John Ruskin, born 195 years ago today, was 20 when the daguerreotype was invented, and he embraced the new medium with fervour. As a high-minded tourist following in his idol Turner’s footsteps in Switzerland and Italy, he perceived immediately how the “noble invention” of photography served his ideal of close, acute looking. In the 1840s-50s he amassed a precious archive of daguerreotypes (unique copper photographic plates), first commissioned from professionals, later taken himself.
They, and their influence on Ruskin’s thinking and drawing, are the subject for the first time of an intriguing exhibition at the home of George Watts, Victorian celebrity painter, showcasing many photographs too delicate for regular display. Juxtaposing these with Ruskin’s refined, precise sketches and watercolours of the same subjects – studies of nature, mountains, rocks in Ruskin’s favourite Alpine scenery, and façades of mostly gothic buildings in northern France and Italy – the show demonstrates how the writer used photography to develop his understanding of landscape and architecture, the pivots of his radical social and aesthetic philosophy.
“It is very nearly the same thing as carrying off the palace itself,” Ruskin marvelled of his early photographs, “every chip of stone and stain is there.” How fascinating that photography, which within a generation in Paris pushed painting away from realism towards abstraction, had the opposite effect on Ruskin, crystallising his obsession with detail and truth to observation, which in turn shaped Victorian art.
Watts, as it happened, was one of the few English artists who challenged Ruskin to “walk round the truth, viewing it from the distance as well as examining it with a magnifying glass, lest your eye and taste, becoming microscopic, fail at length to take in the length and breadth”. But Victorian values of earnestness, social reform – Watts’s depiction of the blind girl “Hope” is Barack Obama’s favourite painting – and art’s transformative power united the men, and are embodied both in Ruskin’s images here and in the Watts Gallery’s beautifully preserved interiors.
Until June 1, wattsgallery.org.uk