The Osteological Line

Kelly Freeman

John Ruskin, Tree Studies i Fig. 6.2 John Ruskin, Tree Studies (c.1845–55). Pencil, black ink, ink wash, and bodycolour on blue paper, 55.2 × 38 cm. The Ruskin—Library, Museum and Research Centre, University of Lancaster, Bailrigg. Photo: © The Ruskin—Library, Museum and Research Centre, University of Lancaster.

I start this chapter with John Ruskin’s botanical sketch, Study of a Lettuce Thistle (1854), a subtle rendering of two spiky thistle leaves with their associated stalks (Fig. 6.1).[1] The ink drawing is likely an observation from living, growing nature, the lack of artistic finesse and granular detail indicative of rapid study, and the patchy, albeit intense, washes of bright blue ink suggestive of the outdoors. Sharp, undulating U-shaped lines fill the bottom of the page, their barbed forms echoing the thistle leaves above. Included amongst these lines is a scrawl of downward-slanting text in Ruskin’s own hand: ‘Everything depends on this action’. It could be that Ruskin was referring to the action of drawing and, more especially, to the repetitive, tick-like lineation that he has drawn to the side of and below the sketch that echo the tick-shaped edges—the spines—on the prickly leaf. The lines of leaf growth and the characteristic serrated edges of the spines are the result of an action: Ruskin’s hand in action. In Study of a Lettuce Thistle, the drawing process is the action, and the repetition of frenetic undulating lines re-enact and become analogous to its dynamic growth in nature. There is unquestionably also action involved in the growth and formation of the prickly and painful thistle, its fundamental nature fully realised in the needle-like edges so necessary in the deterrent of predators, and which act to secure their prodigious establishment within our landscape. As Ruskin himself noted over twenty years later in the first volume of Proserpina (first published in 1875) when describing the coarse, hardy structure of certain wild or parasitic plants:

The character of strength which gives prevalence over others to any common plant, is more or less consistently dependent on woody fibre in the leaves; giving them strong ribs and great expanding extent; or spinous edges, and wrinkled or gathered extent … Get clearly into your mind the nature of these two conditions. When a leaf is to be spread wide, like the Burdock, it is supported by a framework of extending ribs like a Gothic roof. The supporting function of these is geometrical; every one is constructed like the girders of a bridge, or beams of a floor, with all manner of science in the distribution of their substance in the section, for narrow and deep strength; and the shafts are mostly hollow. But when the extending space of a leaf is to be enriched with fulness of folds, and become beautiful in wrinkles, this may be done either by pure undulation as of a liquid current along the leaf edge, or by sharp ‘drawing’—or ‘gathering’ I believe ladies would call it—and stitching of the edges together … And in beautiful work of this kind, which we are meant to study, the stays of the leaf—or stay-bones—are finished off very sharply and exquisitely at the points; and indeed so much so, that they prick our fingers when we touch them; for they are not at all meant to be touched, but admired. To be admired,—with qualification, indeed, always, but with extreme respect for their endurance and orderliness.[2]

Study of a Lettuce Thistle by John Ruskin
Fig. 6.1 John Ruskin, Study of a Lettuce Thistle , Diary (1854). Ink on paper, 19.7 × 15.5 cm. The Ruskin—Library, Museum and Research Centre, University of Lancaster, Bailrigg. Photo: © The Ruskin—Library, Museum and Research Centre, University of Lancaster.

The thistle’s endurance and very survival depends on succeeding in this ‘sharp “drawing”’ action, so too do the lives of the caterpillars, butterflies, bees, and finches that rely on its sustenance and protection. Everything depends on this action. In Study of a Lettuce Thistle Ruskin captures the active participation of the thistle within its wider ecology via the thin, sharp, and decisive outline of its spiny leaves, abstracted again into the single noble line.

