John James Ruskin was an admirer and collector of British watercolours from the mid-1830s, and acquired Turner's Richmond Hill and Bridge, Surrey (c.1831, Wilton 833) in January 1839. This Ruskin referred to as 'our first Turner', purchases being made jointly by father and son (although usually passing through John James Ruskin's accounts). It was followed by seven other subjects from the England and Wales series over the next three years, before the Ruskins took up the offer to commission five works from the Swiss scenes of 1842-3, adding another three from the 1845 series. John James also bought the celebrated painting of the Slave Ship as a New Year's gift for his son in 1844, adding another oil, The Grand Canal, Venice (known as the 'Shylock') in 1847, for the substantial sum of 800 guineas.
By the time of the artist's death in 1852, the Ruskins owned more than thirty watercolours, as well as the two important paintings, and their purchasing continued to gather pace. Their collection exceeded 100 works by 1860, and John James Ruskin was mildly put out when in 1861 Ruskin presented both Oxford and Cambridge Universities with a substantial group of watercolours. After his father's death in 1864, Ruskin continued to collect, paying his highest price (1,200 guineas) for the Scene in the Savoy (Italy in the olden time) (c.1815-20, Wilton 401) in 1869. He bought several watercolours at the sale of the late Hugh Munro of Novar in 1877, but had previously missed getting the Splügen Pass (1842, Wilton 1523) which he had coveted; this was bought for Ruskin, however, by a group of subscribers anxious to cheer him during his illness in 1878, worsened by the strain of the impending Whistler libel trial.
It is still difficult to identify some of the minor watercolours and drawings, but it is estimated that Ruskin owned - at some time, although never together - over 300 of Turner's works. This exceeds the holdings of any of the other major Turner collectors, including Walter Fawkes, Benjamin Windus and Hugh Munro.
As in all healthily growing collections, a good many works were sold during its development, a dozen watercolours being sent to Christie's in April 1869, and others in 1882. Ruskin parted with both the Slave Ship and the Grand Canal, Venice oils in 1872, and made a further gift of watercolours to Oxford in 1875. This still left him with a group of more than twenty of his favourite major watercolours, most of which were hanging in his bedroom at Brantwood on the day he died.