in the splendor of his colours” The critic then posited his argument of the superiority of the Old Masters over the current British School of landscape painters.
John Ruskin himself had shown early promise of his talent in drawing, and he was encouraged by his father, who watched him draw, A particular memory he recorded in his unfinished autobiography, ‘Praeterita,’ was of his drawing of a bridge across the Effra stream in Croxted lane, being complimented on. Later the young Ruskin continued his art education under the tutorship of the artist Charles Runciman. Runciman initially gave the young Ruskin models to copy and by the time John was fourteen Runciman was sufficiently impressed to promote him to water-colour painting as a step towards the use of oils. John Ruskin never took to oils, he liked the immediacy of water colours and all his life continued to produce fine examples of the medium. However, his real love remained drawing and later, when he became engrossed in the details of architecture, pencil drawing and pen and ink were the mediums he used.
Early days in Dulwich
Croxted lane, was only a short walk from his home at 28 Herne Hill and was an area which would forever remain dear, and be an inspiration to him until it fell victim to villa development years later at the time he was writing his biography.
Although an avid collector of a plethora of items ranging from bird feathers to leaves, he was also a serious student of geology and over his lifetime assembled a large and impressive collection of rocks, often from his numerous expeditions with his parents. His early interest in nature was inspired by his frequent walks around Dulwich. These interests would later play a large part in his art criticism.
Until the arrival of the Crystal Palace in 1854, followed by the building of railway embankments and bridges ten or so years later, Croxted lane, Tulse Hill and Dulwich Common were areas of particular natural beauty. One of the young Ruskin’s early water colours, probably encouraged by Runciman and made in 1832 might well have been of one of the ponds on Dulwich Common such as one named the Witches’ Pond (now drained and turfed over) and shown here in a very early photograph. This was his first excursion into a style of painting called ‘picturesque’, it would be a style he would refute a few years later. The recent Ruskin exhibition at 2 Temple Place displayed another Dulwich tree sketch.
After his studies at Oxford, which were interrupted by a lengthy bout of illness, Ruskin’s drawing master was J D Harding, an enthusiast of Turner’s water colours who would be influential in Ruskin’s later criticism of Italian and Dutch artists; the same artists, particularly Claude who had determined a good deal of the British view of the picturesque and inspired wealthy landowners to simulate his style on their estates and views with Gothic ruins and classical statuary
Harding’s preferences were trees and foliage and the effects of light and shade, the very elements whose treatment Ruskin would soon espouse in Modern Painters. A drawing by the young Ruskin showing ivy growing around a tree at Tulse Hill was made during Harding’s tenure as tutor. According to W G Collingwood’s Life of John Ruskin. he noticed a tree-stem with ivy growing upon it, which seemed not ungraceful, and invited a sketch. “As he drew he fell into the spirit of its natural arrangement, and soon perceived how much finer it was as a piece of design than any conventional rearrangement would be. Harding had tried to show him how to generalize foliage; but in this example he saw that not generalization was needed to get its beauty, but truth”.
If Croxted lane or Tulse Hill were destinations for sketching en plein air, then Dulwich Picture Gallery was also a frequent place of visit made by the young Ruskin. It was not straightforward getting admission to Dulwich College Picture Gallery, its regulations obliged visitors to buy tickets from a handful of ticket-sellers either in Pall Mall or Threadneedle Street. Did young Ruskin plan ahead for his visits to the gallery, or did he, as seems more likely, choose to pop in when returning from some sketching expedition? If so, his ready entry to the gallery was facilitated by his acquaintance with Stephen Poyntz Denning, the curator.
Stephen Poyntz Denning, an artist in his own right and favored by the Royal Family was a member of what might be termed the Herne Hill Art Set (see Dulwich Society Journal winter 2014) which revolved around the wealthy art collector, Clarence Bicknell, and John’s father John James Ruskin, who lived almost opposite each other on Herne Hill, Bicknell occupying an estate now bounded by Casino Avenue and Frankfurt Road. Both men had started to collect Turner’s water colours and the artist himself was a frequent visitor. Also importantly, for what was soon about to occur, John James Ruskin also owned works by Samuel Prout and Copley Fielding - the former was a regular visitor to the Ruskins’ new home on Denmark Hill to which they moved in 1842, the latter, the most fashionable drawing master of his day and president of the Old Water- Colour Society had earlier given lessons to John over a two year period when John was aged 15.
