Ruskin's Botanical Drawings

John Ruskin, Oxalis, R1419 © Ruskin Foundation

Ruskin, John (1819-1900)

Inscribed in brown ink: Oxalis, twice natural size, sketche[d...]
4 8/10 X 3 6/10 in.
Pencil and watercolour

RF 1419


The oxalis, or wood sorrel, was once described by Ruskin as his “favourite Chamouni plant” (Diary, 4 February 1844). He particularly liked plants that carried some association beyond their immediate visual appeal, and was delighted to find that the popular Italian name was ‘Alleluia.’ “The triple leaf of this plant,” he wrote in the first volume of Modern Painters (1843), “and white flower, stained purple, probably gave it strange typical interest among the Christian painters.” (3.175) In Proserpina he states in the Introduction that “ I had begun my studies of Alpine botany just eighteen years before, in 1842, by making a careful drawing of wood-sorrel at Chamouni; and bitterly sorry I am, now, that the work was interrupted. For I drew, then, very delicately; and should have made a pretty book if I could have got peace.” Later he says that “[i]ts entire function is decorative; it is virtually a flowering plant, – not one for either fruit or seed; its fruit is nothing, and the whole aim of Nature in it is to give the flower an infinite tenderness.” (25.529)

Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella L.; Wood Sorrel family - Oxalidaceae) is a low, creeping perennial with a basal whorl of compound leaves, each with three, pale green, heart-shaped leaflets. The delicate flowers are white or pale lilac, with characteristic deeper lilac veins and are usually solitary and half-nodding, as Ruskin has depicted them so delicately. Wood Sorrel grows throughout Europe, in woods (especially ‘ancient’ woodlands) and hedge-banks and other shady places, or in shade on mountains.

Another example of Wood Sorrel is RF 1163

This entry was researched and written by Professor David Ingram and Stephen Wildman