Ruskin's Botanical Drawings

John Ruskin, Oak Stems, for Modern Painters  c.1860, RF1414 © Ruskin Foundation

Ruskin, John (1819-1900)

Oak Stems, for Modern Painters c.1860
3 3/8 X 4 1/4 in.
Brown ink on blue notepaper
Inscribed in ink: Drawing for Modern Painters / J Ruskin

RF 1414


Engraved on wood as Fig. 52 of volume V of Modern Painters, published in 1860. In Chapter VII, ‘The Stem,’ Ruskin describes how “our old friend the oak” divides usually into five shoots: “By considering the various aspects which the five rods would take in Fig. 52, as the entire group was seen from below or above, and at different angles and distances, the reader may find out for himself what changes of aspect are possible in even so regular a structure as this.” (7.79)

This is an excellent analysis of the branching pattern of an Oak (Quercus), although the species is not clear. The leaves are drawn with somewhat pointed tips to the lobes, which suggests Turkey Oak (Q. cerris L.), a fast growing, handsome Oak widely planted in gardens in the nineteenth century. Alternatively, the species represented may simply be English Oak (Q. robur L.), which has leaves with blunt lobes, in which case the leaves in the study were probably sketched rapidly, with little attention being given to their detailed outline. Similar analyses of plant growth patterns by botanist/Arts and Crafts designer Christopher Dresser a few years later, may have given rise to some of his more angular designs for glass, ceramics and metal-ware. Ruskin is known to have had one of Dresser’s books in his library, although the two men had very different views on the relative importance of ‘pictorial art’ and ‘decorative art’ (or design).

This entry was researched and written by Professor David Ingram.