It would be easy to assume that by action Ruskin also meant function, a term heavily discussed within secular nineteenth-century writings on natural philosophy, and later in physiology (the science of function in living systems) and which would bridge Ruskin’s work with contemporary science. However, action has a very particular meaning separate to function. Functions were mechanical and utilitarian; action implies life and force, growth and time. Action also intimates directionality, a path to be taken. In his essay ‘Reading Nature: John Ruskin, Environment, and the Ecological Impulse’ (2017), Mark Frost draws attention to how Ruskin perceived the dynamic process of lineation within a wider ecology of nature’s cycles: of compositions and decompositions. Quoting from The Elements of Drawing (1857), in which Ruskin stresses the importance of the ‘leading or governing lines’ that express a vital truth about the growth of the plant or the ‘leading lines’ that reveal the makeup and erosion of the mountain, Frost presents Ruskin as a proto-ecological thinker whose principle aim was to articulate the human experience within, and in relation to, its wider environmental systems.[3] The interconnectedness, interdependence, and temporality of life cycles and systems could be abstracted and represented through lineation. Just as the tree bows to the will of the winds or a stream divert its course to circumvent an obstacle, ‘these chief lines are always expressive of the past history and present action of the thing’.[4] The shape of the lettuce thistle is made up of lines of action, and it is these lines that, for Ruskin, must be extracted from its form for the essence of its nature to be honestly realised and rendered. Ruskin described a leaf with its veins, spines, and spiral growth patterns as marks of ‘the forces of growth and expansion’, and these lines of force are then extracted from the leaf and become represented within ornamental carvings and abstract patterns.[5]

What is so interesting here is that Ruskin, in his quest to capture organic life, seized upon the most vital lines in nature—the lifelines as such—which give form and vigour to things, and which he then abstracted and recorded in his drawings. These lines singled out the inner parts of the form that indicated directional growth, structure, and survival, such as the veins and edges of leaves and the curves and spirals of shells. The lines also delineated the makeup of things, the morphological ‘outline’ of natural entities or landscapes such as crests of waves and jagged mountainscapes. It was only from these essential lines that the very essence of nature could be truthfully represented on a page, carved into stone or hammered into iron. It was from these very lines—traced from an active organic nature—that Ruskin conceived and developed a wider ecology of lines. By Ruskin’s own account, it was through actively observing and drawing from nature that he was able to perceive the lines from which nature was composed. Everything depends on this action.

I want to explore the ecological line that connects all things together in Ruskin’s writings on art, architecture, and natural history; the line weaves its way through Modern Painters (1843–60) and The Stones of Venice (1851–3), and gets caught up and tangled in the concepts of sympathy, composition, and Gothic. One could easily consider the Gothic as an ecological concept, a paradigm that emerged in distinction to the other natural sciences in the mid-nineteenth century.[6] Frost points out that ecology ‘valorises the vital connectedness of heterogeneous phenomena—that which Ruskin perceived as early as 1843, when he noted that “there is indeed in nature variety in all things”, and that “the truths of nature are one eternal change—one infinite variety”’.[7] From the bladed wings of the darting swallow to the lateen sailboats of the Mediterranean, Ruskin draws ecological lines of relation between things: lines that are constant and infinite, lines that are interrupted and staggered, lines that overlap and unfurl, and lines that are the reflections, echoes or shadows of other lines that connect across geological time.[8] These essential ecological lines are something that I wish to follow within Ruskin’s works, paying particular attention to his use of bodily, or more specifically, bony metaphors that express these lines, such as the spine of the thistle leaf and the ribs of a Gothic cathedral, and that, in my mind, forge verbal, visual, and material connections to help articulate other sympathetic lines, and which configure themselves into something resembling the body’s skeleton: something laminar, organic, purposeful, sensate, and whole.


Tracing relations: the aspen

So, let us begin at the end, with Ruskin’s autobiographical work Praeterita (1885–9). In the second volume of Praeterita (1886–7), Ruskin recalled a moment in 1842 when, as a young man, he was travelling in Switzerland. Whilst journeying through Fontainebleau he stopped to draw an aspen tree. The encounter is described in a manner akin to conversion parable, marking the exact moment when Ruskin’s perception of the world around him was fundamentally transformed:

Languidly, but not idly, I began to draw; and as I drew, the languor passed away: the beautiful lines insisted on being traced,—without weariness. More and more beautiful they became, as each rose out of the rest, and took its place in the air. With wonder increasing every instant, I saw that they ‘composed’ themselves, by finer laws than any known of men. At last the tree was there, and everything that I had thought before about trees, nowhere.[9]

Ruskin traced the lines of growth, and these lines informed the eventual shape of the tree. This passage provides many clues concerning Ruskin’s vision of the natural world, not just how he perceived its wondrous beauty but also its unfathomable depths, reaching far beyond laws of men, inferring that nature is a composition with intelligently composed rhythms and harmonies. He held fast to the belief that connections with the divine were made possible through natural forms. In Ruskin’s own account, drawing provided a means of seeing the ‘composition’ of nature.

