Drawing from Nature
The drawings of the narcissus and the poppy (below) are by Susie Beever, a friend of Ruskin's who lived at Coniston with her sister Mary - both were talented amateur artists and authorities on local botany.
I never saw anything so wonderful as this Narcissus! The perfect finish and accuracy of its lines, and the development of the Corona into the entire flower, with the petals and sepals becoming mere appendages, interest me in the highest degree. I hope to draw its outline …
It is so nice to be able to find anything that is in the least new to you, and interesting; my rocks are quite proud of rooting that little saxifrage.
I’m scarcely able to look at one flower because of the two on each side, in my garden just now. I want to have bees’ eyes, there are so many lovely things.
Letter from John Ruskin to Susie Beever, 2nd May 1878
To begin, then, you see the Narcissus has six white leaves. Three of these, the undermost, are its calyx, and the three uppermost its corolla. These are two parts of every flower which it is well to ascertain before you begin to draw it; on which subject please remember this much of elementary botany, and do not be provoked at my digressions, for the first principle of all I wish to enforce in my school teaching of art is, that you shall never make a drawing, even for exercise, without proposing to learn some definite thing in doing so;1 nay, I will even go so far as to say that the drawing will never be made rightly, unless the making it is subordinate to the gaining the piece of knowledge it is to represent and keep. Observe, then, that the calyx and corolla are not two parts of the flower, but the corolla is the flower, and the calyx its packing-case: in the bud the flower is folded up and packed close within the calyx, often with most ingenious pinching and wrinkling for room (pull a poppy bud in two, and unfold the poppy, the first you can find this year among the corn), and therefore the calyx has altogether less life in it than the corolla, and is as a leathern or wooden thing in comparison; also it stops growing, or nearly so, when the corolla begins, and sometimes drops
off at once, as in the poppy aforesaid, or fades wretchedly, as in the buttercup, or stays on, stupid and bewildered, long after the flower is dead, as in the rose. But the main point for your to note is that, as a calyx has at first to shut close over the flower, its leaves are nearly sure to be sharp pointed, that they may come together and fit close at top, while a corolla leaf is as characteristically flat at the end, that is to say, heart shape, with the broad end outwards, because it usually is the fourth or fifth part of a cup, cut down from the edge to the middle.
John Ruskin: Ruskin Art Collection, 1872-8
If you would like to see more of our botanical drawings, look at our Ruskin's Flora exhibition page, and our expanding illustrated catalogue of botanical drawings.