Ruskin and the geologists
John Ruskin (1819-1900) had an extraordinary ability to connect art, science and society. Well-read in the sciences, Ruskin met some of the preeminent researchers of his time, including Fellows of the Royal Society Charles Lyell, William Buckland, Henry Acland and Charles Darwin.
Ruskin formed a lifelong friendship with physiologist and educator Henry Acland. Ruskin supported Acland’s artistic endeavours, while Acland provided a sounding board to Ruskin’s disillusionment with religion.
Ruskin and Acland were students together at Oxford in 1837 and regularly attended the geological lectures of William Buckland, through whom they met the influential Scottish geologist Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin.
Bird's eye view of Niagara fall and adjacent country, coloured geologically (1845) by Day & Hay (lithographers to the Queen), Robert Bakewell (after), and Charles LyellThe Royal Society
In private correspondence, Ruskin repeatedly engaged with Lyell’s thinking on dynamic and continuous natural processes, in order to examine the integration of science and religious belief in relationship to the environment.
Charles Darwin's barometer Charles Darwin's barometer (1830) by John Frederick NewmanThe Royal Society
In 1837, Darwin, just back from the voyage of the Beagle as the ship’s geologist where he had used this mountain barometer, read a paper at the Geological Society. Ruskin spent the evening talking with him.
They would meet again in Oxford and at Ruskin’s home in the Lake District. Despite their mutual respect, Ruskin couldn’t accept Darwin’s theory of evolution: ‘His ignorance of good art is no excuse for the accurately illogical simplicity of the rest of his talk of colour in the Descent of Man’.
In Travels through the Alps of Savoy (1843), Scottish physicist James Forbes published the theory on which Ruskin’s understanding of glaciers was based: ice, although apparently brittle, behaves as a viscous substance when subjected to steady pressure.
On the viscous theory of glacier motion (1845) by James David Forbes (1809-1868)The Royal Society
Forbes regularly travelled to the Alps to aid his scientific inquiries into glacier formation and movement. During one such Alpine tour in 1844, Forbes met Ruskin by chance at Simplon, Switzerland leading to a lifelong correspondence.
In Forbes, Ruskin recognised a ‘fellow-workman’, the ‘only member of the Geological Society… who could draw a mountain’. In Ruskin, Forbes found a formidable, ‘willing and courageous’ advocate.
In a 1857 paper to the Royal Society, physicist John Tyndal contradicted Forbes' theory, proposing instead that glacier motion was a combination of fracture and regelation. This became known as ‘the Great Glacier Controversy’.
In Modern Painters, Ruskin sided with Forbes: 'Twenty years of useless debate and senseless theory respecting glacier motion might have been spared us’ if scientists had been able to draw accurately ‘a single curve of mountain crest, glacier wave, river's bank, or fish's tail'
However, Ruskin was also deeply engaged with the application of science to the benefit of society and its relationship with morality and religion. He became deeply disillusioned with science’s utilitarian outlook and its destructive environmental impact, writing to Acland in 1851: ‘If only the Geologists would let me alone, I could do very well, but those dreadful Hammers! I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses.’
Ruskin’s knowledge of geology spurred more detailed engagement with geological landscape and depiction of mountains in art.
Mountains in Miniature
Ruskin’s first passion was geology. He claimed that his art was rooted in his ‘love of mountains and sea’. He was one of the most prolific private mineral collectors of the nineteenth century. With a personal collection of over 2,000 specimens, he donated minerals to schools and colleges across the country. Having studied mountain formation and glaciers, he returned again and again to Chamonix, below the slopes of Mont Blanc. His concern with the impact of climate on glacial erosion is a leitmotif in his work. In 1874 he wrote of the Glacier des Bossons: ‘I was able to cross the dry bed of a glacier, which I had seen flowing, two hundred feet deep, over the same spot 40 years ago.’
Diary of John Ruskin (1861/1863) by John RuskinThe Ruskin
Ruskin had been interested in mineralogy and geology from an early age. His first published essays – at age fourteen – appeared in Loudon’s Magazine of Natural History and concerned the colour of the Rhine and the strata of Mont Blanc.
An early adopter of optical instruments in his artworks, he also used the latest technologies to investigate mountains, assemble geological collections, and photograph and draw glacial landscapes.
Diary of John Ruskin (1861/1863) by John RuskinThe Ruskin
This image shows the watercolour key that Ruskin developed for the diagrams in his geology diaries, or ‘Rock Books’ as he named them.
In the late 1840s and 1850s, Ruskin’s theories of geology and art appeared in popular American periodicals dubbed ‘Artistical Geology’.
Ruskin described his mountain drawings as ‘absolutely correct' with all that is useful for geological science or landscape art. ‘You will never love art well until you love what she mirrors better’ he wrote. Ruskin followed in Turner’s footsteps in the Alps.
As with Turner, many of Ruskin's paintings and sketches were not intended for public display, but were produced as ‘memoranda’ or ‘on the spot’ documentation of the environment. For both, the experience of observing a mountain landscape underscored the grand design of the universe by God.
Agate (Brantwood Trust)The Ruskin
The nineteenth century was one of the great ages of collectors and explorers. Ruskin’s rare mineral collections, and his illustrated lectures and publications on the relations of art and science, demonstrate his fascination with the fabric of the earth.
Ruskin argued that a stone was ‘a mountain in miniature’ and for this reason landscape analysis should begin with diligent study and drawings of rocks and stones as the ‘materials of mountains’, drawn with precise detail and subtle colour.
Mer de Glace (1874) by John RuskinThe Ruskin
Ruskin’s diary for August 1849 records many ascents onto the glaciers around Chamonix, led by the local guide Joseph Couttet. Ruskin believed that many forms of landscape knowledge emerge from observing the glacier in proximity, and that visual observation led to what he called ‘vital truth’ in the perception of the world.
Ruskin argued that artists should look for ‘leading lines’ in the landscape to depict its forms. He used the aiguilles, or beds of slaty crystalline rock that form the peaks in the Alps, to illustrate his point.
Chamonix. Aiguille Verte and Aiguille du Dru (1854) by John Ruskin and Frederick CrawleyThe Ruskin
Ruskin parodied scientific experiments regarding glaciers with tongue-in-cheek descriptions of building mountains out of blancmange and ‘mellifluous glaciers’ of honey crossing his plate through ‘magnificent moraines composed of crumbs of toast’. However, his fascination with the science behind the dynamic effects of snow and ice on landscape is at the heart of his works.
In June 2018, 164 years after Ruskin created the Mer de Glace daguerreotype, Emma Stibbon recreated the same view, using another early photographic process, the cyanotype. Today, as we confront the scale of human agency in changing the Earth’s environment, Ruskin’s meticulous approach to communicating transformation within the natural world seems prescient.
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.
Thanks to artist, Emma Stibbon, RA; Brantwood for the John Ruskin Mineral Collection; and Harriet Hill-Payne, Programmes Manager, The Ruskin.
Ruskin: Museum of the Near Future