In the last volume of Modern Painters (1860), Ruskin drew attention to his chapter ‘The Law of Help’ as the ‘last and the most important part of our subject’, that subject being art and its relation to ‘God and man’.[10] One could conceive of ‘The Law of Help’ as his treatise on relation: the relations between ‘material or formal invention’—the technical composition, the arrangement of lines, forms, colours—as well as the relations between ‘expressional or spiritual invention’. Expressional or spiritual invention is harder to define, but Ruskin identified it as the ‘delight’ felt from art, where the viewer ‘rejoices’ in the arrangement, composition and the sense of completion and wholeness. This sense of joyful wholeness takes into account the making ‘process’ that lurks behind every composition, arrangement, and assemblage in art. It is not an additive as such, it cannot be conjured into the art, but it is understood by Ruskin as the complicated relation between a medium and craftsman, and an energy born from its creator.[11] As Ruskin said, ‘to create anything in reality is to put life into it. A poet [maker], or creator, is therefore a person who puts things together, not as a watchmaker steel, or a shoemaker leather, but who puts life into them’.[12] In this way pictures are still and not still, and the material, composition, lines, colours, forms, sense of completion, and ‘process’ lend a vital yet inexplicable animation to the artwork.

As well as art and architecture, Ruskin’s theory of composition was also applicable to nature itself, as perceived by Ruskin on his way to Fontainebleau when he drew the aspen tree. In his own words, ‘[e]very great work stands alone. Yet there are certain elementary laws of arrangement’.[13] Ruskin defined composition himself as the ‘help of everything … by everything else’ in order to approach ‘completeness’. It includes the action of putting things together—the process—through formation or construction. The notion of ‘help’ means to assist, to make easier, or to be of use, and is applied not just to the assemblage as a whole, but to the parts and their relations or sympathies with each other. For Ruskin, inanimate homogeneous substances making up rocks or clouds, for example, do not ‘help’ each other, that is to say in such undifferentiated matter the removal of one part will not injure the whole. They are helpless or ‘lifeless’, and from this perspective they stand alone in and of themselves. However, ‘hurt or remove any portion of the sap, bark, or pith, the rest is injured’. The plant is animate and ‘helpful’, and ‘the power which causes several portions of the plant to help each other, we call life’.[14] The intensity of that life is directly proportional to the intensity of helpfulness, and the dependence of each part on the rest, so that ‘we may take away the branch of a tree without much harm to it; but not the animal’s limb’.[15] Does the greater intensity of life that Ruskin perceives in the animal relate to its dynamism, energy, and life force? Or does ‘intensity’ relate to its precarious nature as it battles for survival? In a potential response to Darwinian pessimism, Ruskin considered help as part of the divine nature in all things, and that life is in action, in a process of ‘helpful’ becomings. He rejected the idea of nature as a battleground. Instead, nature was composed by the ‘Helpful one’ or ‘the Holy one’, meaning God and life giver, and is therefore governed by ‘The Law of Help’, the law of life. For Ruskin, the ‘anarchy and competition’ of Darwinian natural selection followed ‘the laws of death’.[16]


