John Ruskin: Artist and Observer, National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh – review

“There is a strong instinct in me, which I cannot analyse, to draw and describe the things I love . . . a sort of instinct like that for eating and drinking,” Ruskin, aged 32, wrote from Italy to his father. “I should like to draw all St Mark’s, and this Verona, stone by stone, to eat it all up into my mind, touch by touch.”

Sensual pleasure in sight and direct experience of nature underpin Ruskin’s brilliance as writer and theorist. He sketched all his life: to observe and comprehend, as aide-mémoire, as emotional expression. This landmark scholarly show displays an unprecedented range of his drawings and watercolours; never intended for public view, they are beautiful, fresh, intellectually revealing.

In close-up watercolour and pen-and-ink studies – needlelike leaves and slow-ripening fruit on a juniper twig; translucent mixed colours on the shell of a velvet crab – as well as Alpine vistas and Italian cityscapes such as the stunning depiction of clear winter air and reflection of turquoise skies in the glassy lagoon in “Sunset on San Michele, Venice”, Ruskin followed his own injunction to painters to “go to Nature in all singleness of heart . . . rejecting nothing, selecting nothing . . . rejoicing always in the truth”.

It is a worldview shaped by Victorian progress: architectural drawings, with buildings seen as patterns of light and shadow, reflect the new influence of photography; contorted strata, clefted ravines, glaciers, boulders, depicted as if in flux – “Rocks and Ferns in a Wood at Crossmount, Perthshire” for example – are attuned to a Darwinian understanding of variation and specificity.

The show’s curator Christopher Newall suggests that later drawings especially demonstrate Ruskin’s mental turmoil: meticulous detail was his lonely attempt to keep hold on the physical world as his equilibrium disintegrated; reckless, scrawled lines or blotches of colour imply turbulence. The obsessive, questing character of Ruskin’s mind is everywhere apparent; so, wonderfully, are spontaneity and joy, for, as he said, “whenever I succeed in a drawing, I am happy in spite of all that surrounds me of sorrow”.

Until September 28,

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