Ruskin Library and Research Centre


Ruskin Library


Ruskin Research


10 October - 16 December 2011


John Ruskin loved flowers. Sitting at his desk at Brantwood on 14th March 1874, in a moment of candour, he wrote as follows in the Introduction  to Proserpina, his fascinating but highly controversial, botanical work:

There was a pretty young English lady at the table-d’ hôte, in the Hôtel du Mont Blanc at St Martin’s,* and I wanted to get speech of her, and didn’t know how. So all I could think of was to go half-way up the Aiguille de Varens, to gather St. Bruno’s lilies; and I made a great cluster of them, and put wild roses all round them as I came down. I never saw anything so lovely; and I thought to present this to her before dinner, - but when I got down, she had gone away to Chamouni [= Chamonix]. My Fors** always treated me like that, in affairs of the heart.

* “It was in the year 1860, in June”; ** “Force, Fortitude and Fortune”


He was not only thwarted in ‘affairs of the heart’, however, but also in his botanical work, as is apparent from the next paragraph in the Introduction to Proserpina, where he wrote:

“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. Even yet, I can manage my point a little, and would far rather be making outlines of flowers than writing; and I meant to have drawn every English and Scottish wild flower, like this cluster of bog heather ... -  back and profile, and front. But ‘Blackwood’s Magazine’, with its insults to Turner, dragged me into controversy; and I have not had, properly speaking, a day’s peace since; so that in 1868 my botanical studies were advanced only as far as the reader will see in the next chapter; and now, in 1874, must end altogether, I suppose, heavier thoughts and work coming fast on me.”  

Line Study I

‘If only…….’, for Ruskin not only loved plants, but also understood both their aesthetic ‘soul’ and their physical structure, so that his watercolours, drawings and sketches are often beautiful works of art of high order and, being the result of acute botanical observation, are frequently as accurate as the best botanical illustrations. This rare combination of art and scientific observation is summed up in the footnote referring to the illustration of “bog heather” [Cross-leaved Heath, Erica tetralix – see above], where Ruskin writes:

“*Admirably engraved by Mr. Burgess, from my pen drawing, now in Oxford. By comparing it with the plate of the same flower in Sowerby’s work [presumably English Botany, illustrated by James Sowerby, with botanical descriptions by James Edward Smith, published by the illustrator in 36 volumes, between 1790 and 1813], the student will at once see the difference between attentive drawing, which gives the cadence and relation of masses in a group, and the mere copying of each flower in an unconsidered huddle.”

Despite being prevented, through force of circumstances, from fulfilling his botanical ambitions, John Ruskin nevertheless amassed a large collection of important and often rare botanical books.  These were often out of date, but always beautiful. He also executed a large number of botanical drawings, paintings and sketches, some of which were used to illustrate books such as Proserpina and Modern Painters. Many are preserved in the Whitehouse Collection in the Ruskin Library. 

Works included in this exhibition are arranged, together with other materials, in the following groups.

MODERN PAINTERS: drawings and paintings used to illustrate Modern Painters (1843-1860), Ruskin’s great work on art, together with additional tree studies.

FLORA OF CHAMOUNI: drawings and paintings of Alpine plants, together with pressed plants collected near Chamonix and associated notes and other materials.

PROSERPINA: drawings and paintings used to illustrate Proserpina (1875-1886), Ruskin’s fascinating but controversial botanical work, together with additional studies of flowers and leaves.

FLORA OF CUMBRIA: an introduction to the modern botanical work, A Flora of Cumbria, by Geoffrey Halliday, published by Lancaster University (1997), together with material from the Lancaster University Herbarium and illustrations of Cumbrian plants by John Ruskin.

INSPIRED BY RUSKIN AND THE PLANT WORLD: contemporary artwork inspired by Ruskin’s drawings and paintings and the plant world.

Pages from 'Lancaster Flora'

(Lancaster University Herbarium)

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