Tracing relations: articulation

In defining help as ‘life’, Ruskin defines death as helplessness and ‘separation’.[17] These processes, sensations and feelings that Ruskin describes in ‘The Law of Help’ could then be understood as articulations between parts or members, bringing things together and allowing them to achieve their potential by uniting and animating them.[18] These articulations are certainly animal rather than vegetal, and by that I mean that the joints in an animal occur at points where the structure is thinnest, where breaks in homogenous ossified tissue occur to allow for multidirectional movement; where parts come together to create a greater whole; where relation becomes unification; but also where elements are easiest to break apart. Ruskin described the vital importance of articular claws and leg joints in the exoskeletons of crustaceans, enabling their unique defensive action and mobility. In a plant, articulation occurs at the stiffest part, densely woven, thickened and strengthened, creating a stable hard knot. A plant does not dislocate at its joints; it persists because of its joints.[19] The articulations made by Ruskin in ‘The Law of Help’ are not petrified. They are capable of reconfiguration, of dislocating and, in turn, forming new articulations, and this potential for breaking apart and reassembly gives generative dynamism and diversity of sensation to the object of our attention. In terms of art, one of the ways this reconfiguration is effected is by the viewer, who superimposes their own subjectivity, their own network of feelings and articulations, upon the network of articulations in the picture, sculpture, or building. The articular gaps in one configure the articulations in the other, forming countless pathways for sensation and energy to flow in a process of configuration and reconfiguration, of recomposition and decomposition, of reorder and collapse, and regeneration. I want to pick out one particular statement made by Frost on vital beauty and fold it into my definition of articulation: Frost remarks that Ruskin asked his readers to observe the ‘vital beauty’ and ‘leading lines’ of nature, vital beauty being the moment of realisation ‘when we recognise effort and energy as something familiar’, when ‘[s]ubject and object draw closer in a moment of recognition of one another’s common experience of pleasure and energy’.[20] This is truest for Ruskin in relation to art. The vital beauty and the leading lines of nature are, of course, modes of relation for Ruskin, and the openness of relation to reconfiguration is an invitation to the viewer to communicate: to commune. This communication is, however, never complete, the communion never whole. The network of articulations in the object and that in the viewer imperfectly align. In this registry of misalignment is humanity, our own imperfect natures. If we return to Ruskin’s aspen tree, he traces the line, bends to its will and is enlivened by the process: ‘without weariness’; ‘[a]t last the tree was there, and everything that I had thought before about trees, nowhere’. This is a once-in-a-lifetime encounter where the object being perceived consumes the will of the viewer, irrevocably transforming the subject, breaking them away from their tethered self. Most of Ruskin’s encounters with nature, art, and architecture are not quite so epiphanic. In most cases in life, neither subject nor object bends entirely to the will of the other. They survive the encounter, they are not brittle (unless we are near, in Ruskin’s terms, helplessness and death) but there is a limit to their flexibility and openness to reconfiguration, an integrity they must maintain. The abutting of two forces—two wills—generates a kind of frictive energy, which will enliven or sustain us, just as Ruskin’s aspen tree chased away his weariness. Imperfect human composition enables reconfiguration and in this sense the artwork or artefact is available to the future, to countless future encounters. In so far as the epitome of articulation is the human figure, this is how we might understand Ruskin’s description of J. M. W. Turner, in a letter to Charles Eliot Norton (1867), as making ‘glorious human flesh’ of the world.[21]

John Ruskin, Tree Studies
Fig. 6.2 John Ruskin, Tree Studies (c.1845–55). Pencil, black ink, ink wash, and bodycolour on blue paper, 55.2 × 38 cm. The Ruskin—Library, Museum and Research Centre, University of Lancaster, Bailrigg. Photo: © The Ruskin—Library, Museum and Research Centre, University of Lancaster.

Although the original drawing to which the description in Praeterita pertains has not yet been identified, and likely never will, we can attempt to understand Ruskin’s thought processes by applying the aforementioned passage by Ruskin to his 1845 drawing entitled Tree Studies (Fig. 6.2). Depicting a woodland coppice, the drawing’s centre possesses the darkest swathes of colour and the more concentrated lines depicting gnarled and twisted roots and branches. The darkness is almost menacing, nightmarish; a strange beast could be emerging from the centre rather than harmless branches. The lines make up the various tree forms, yet it is the shading with dark ink that solidifies and situates the lines in space. It appears that Ruskin began the drawing in the centre of the sheet of paper, in the place where the tree grows from the rock. Working upwards, following the curved, ‘composed’ lines of tree growth, the rock seems to anchor and shape the thicket’s life.

