17 January – 22 April 2011
“More valuable than any sketch”:
Ruskin’s Daguerreotypes of Northern France
John Ruskin (1819-1900), the dominating cultural critic of the Victorian era, was an early enthusiast for the first photographic process to be made widely available, the Daguerreotype, named after its French inventor Louis Daguerre. He owned over 300 plates, all one-off images, made between 1845 and 1858, when the process became obsolete. 125 of these survive in the Ruskin Library at Lancaster University, complemented by another 180 in a private collection.
Nearly all Ruskin’s Daguerreotypes are of architecture and landscape, reflecting the central interests which gave rise to his most important early books: Modern Painters (5 volumes, 1843-60), The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (3 volumes, 1851-53). Ruskin claimed to have acquired his first plates while still a student at Oxford University, but his passion was aroused by purchasing a large number in Venice in 1845. Writing to his father on 7 October 1845, Ruskin reported that
“I have been lucky enough to get from a poor Frenchman here, said to be in distress, some most beautiful, though small, Daguerreotypes of the palaces I have been trying to draw; and certainly Daguerreotypes taken by this vivid sunlight are glorious things. It is very nearly the same thing as carrying off the palace itself; every chip of stone and stain is there, and of course there is no mistake about proportions. I am very much delighted with these, and am going to have some more made of pet bits.”
Three of Ruskin's Daguerreotypes of Rouen
The deferred honeymoon following Ruskin’s marriage to Effie Gray in 1848 was spent in northern France, when some Daguerreotypes of Rouen Cathedral must have been bought or commissioned. Other subjects include details of sculpture on the Gothic cathedrals of Chartres and Rheims. Ruskin had acquired his own Daguerreotype equipment by 1849, and many subjects were made in the Alps in the summer of that year, followed by more in Venice over the following winter and in 1851-52. These were all the work of his long-suffering manservant John Hobbs, under Ruskin’s direct instruction; later plates were made by Hobbs’s successor Frederick Crawley.
This exhibition is the second in a series of four which will display all the Ruskin Library Daguerreotypes, now carefully conserved with the aid of a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The subjects of Tuscany were shown in 2010; those of Switzerland will be exhibited in January – April 2013, and of Venice and Verona at the same time in 2014.
In each case, the Daguerreotypes are displayed alongside other material from the Whitehouse Collection held in the Ruskin Library, under the care of the Ruskin Foundation. The largest single collection of Ruskin’s work in every medium, this includes major watercolours and drawings as well as manuscripts, books and other historic photographs
Ruskin Library -
Lancaster University -
LA1 4YH -
Text and images (c) The Ruskin Library (Lancaster University) unless otherwise stated