Technologies of sight
Along with other artists and scientists of the day, Ruskin explored new ways of representing and communicating scientific discovery, experimenting with optical devices such as the microscope, telescope, stereoscope, camera lucida and photography.
‘The art of photogenic drawing’, a key advance in the development of photography, began when William Henry Fox Talbot – a self-confessed terrible artist – was sketching with a camera lucida at Lake Como in 1833.
In 1849, with his assistant John Hobbs, Ruskin was the first to produce a ‘sun drawing’ of the Alps, using a daguerreotype.
Two years later, at the Great Exhibition of 1851, John Adams Whipple and George Bond received a gold medal for a lunar daguerreotype displayed at Crystal Palace. This had a profound influence on the astronomer Warren De La Rue, who was a strong advocate for astronomical photography in science.
Capturing the skies
By combining increasingly powerful telescopes and photography, nineteenth-century astronomers developed new instruments to document the night skies. Ruskin followed avidly the scientific and technological developments and adopted various techniques.
Ruskin attended the 1862 Bakerian lecture 'On the total solar eclipse of July 18th, 1860, observed at Rivabellosa, near Miranda de Ebro, in Spain' by De La Rue at the Royal Society, where De La Rue projected photographs of the 1860 eclipse captured with the Kew photoheliograph, which he had designed in 1854.
The photoheliograph, funded by a Fellow of the Royal Society, Benjamin Oliveira, and commissioned by the Royal Society, was the first purpose-built apparatus to photograph astronomical bodies and phenomena.
This photograph of sunspots was taken at the Kew Observatory on 8 April 1864 with the Kew photoheliograph designed by De La Rue. The development of photoheliograph technology resulted in the breakthrough discoveries made at the Observatory on the influence of magnetism on sunspots.
A decade after De La Rue's lecture, Ruskin wrote:
‘Science does its duty, not in telling us the causes of spots in the sun, but in explaining to us the laws of our own life, and the consequences of their violation.’
Ruskin and photography
An early practitioner to capture Venetian architecture and Alpine scenes, Ruskin amassed one of the foremost collections of daguerrotypes. Simultaneously ‘natural’ and ‘mechanical’, photographic technologies troubled long-held assumptions on the relationship of art and nature.
This ambivalence is also encapsulated by Fox Talbot’s first full paper publication on photography, or ‘photogenic drawing’. This, and his book The Pencil of Nature (1844-1846) provoked disbelief that the images had indeed been made ‘without any aid whatever from the artist's pencil’.
Chamonix. Les Aiguilles (1854) by John Ruskin and Frederick CrawleyThe Ruskin
Ruskin proclaimed the daguerreotype ‘the most marvellous invention’ of the nineteenth century. The image ‘Chamonix. Mer de Glace, Mont Blanc Massif’ is part of a series documenting the largest valley glacier in the Alpine region, created by Ruskin and his assistant Frederick Crawley, and is recognised as one of the first photographic images of the Alps.
At first, Ruskin was astonished by the daguerreotype’s accuracy of detail. He later deplored its mechanistic effects due to the loss of a direct connection with what we see; 'do not think you can capture a real landscape in a black stain portable in a portfolio'.
Ruskin did not deny the effectiveness of observational tools for understanding structure and form: for example, in seeing the separate cilia of this peacock feather with a microscope.
However, he was increasingly critical of scientists whose technologies enabled them to examine the skies while poisoning the air and darkening the sun.
As with the daguerreotype, Ruskin criticised the microscope's effects of hyper-real detail and the separation of sight from an emotional response to nature: sensory perception: ‘No science of perspective, or of anything else, will enable us to draw the simplest natural line accurately, unless we see it and feel it’, he remarked.
Curated by Sandra Kemp, The Ruskin – Library, Museum and Research Centre, Lancaster University, and Keith Moore, the Royal Society, with the support of Sandra Santos and Louisiane Ferlier.
Ruskin: Museum of the Near Future