In his analysis of Ruskin’s drawings of natural phenomena, Paul Walton interprets Ruskin’s conception of nature as the

visible signs of an impulse that moves everywhere, in accordance with the divine law … Ruskin now saw this vital current widespread, so that to his eyes, nature was no longer a more or less haphazard collection of forms, waiting to be transformed by the artist into images of ideal harmony, but a living organism shaped from within by forces that imposed a common harmonious visual rhythm on rock, and cloud, and wave.[22]

Rhythms and forces; impulses and movements; Ruskin’s vision or ‘truth’ to nature was nature in motion, never suspended, sometimes imperceptibly slow, sometimes fleetingly fast but always in rhythmic motion. It was these rhythms that produced the lines and patterns in nature that Ruskin searched for. He candidly acknowledged that his drawings would never be the picturesque compositions of other artists, such as those made by his travelling companion during his 1845 European tour, James Duffield Harding, but his drawings could become far more valuable. In a letter to his father, Ruskin referred to the sketches he had made in his notebook: ‘[M]ine are always ugly, for I consider my sketch only as a written note of certain facts, and those I put down in the rudest and clearest way as many as possible. Harding’s all for impression—mine all for information’.[23]

Ruskin dwelt upon the idea of the line capturing the essential form of the object/subject throughout his life. He seized upon these leading lines, naming them the ‘aweful lines’ (‘aweful’ meaning ‘full of awe’) which are to be extracted from whatever form is being contemplated. These are the lines that show the history of a thing, as well as its present course and its futurity. They are lines of action on which everything depends:

Try always, whenever you look at a form, to see the lines in it which have had power over its past fate and will have power over its futurity. Those are its aweful lines; see that you seize on those, whatever else you miss.[24]



Articulating lines in architecture

The drawing of Tree Studies could be interpreted as a metaphor for how the first Gothic architecture was built, from nature twisting around stone, in keeping with ‘The Nature of Gothic’ in the second volume of The Stones of Venice (1853). Although the drawing is arguably unfinished, I would not suppose it to be rough or unstructured. I perceive a delicacy in the application of ink, and intentionality to the lineation and composition. I perceive in the drawing the process of organic growth, like a seed that has begun to germinate, latent but with the potential for life. Generative energy seems to be drawn from the attentiveness of the drawing process itself, until we are presented with something that has composed itself into the living network of a tree. In the first volume of Stones (1851) when addressing archivolts, in terms of the lintel which he used to define classical Greek architecture, Ruskin contends that there ‘is no organism to direct its ornament’, whereas in Gothic architecture ‘the arch head has a natural organism’.[25] The term ‘organism’ seems to refer to an energy that Ruskin perceives within the structural elements of the Gothic architecture. He infers that this energy is required for ornament, and that the straight-lined lintel is somehow deficient. Yet the Gothic arch—two serpentine lines that converge to a point—possesses a natural energy. One could imagine this line of tension in the arch of a bridge. The stones of the arch are locked into place by the keystone at its apex, which holds all the stones in place. Without the keystone, the other stones in the arch will fall. It is the forces within the stone, and the forces that the stone is capable of withstanding, that drives the form of the structure, which is why the Gothic arch is so often compared to the shape of a growing leaf whose morphology is determined by internal and external forces.[26]

In the first volume of Stones, Ruskin looked back to the ruins of Venice in an attempt to save the Gothic legacy for England. He described Venice along the grand tradition of metaphorical rhetoric. It has towers that rise ‘as a branchless forest’.[27] Ruskin was swift to reassure the reader that his evaluation of Venetian architecture was not necessarily the definitive answer to the questions of what components constitute good or bad architecture. There were bound to be alternative perspectives and interpretations, just as he said: ‘Zoologists often disagree in their descriptions of a curve of a shell or the plumage of a bird’.[28] As Ruskin wrote, ‘pointed arches do not constitute Gothic, nor vaulted roofs, nor flying buttresses, nor grotesque sculptures; but all or some of these things, and many other things with them, when they come together so as to have life’.[29]

Ruskin discussed buildings like they were living organisms, yet his conception of the Gothic included the idea of ‘madeness’, as the craftsmen were also to be considered as part of the Gothic architecture, their spirits fusing with Gothic matter, ‘Mental Expression’ with ‘Material Form’.[30] This generates another dimension to the life of the structure, increases the tensions between life and death, of creation and destruction, and casts an invisible line through time that connects the present to the past. Yet this idea, of bringing life to an immobile structure, comes to an unavoidable impasse when confronted with biological definitions that make movement a condition of life.[31] This poses a particular problem since Ruskin made ‘rigidity’ a key element of the Gothic style. However, he was aware of this metaphysical conundrum and opened the possibility of an animation of the rigidity of Gothic architecture, using the oxymoron ‘active rigidity’ to address ‘the peculiar energy which gives tension to movement’.[32] Ruskin continued by stating that this rigidity was ‘a stiffness analogous to that of the bones of a limb, or fibres of a tree; and elastic tension and communication of force from part to part, and also a studious expression of this throughout every visible line of the building’.[33] The concept is remarkably Albertian, particularly in the way it was founded upon a notion of communication between parts. Like Leon Battista Alberti, Ruskin analogised architecture with trees, fibres, limbs, and bone.[34] He also considered architecture as an ‘organism’ of energy. By aligning pith and bone with force and stiffness, Ruskin reaffirmed organic structures as agents of ‘active rigidity’. Bones may be stiff, but when part of a living organism they allow for its movements. The energy that Ruskin perceived in architecture is something that I would describe as a potential for movement, which builds up in the points of structural articulation. Ruskin saw bone as part of an active animated system that supports and energises the architectural organism: a living skeleton of stone.[35]

