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Ruskin, John (1819-1900)

Study of Roses, from the dress of Spring in Botticelli's Primavera, 1874
Pencil, ink, watercolour and body colour
16.2 x 24.2 cm

RF 1168

In his diary for 3 September 1874, Ruskin noted that he had been at work in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence, ―on flowers of my book vignette – Botticelli‘s.

It was, he explained, ―copied from the clearest bit of the pattern of the petticoat of Spring, where it is drawn tight over her thigh … no man has ever yet drawn, and none is likely to draw for many a day, roses as well as Sandro has drawn them. (Fors Clavigera, Letter 22, October 1872; 27.371). Familiar with Botticelli‘s masterpiece Primavera (Spring, 1478), Ruskin adopted this detail of roses as a wood engraved vignette on the title-page of all his books from 1871 onwards, including the covers of part-publications such as Fors Clavigera and Proserpina.

Roses lack the genes for synthesising the anthocyanin pigment delphinidin, which gives the blue colour to plants such as violets and delphiniums. Blue roses are, therefore, as rare as truly black tulips, yet gardeners have continually searched for them, always to no avail. Indeed, in 1810 a group of rose-lovers paid a guinea a plant, sight unseen, for a supposedly blue rose imported from China by Lord Milford, only to discover that its blooms were nothing more than a reddish purple. Recently, the Japanese company Suntory has been successful in producing a bluish rose using the techniques of genetic modification (GM), but a clear sky-blue rose, such as Ruskin painted here, remains elusive. The roses on Spring‘s petticoat in Botticelli‘s painting are a clear pink, although on the un-cleaned canvas seen by Ruskin they may have appeared bluish. It is known, however, that blue was Ruskin‘s favourite colour – he usually wore a blue stock, for example – and that may explain his choice of pigment. It is also tempting to speculate about hidden messages, such as the never ending quest for the impossible (especially in love), but in the absence any evidence such speculation would perhaps be unwise.

This entry was researched and written by Professor David Ingram.


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