Ruskin's Gift to The Fitzwilliam Museum

In 1861, the Museum's collection of watercolours and drawings was transformed by the gift of twenty-five watercolours by J.M.W.Turner from the writer and critic John Ruskin, Turner’s most fervent champion and critic.
Earlier that year, Ruskin had given a group of forty-eight watercolours and drawings to the University of Oxford, where he had studied from 1837-41. In May, Ruskin wrote to the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge offering a ‘less extensive’ series, of twenty-five drawings and sketches, ‘which I have chosen, as well as I could, out of my remaining collection, to illustrate Turner’s modes of work at various periods of his life. They are small, and the market value will not at present be more than 1400 pounds; but I think they may be useful for reference and occasional example to the younger students who may take an interest in the study of English art and in the practice of drawing’.

By ‘modes of work’, Ruskin appears to have understood both the types of project that Turner undertook - such as book illustration, vignettes, ‘architectural’ drawings or pure landscapes - and the diversity of the techniques he used. His comments on individual watercolours show that he intended his selection to represent the variety of styles of painting in which Turner worked. Château d’Arques, near Dieppe (right) for example, was included to show his ‘pure mode of using watercolours’, while his drawing of seals from Whalley Abbey, was chosen to illustrate what simple work he could do. Other watercolours were selected on chronological grounds, in order to chart his stylistic development at different points in his career which he defined by such terms as his ‘School

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Days‘ (1775-1800), ‘Middle time’ or ‘Fourth period, 1830-1840’. According to Ruskin, each of these phases could also be associated with Turner’s presiding mood, or concerns at the time. During his ‘Second period’, for example, which ran from 1810 to 1820, Ruskin recognised that Turner’s manner became, 'gentle and refined in the extreme. He perceives the most subtle qualities of natural beauty in form and atmosphere; for the most part denying himself colour. His execution is unrivalled in precision and care. His mind fixed chiefly on the loveliness of material things; morally, on the passing away of human life, as a cloud, from the midst of them’.


Ruskin as a Collector of Turner

Ruskin first became interested in Turner in 1833, aged 13, through the gift of Samuel Rogers poem Italy, which contained engravings after his work. He acquired his first watercolour by Turner - a view of Richmond Bridge in Surrey - as a gift from his father in around 1839, and a second watercolour, of Gosport, later that year. In June 1840, he met Turner in the home of his dealer, Thomas Griffiths, at Herne Hill in London, shortly after Griffiths had sold the artist’s view of Nottingham to Ruskin’s father. There was a considerable age difference between the two men, so that, at the time they met, Ruskin, at twenty-one, was forty-four years Turner's junior.

Ruskin continued to collect Turner’s work after his gift to the Fitzwilliam; at one time he owned more than 300 drawings by the artist. Turner made him executor of his will in 1848, and after his death made the first arrangement for the artist's bequest of his works to the nation in 1854-6. This collection is now housed in the Tate Gallery.


Ruskin and Conservation

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Ruskin was highly sensitive to issues of conservation. With his gift came the specification that the watercolours should not be displayed continuously, nor lent for exhibition outside the Museum. 

By the 1860s, he had become keenly aware of the deleterious effects of light on works on paper, having witnessed the disastrous deterioration of the condition of the watercolours which were lent to the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester in 1857. He kept his own watercolours by Turner in frames within specially designed mahogany cases for their protection (left). In 1876, referring to the drawings which he had given to the Ruskin Drawing School in Oxford, kept in similarly designed cabinets, he noted, ‘thus taken care of, and thus shown, the drawings may be a quite priceless possession of the people of Oxford for the next five centuries; whereas those in the Manchester exhibition were virtually destroyed in that single summer’.


Ruskin on Turner

Ruskin's first critical review of Turner's work was never published. Written in 1836, it took the form of a staunch defence of Turner's painting of Juliet and her nurse, following a negative criticism in Blackwood’s Magazine, which he claimed had raised him to a state of ‘black anger’. Turner thanked Ruskin for his support, but asked him not to publish the article. His most extensive critique of Turner’s work appeared in 1843 in volume one of Modern Painters. Although dedicated to he ‘Landscape Artists of England’, Ruskin’s account is dominated by a detailed, and often rhapsodic, assessment of Turner’s achievement. For Ruskin, Turner was, quite simply, ‘the only man who has ever given an entire transcript of the whole system of nature, and … the only perfect landscape painter whom the world has ever seen’. (I, 411).
For his part, Turner was always chary of Ruskin’s criticism and analysis of his work, claiming that he saw 'more in my pictures than I ever painted’.

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