Botanical Illustration: Inspirations - John Ruskin December 6th 2014

Story posted: Friday, 5. December 2014 by Lizzie Harper

A recent talk on the botanical illustrations, drawings, flora, studies of natural history subjects and gardens created by John Ruskin proved informative and inspirational.

Images of illustrations by John Ruskin are taken form the extensive and fascinating collection at the Ruskin Library, Lancaster University, where they can be visited by members of the public.

In a full hall in Gloucestershire, members of IAPI (Institute for Analytical Plant Illustrators) and the Gloucestershire Society for Botanical Illustration were treated to a wonderful lecture about John Ruskins's flora by David Ingram.  This was the memorial lecture for Michael Hickey, an inspiration to many botanists and botanical illustratiors.

Ruskin's first flower study, done in 1842, was of the Wood Sorrel.

Wood anenome by John Ruskin botanical study held at Ruskin Library

Wood Sorrel Oxalis acetosella by John Ruskin (Ruskin Library, Lancaster University)

You can see it's a careful botanical observation, as were all his floral studies.

They were not meant for display or public viewing and were in sketchbooks, or on the margins of letters to friends and family, as with this milk thistle.

John Ruskin botanical study of the milk thistle

Milk Thistle Silybum marianum by John Ruskin (Ruskin Library, Lancaster University)

In 1844, Ruskin travelled to the alps and collected and pressed flowers.  He became saddened by how swiftly the colours faded, and soon was doing sketches to record specimens.

An early example is this twig from a pine tree, which he painted in his diary.

Ruskin botanical illustration of Pine Lancaster University

Pine Pinus spc by John Ruskin (Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster)

Discussing how much one learns from drawing, he said, "nor can the character of any tree be known until...not only its branches but its minutest extremities have been drawn."

This embodies his attitude to drawing and learning from his art, he believed that you could learn to see through drawing.  I couldn't agree more; on countless occassions I'll discover a hundred new things about a specimen as I draw it, things I'dve never noticed unless I'd been lost in concentration, illustrating it.

His studies are inspirational for the accuracy, detail, and passion which they embody.  He required his art to show the "...relationship between form and underlying anatomy, physiology, growth and nature" (from Modern Painters by Ruskin)

Fringed gentian botanical study by John Ruskin, Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster

Fringed gentian Gentianella ciliata by John Ruskin (John Ruskin Library, Lancaster University)

In 1875, Ruskin published a book on botany, "Prosperpina".  It set out to replace traditional Linnean classification with a woolier approach relating to uses of plants.  Despite the non-scientific approach, his botanical studies reamined accurate, and exemplified his observational skills.

Marsh thistle botanical studies by John Ruskin, Ruskin Library University of Lancaster

Marsh thistle Cirsium palustre by John Ruskin (John Ruskin Library, Lancaster University)

John Ruskin botanical study of leaf of the water lily, Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster

Waterlily leaf by John Ruskin (John Ruskin Library, Lancaster University)

These two studies of Self heal Prunella show how he dissected out flowers in order to examine them fully, drawing all the time.

Self heal botanical illustration by John Ruskin from Lancaster University John Ruskin Library

Self heal study by John Ruskin botanical illustration from Lancaster University John Ruskin Library

Self heal Prunella studies by John Ruskin (John Ruskin Library, Lancaster University)

This observational skill, examination of the minutae, and accurate drawing of botanical specimens is inspirational to me; and embodies all I hope and want my sketchbook studies to be.

Monardia or bee balm sketchbook study by Lizzie Harper botanical illustration

Bee Balm Monardia by Lizzie Harper

I am indebted to IAPI, to Professor David Ingram, and to the collections at the Ruskin Library in Lancaster University for opening my eyes to Ruskin's nature studies, and giving me another role model to emulate.

I'm afraid I've had to turn off the "comments" button on my blogs due to spamming.  If you would like to give any comments or feedback, please do so on my Facebook page or Twitter account or email me at  Many many thanks; and apologies.

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