Ruskin and Turner

Ruskin claimed that he first became aware of Turner 's work through the engravings in Samuel Rogers 's book of poems, Italy, received from his father's business partner Henry Telford as a present on his thirteenth birthday in 1832: 'This book was the first means I had of looking carefully at Turner's work, and I might, not without some appearance of reason, attribute to the gift the entire direction of my life's energies' ( Works, 35.29). He would have seen Turner's paintings at the annual exhibitions of the Royal Academy and the British Institution from the late 1830s, as well as the many engravings made from his work, including the Liber Studiorum. (See also Ruskin, Turner, and engraving.)

Ruskin and his father ( John James Ruskin), began to collect original work by Turner in 1839 (see Ruskin as a collector of Turner), and by the time of the artist's death in 1852, they owned more than thirty watercolours and two important oil paintings.

Ruskin 's first meeting with Turner, at the house of the picture dealer Thomas Griffith, on 22 June 1840, confirmed Ruskin's belief that Turner was 'the greatest [artist] of the age... at once the painter and poet of the day' ( Works, 35.304). In his diary, Ruskin confided that:

Everybody had described him to me as coarse, boorish, unintellectual, vulgar. Thius I knew to be impossible. I found in him a somewhat eccentric, keen-mannered, matter-of-fact, English-minded - gentleman: good-natured evidently, bad-tempered evidently, hating humbug of all sorts, shrewd, perhaps a little selfish, highly intellectual, the powers of his mind not brought out with any delight in their manifestation, or intention of display, but flashing out occasionally in a word or a look' ( Works, 35.305)

He was keen to pay visits to the artist's gallery in Queen Anne Street whenever possible, and the hospitality was reciprocated, Turner visiting Denmark Hill to celebrate John's birthday on 8 February 1843 and in subsequent years.

Ruskin was not alone in recognising in Turner one of the greatest artists of his or any other age, but he was one of the few to defend him against hostile response to his later work in the 1830s and 1840s. An early defence to criticism in Blackwood's Magazine was drafted, but not submitted, after Turner had told his young admirer that he 'never move[d] in these matters.' Modern Painters developed out of Ruskin's indignation at the further critical attack on Turner at the Royal Academy in 1842.

Turner rarely mentioned Modern Painters, but did formally thank Ruskin in October 1844. There seems to have been an estrangement between them in 1846, although this was repaired by 1848, when Ruskin was nominated as an executor of Turner's will. Ruskin declined the responsibility, although he was later happy to take up the invitation to sort through the vast collection of drawings in the Turner Bequest between 1856 and 1858, preparing selections for exhibition at Marlborough House in 1856 and 1857. Not all of Turner 's work received Ruskin's approval, and in the accompanying catalogues there is much criticism of the classical subjects which meant so much to the artist, but which Ruskin called 'nonsense pictures.'

It was chiefly the later topographical subjects, especially from the England and Wales series of the 1830s, the scenes of Venice, and the late Swiss watercolours which Ruskin most admired, and which he and his father acquired. Writing in 1858 to his father, Ruskin discerned in Turner's later work:

evidence of a gradual moral decline in the painter's mind from the beginning of its life to its end - at first patient, tender, self-controlling, exquisitely perceptive, hopeful, and calm, he becomes sensual, capricious - sometimes in mode of work even indolent and slovenly... What I call the "sunset" drawings - such as our Coblentz, Constance, Red Rigi, etc., - marks the efforts of the soul to recover itself, a peculiar calm and return of the repose or youthful spirit, preceding the approach of death.' ( Works, 13.555)

In addition to completing in 1855 The Harbours of England, an unfinished project of Turner 's, during the 1850s Ruskin toyed with the idea of writing a biography of the artist, but was happy to defer to another writer, and willingly provided materials for the two-volume Life of J.M.W. Turner, R.A. which Walter Thornbury published in 1862. He was inevitably disappointed with the result, however, describing it as 'a dreadful book,' although 'better than I expected' ( Works, 13.554).

Ruskin gave the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge each a group of Turner watercolours in 1861 (36 to the Ashmolean Museum, 25 to the Fitzwilliam), with further drawings added after the establishment of his Drawing School at Oxford. Despite further disposals in 1869 and 1872, including the oils of the Slave Ship and The Grand Canal, Venice, Ruskin was still able, at the invitation of Marcus Huish, to mount a sizeable exhibition of his collection at the Fine Art Society in 1878, running to 120 items. Included was the early Self Portrait in oil, which had been bequeathed to Ruskin by the artist's housekeeper, Hannah Danby. The Notes to the exhibition, which ran to thirteen editions, represent Ruskin's last significant writing on Turner.

Further work on the Notes was precluded by Ruskin 's illness during 1878, exacerbated by the impending Whistler libel case; his recovery, however, was celebrated by friends through the gift of Turner 's great watercolour of The Pass of the Splügen (1842). This would remain among the group of some twenty favourite Turner watercolours, most of which were hanging in his bedroom at Brantwood on the day he died.