Frontispiece to A Compendium of Osteology
Fig. 6.3 Frontispiece to A Compendium of Osteology (1833). Printed in George Witt, A Compendium of Osteology: Being a Systematic Treatise of the Bones of the Human Body (London: Longman & Co., 1833). Photo: National Collections Centre, Science Museum Group.

The long-established trope of the architecture-body metaphor can be found, to some degree, in every nineteenth-century anatomical treatise that discusses bones and the skeleton. For example, the frontispiece for George Witt’s Compendium on Osteology from 1833 presents a kind of Promethean mason, chiselling away at a rock to reveal the skeleton, and invoking ideas of craftsmanship, architecture, and sculpture, as well as the material associations of bone with stone (Fig. 6.3).[36] This image can be interpreted as the craftsman ‘creating’ from stone in the Ruskinian sense, but at the same time the stone is determining the structure being revealed—a will to form, so to speak. The tools in the hands of the craftsman-turned-anatomist are positioned at the metaphorical surface between mind and matter, as mental form is impressed on material substrate. The skeleton is presented upright, fully articulated, and whole. The association with Promethean creation is overt, the creator giving ‘life’ and vitality to its creation just as Ruskin discussed in ‘The Law of Help’. There is also a connection to the materiality of rock, which may hide secret vital forces within its mundane exterior. Added to which is the knowledge that fossil hunting was a much-enjoyed Victorian pastime and major paleontological discoveries were commonplace in the nineteenth century. Ruskin was conscious of his use of bodily metaphors. In Proserpina, he directs the reader’s attention to the ‘confused use’ of anatomical terms when applied to the subject of botany:

Looking at the back of your laurel-leaves, you see how the central rib or spine of each, and the lateral branchings, strengthen and carry it. I find much confused use, in botanical works, of the words Vein and Rib. For, indeed, there are veins in the ribs of leaves, as marrow in bones; and the projecting bars often gradually depress themselves into a transparent net of rivers. But the mechanical force of the framework in carrying the leaf-tissue is the point first to be noticed; it is that which admits, regulates, or restrains the visible motions of the leaf; while the system of circulation can only be studied through the microscope. But the ribbed leaf bears itself to the wind, as the webbed foot of a bird does to the water, and needs the same kind, though not the same strength, of support; and its ribs always are partly therefore constituted of strong woody substance, which is knit out of the tissue; and you can extricate this skeleton framework, and keep it, after the leaf-tissue is dissolved. So I shall henceforward speak simply of the leaf and its ribs,—only specifying the additional veined structure on necessary occasions.[37]

