Friday, May 11th, 2012...9:51 am
You’ve Got Mail: “Dot or daub in any clumsy way”
With Modern Painters (1843-60), The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), and The Stones of Venice (1851-53), John Ruskin (1819-1900) established his credentials as Victorian England’s most influential art critic. His standing in artistic circles was enhanced by his own talent as an artist and draughtsman. For a number of years he offered drawing lessons at the Working Men’s College in London and at the Winnington School. In addition, he generously offered advice in his correspondence with friends and artistic acquaintances. His practical experience as an artist found literary expression in two popular manuals, The Elements of Drawing (1857) and The Elements of Perspective (1859). A reviewer of the former work praised Ruskin’s pedagogical style: “He speaks to them in a gentle and endearing tone, as if he had an earnest desire to serve them; and he gives his advice in language at once so persuasive and so imaginative, that the student is charmed into wisdom.”
One such student was Charles Eliot Norton (1827-1908), who would become Ruskin’s closest American friend and the first Professor of Art at Harvard. In this illustrated letter to Norton from September 1872, bMS Am 1088 (6049), Ruskin offers two methods of drawing objects – such as a book or teacup – in perspective (the letter from Norton he acknowledges has not evidently survived). The first method requires that the object be placed in front of a piece of white paper and then traced with a brush: “dot or daub in any clumsy way the line it describes on the paper behind it.” The second method involves placing a pane of glass between the object and the artist, who then can more easily delineate the object on the pane. (This method recalls a charming image from The Elements of Perspective: “Every pane of glass of your window may be considered, if you choose, as a glass picture; and what you see through it, as painted on its surface.”) The letter dates from Ruskin’s time as the first Slade Professor of Art at Oxford, where he founded the Ruskin School of Drawing, which continues to flourish to this day.
In 1904 Norton published selected letters from Ruskin then in his possession, later presented by the Norton family to Harvard. A more scholarly edition of their correspondence appeared in 1987, edited by John Lewis Bradley and Ian Ousby and published by Cambridge University Press.
This post is part of a weekly feature on the Houghton Library blog, “You’ve Got Mail,” based on letters in Houghton Library. Every Friday this year a Houghton staff member will select a letter from the diverse collections in the Library and put that letter into context. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the You’veGotMail tag.