Ruskin and Modern Painters
The Royal Academy exhibition of 1842 was the event which triggered Ruskin’s great campaign to champion Turner as Art’s greatest painter of landscapes. He had spent the summer on the family’s annual extended holiday in France and Switzerland and while in Geneva he read a review in The Times of the summer exhibition at the Royal Academy in which three of the five paintings which Turner showed were subjected to such criticism and ridicule that Ruskin once again decided to respond.
He and his parents had continued on to Chamonix, close to Mont Blanc, a particularly favourite area for him. His diary suggests that it was there that he appeared to have had an Epiphany moment while walking among the mountains where the natural beauty of the area impressed itself upon him, sharpened his observations of rocks, clouds, trees and flowers and erased his former regard of the ‘picturesque’. Forthwith truth to nature would be the criterion of beauty and in Ruskin’s opinion that was no better expressed in Art than by Turner. He later described that moment, how he watched the sunset on a stormy evening in the Alps…”The ponderous storm writhed and moaned….. the forests wailed and waved in the evening wind, the steep river flashed and leaped along the valley; but the mighty pyramids stood calmly - in the very heart of the heaven - a celestrial city with walls of amethyst and gates of gold - filled with the light and clothed with the Peace of God. And I learned - what till then I had not known - the real meaning of the word Beautiful.” John Rosenberg puts it well: Ruskin’s own direct experience of nature proved to him that Turner recreated beauty more truthfully than any other artist.
On his return to Denmark Hill he began to develop his riposte to the hostile reviews of Turner’s detractors, and of course had opportunity to view the criticized pictures themselves. Turner had exhibited two of his popular Venetian landscapes, Campo Santo and The Dogana, San Georgio, Citella from the steps of the Europa. No problem there then, this was the kind of picture the public had long applauded and to which the critics responded with unanimous approval. It was the three other works in what was termed by some as Turner’s ‘impressionist’ style and by others as ‘dissolving views’. which attracted widespread and virulent criticism. “One of the most wretched experiments at daubing paint upon a canvas that ever deformed the walls of a picture gallery”, thundered The Times; “We can call it nothing more than paint run mad. Year after year Mr Turner exhibits these insane productions” (The Globe) “This gentleman has on former occasions chosen to paint with cream, or chocolate, yolk of egg or currant jelly - here he uses his whole array of kitchen stuff.” complained a third.
The three pictures held in such contempt were Peace - Burial at sea, commemorating the death of his friend David Wilkie; War, the exile and the rock limpet, showing a lonely Napoleon, and Snow storm- steam boat out of harbour mouth making signals. The first was described as having “an object resembling a burnt and blackened fish kettle but meant to be a steamer”, the second described as looking like a lobster and the third as a scene depicting soapsuds and whitewash.
Ruskin originally planned that his response would be a letter to the Editor of the review in The Times, then he considered expanding that into a short pamphlet and finally into a full blown treatise on art, “because it advocated opinions which, to the ordinary connoisseur, will sound heretical”. Eventually, what had started as a germ of an idea expanded to the production of a discourse on art running to five volumes
It was not only the hostile reviews of the 1842 exhibition that Ruskin was reacting to; he had not forgotten the Rev John Eagles’ attack on Turner of six years earlier. and Eagles, was still pouring vitriol Turner’s way in Blackwood’s. Nor was Ruskin’s riposte polite - “Writers like the present critic of Blackwood’s Magazine deserve more respect - the respect due to honest, hopeless imbecility. There is something exalted in the innocence of their feeblemindedness…”
It is clear that in Modern Painters, Ruskin sought to rebut Eagles’ argument of the superiority in landscape painting of the Dutch and Italian Old Master over the modern, i.e living, painters of the British School, most especially Turner but also including Copley Fielding, Samuel Prout, David Cox and Clarkson Stanfield by critically examining the work of the particular Old Masters which Eagles had promoted. His central plank was, yes Turner did make mistakes, but so did all of the so-called Old Masters before him and he set out to point these errors out.
