Ruskin's Botanical Drawings

John Ruskin, Trees in a lane, perhaps at Ambleside 1847, RF1559 © Ruskin Foundation

Ruskin, John (1819-1900)

Trees in a lane, perhaps at Ambleside 1847
Pencil, black and brown ink, and ink wash
44.7 x 57.5 cm

Inscribed in ink: "Best way of studying Trees, with / a view to knowledge of their leafage. / Young Shoots of the Oak and Ash, in Spring. / J.R. 1847. (Unfinished)"

RF 1559


Ruskin spent a short holiday in the Lake District in the spring of 1847, staying at the Salutation Inn, Ambleside; here he wrote an article on Lord Lindsay's Sketches of the History of Christian Art, for the Quarterly Review, as a favour to John Gibson Lockhart. Writing to his father on 24 March, he reported a walk to look at Wordsworth's house at Rydal, "then climbed to Fairfield (2900 feet) . . . Fine day, and fine view - Scawfell, Grisedale Pike - Helvellyn close by - moors of Penrith, Lancaster, Windermere, Coniston, etc., and some snow on the top really pretty deep and wide; but as for mountains, they're nothing of the sort, nothing - mere humpy moorlands, mighty desolate" (36.70). In compensation, he may have devoted time to this, one of his most elaborate surviving pen and ink drawings, which has been formerly (but not convincingly) identified as a lane at Ambleside, largely on the evidence of the 'Spring' date in the unusually precise inscription. The extremely detailed attention to leaf, bark and creeper foreshadows such future writings as The Elements of Drawing (1857) and "Of Leaf Beauty", Part VI of the last volume of Modern Painters (1860).

In The Elements of Drawing, Ruskin takes the student through the stages of drawing leaves on the bough which he would have followed himself in compositions such as this, noting the difficulty of transcribing exactly the superimposition of adjoining branches. He recommends a concentration on the forking of a tree's branches: "When once you have mastered the tree at its armpits, you will have little more trouble with it" (15.67).

These fine trees appear to be, as Ruskin suggests, mainly Oak (probably English Oak; Quercus robur L.; syn. Q. pedunculata) and Ash (Fraxinus excelsior L.)

This entry was researched and written by Professor David Ingram.