Ruskin's Botanical Drawings

John Ruskin, Trees and Rocks c.1845, RF1566 © Ruskin Foundation

Ruskin, John (1819-1900)

Trees and Rocks c.1845
Pencil, brown ink, ink wash and bodycolour
33.5 x 27.5 cm

RF 1566


Another brown ink study deposited at Oxford with the well-known Stone Pines at Sestri of 1845 is a smaller Rough sketch of tree growth, "marking simply the lights and darks . . . of real shadow" (21.296). This is inscribed 'Macugnaga Aug. 4th', again of 1845, which must be the date, and probably the location, of this more detailed study of Trees and Rocks. The energy in the penmanship and swift application of wash suggests that this was also made on the spot.

The artist James Duffield Harding was Ruskin's travelling companion for part of the 1845 tour, and in a letter of 26 August to his father, Ruskin bemoaned the "brown, laboured, melancholy, uncovetable" drawings of his own, in comparison with "such pretty things, such desirable things to have" that Harding had done. However, Ruskin could see an essential and significant difference between Harding's picturesque compositions and his own pragmatic observation of nature: "his sketches are always pretty because he balances their parts together & considers them as pictures – mine are always ugly, for I consider my sketch only as a written note of certain facts, and those I put down in the rudest & clearest way as many as possible. Harding's are all for impression - mine all for information".

The tall, upright conifers depicted here, both in the middle foreground and on the distant hills, are very different from those in Ruskin's well-known painting of southern Stone Pines (or Umbrella Pines; Pinus pinea L.) which, as the alternative name suggests, have a rather flattened crown. Since only an impression of the trees is given in the drawing, it is impossible to give them a precise name. However, Macugnana, where the trees may have been painted, is a village high in the Monte Rosa Massif of north Piedmont, Italy. They might, therefore, be the evergreen Silver Fir (Abies alba Miller), Norway Spruce (Picea abies (L.) Karsten) or perhaps the deciduous European Larch (Larix decidua Miller; alt. L. europea), all known to grow in the mountains of that region. These suggestions should, however, be regarded as extremely tentative.

The stunted and twisted, broad-leaved trees are also extremely difficult to identify. On the lower slopes around Macugnana are mixed woodlands of maple, ash, oak and chestnut, with beech trees occurring on higher slopes. The twisted stems depicted here, however, are more likely to be Birch (Betula spp.) or perhaps Alder (Alnus glutinosa (L.) Gaertner). Both are known to grow on the banks of high mountain streams around Macugnana.

Interestingly, in the extreme left foreground, where ground dwelling plants have been suggested, are what appear to be some tri-foliate, compound leaves with heart shaped leaflets of Wood Sorrel (Oxalis acetosella L.), Ruskin's "favourite Chamouni plant".

This entry was researched and written by Professor David Ingram.