Ruskin and Dulwich Picture Gallery
According to W G Collingwood, while he was furiously writing away, Margaret Ruskin wisely prized her son away from the discourse in progress and out of his study in the afternoon and urged him to go for a walk and look at the Claudes and Poussins in the Dulwich Gallery. En route, Ruskin says that he again found inspiration from walking beside the Effra in Croxted lane.
In Modern Painters Ruskin argues that the “so-called Old Masters of the post-Renaissance artists “, were not ‘true to nature”. While he extensively criticised aspects of Claude’s The Mill in the National Gallery, most of the other Old Master pictures he deconstructs are to be found in the Dulwich Gallery. He also added a few Old Masters not on Eagles’ list to drive home his points - Cuyp, Ludolf Backhuysen and Wilem Van der velde. Perhaps it was just as well that Ruskin invoked some additional Old Master examples as two of his first choices for criticism - a landscape by Gaspard Poussin (Dughet) (DPG 30) and Salvator Rosa’s Landscape with Figures (DPG 457) have both been reattributed to ‘followers’ of the artists, rather than to the two artists themselves.
For Ruskin, the two great ends to landscape painting were the representation of facts and thoughts, success being determined by the test of truth. He argued that sincerity in a belief represented truth in its abstract form while facts were determined by their truth to nature. The facts that Ruskin considered most important and which demanded his criterion - truth, were the artist’s treatment of natural objects; trees, clouds, light, water, mountains and vegetation. The representation of thoughts validated Turner’s Romantic compositions of his ‘dissolving-landscape’ period. Ruskin also argued that colour was of less importance than form, that form was defined by the use of light and shade.
The original title for his discourse was to be ‘Turner and the Ancients’, but after showing the manuscript to his friend W H Harrison it was decided that this was not explicit enough and it thus received the title ‘Modern Painters: their superiority in the Art of Landscape painting to all the Ancient Masters, proved by examples of the True, the Beautiful and the Intellectual from the works of Modern Artists, especially those of J M W Turner’. As this title did not exactly roll off the tongue it became known simply as Modern Painters. The authorship was attributed as follows ; ‘A Graduate of Oxford’. It was just as well it did not mention that the degree of the said graduate was a Double Fourth; the result of so much absence through ill-health.
Modern Painters was reprinted with a second edition within a year and remained in print for a further fifty. The effect of the book was to launch Ruskin’s career as an art critic, make Turner’s ‘impressionist’ or ‘dissolving landscapes’ studies his most popular and ultimately the most collectable, and put Claude of Lorraine’s works out of saleroom favour for decades.
Ruskin’s latter days in Dulwich
In the 1850’s, when he was teaching at the Working Men’s College in Holborn, Ruskin would bring parties of his students to Dulwich for sketching classes and finish the excursion at the Greyhound, where, after a talk about art the group would enjoy afternoon tea. According to Tom Morris, a Dulwich resident, Ruskin and his students would walk from Denmark Hill to Dulwich Woods to gather specimens of leaves to draw. “He used to give me a call at Alleyn’s Cottages on Dulwich Common on their return from the ramble and have a little chat about Art. I would pay him a return visit at Denmark Hill, and receive lessons in painting flowers and fruit….I received many kindnesses and gifts of money from him to buy paints and brushes..” A letter from a ‘T Morris’ exists in the Ruskin archive at the University of Lancaster.
John Ruskin left Dulwich for the Lake District in 1872 following the death of his mother and his increasing distress at the way the idyllic locus of his childhood was being destroyed by the spread of suburbia. He had lived on Herne Hill and Denmark Hill for fifty years.