Skeletal metaphors are ideal terms then for Ruskin; they communicate the active mechanical framework of the leaf, which circulates vital nutrients and provides a scaffolding for the ‘leaf-tissue’ to attach. The skeleton is also the part of the leaf that persists after the softer fleshy tissue has decomposed. The nineteenth-century understanding of the skeleton as the body’s framework, a framework that remained even after death, still capable of expressing a former living being’s essential form was crucial for its potential to become a metaphor for the architectural framework. The skeleton evoked a kind of rational simplicity and purity to a building’s design, structure, form, and function—the bare bones, so to speak. An illustrative example of the skeleton being expressed in architecture can be found in Alfred Bartholomew’s Specifications for Practical Architecture (1840), although the skeleton metaphor was not mentioned within Bartholomew’s architectural treatise (Fig. 6.4).[38] The ‘living’ skeleton is figured as a buttress supporting the Gothic edifice with its ‘arms’, the weight and angle of its ‘body’ situated in such a way as to transfer forces from the building proper to the ground. The skeleton’s upright form and ‘bracing’ stance fit neatly into the architectural members of a flying buttress, which is composed of an architectural arch and pier, and is designed to transmit lateral forces between the wall and the pier. This illustration brings attention to the internal and external forces acting upon architecture, and how the thin bony arms of the buttress are all that are required to achieve architectural equilibrium. There is a remarkable lightness to human bone that belies its robustness. The analogy I have been describing is fundamentally an analogy between Gothic and the skeleton’s delicate strength. Although this image does not quite visualise the ‘active rigidity’ that Ruskin perceived in the Gothic, it does equate the natural-built world to the human-built world in an intriguing, almost embodied way. The afterlife of bone extends into the stone’s materiality, being often composed of the bones and shells of marine organisms. Furthermore, in the body, structure is provided by the scaffold of the skeleton, bones held together by ligaments and tendons which hold bone to bone and bone to muscle, enabling action and movement. What is absent from this illustration are the sinews that hold the whole together. They are, however, implicit as the skeleton is standing and active. The skeleton not only supports the building but has become a necessary part of the architecture, literally holding up the wall of the cathedral, crowned with a turret, which makes a rather characterful and comical tableau. The skeleton is thus presented as an ideal form to fulfil that particular function. Furthermore, the apparent lifelessness of the body devoid of flesh does not always mean death. This is neither a carcass nor a resurrected skeletal body; the illustration depicts the imaginative abstraction of the essence of the living human body in support of a cathedral wall.

Diagram of Gothic Buttressing
Fig. 6.4 R. Hart, Diagram of Gothic Buttressing (1840). Reproduced in Alfred Bartholomew, ‘Of Abutments’ in Specifications for Practical Architecture (London: J. Williams & Co., 1840), part one, chapter 52, section 463, unpaginated.

The skeleton is not confined to the outside of the building, to holding up the wall. Let us imagine ourselves standing inside the Gothic cathedral. Looking upwards the stone ribs of the vault spanning the ceiling of the Gothic church are intended to evoke a cavity, ideas of interiority and the invisible transfer of weights and loads. They interlace and interweave across the vaults above and through the columns and articulate the windows and doorways. The skeleton becomes a visual metaphor for envisaging an ideal system of structural support that facilitates the dispersal of multidirectional internal and external forces, such as compression, thrust and shear, which are balanced in a state of static equilibrium.[39] No one element can subsume another, they must all relate equally and as a composed assemblage. This is how Ruskin conceived the Gothic skeleton, not as a lifeless humanoid ruin, rigid, hard, and calcified, but as an abstract linear figuration, an articulation of lines that support—help—and give life to the structure. As with Study of a Lettuce Thistle, the lines are active, a distillation of the cathedral’s essence, and everything depends on them.

Lars Spuybroek identified the architectural rib as the active agent in Gothic structure.[40] Taking up the idea of the ‘abstract line’ developed by Wilhelm Worringer in his Abstraction and Empathy (1908), Spuybroek observed that ‘the behaviour of the line however small and thin they are, displays a structural and connective logic’, further describing the Gothic line as a ‘living’ line that produces structures.[41] For Spuybroek, the curving ribs multiply: they grow, intersect, bifurcate, articulate, transform, and flow throughout Gothic architecture. The line’s modulation has neither beginning nor end. The line flows, existing in a kind of in-between, too thin to carry weight and too thick to be delicate ornament. It is a rib of ‘active rigidity’, as defined by Ruskin in ‘The Nature of Gothic’, in which, as Spuybroek remarks, ‘[e]very rib is formed by linear figures in which every point on the line is active’.[42] The line is initially perceived by the craftsmen, as they ardently, joyfully, and wilfully carve figures into the stone. The Gothic craftsman is receptive to the will of the line, which draws itself ‘in relation to other lines … Here the lines rule over one another’. These lines are active, not in themselves ‘but because they want to find each other’.[43] The lines are further activated by the beholder of such architectures via foliated organic branching and converging, such as described by Worringer’s vitalised Gothic line in which abstraction and empathy merge.[44] The line must first be perceived and then extracted as an ‘entity’ in a process of ‘expansion and delimitation’, accomplished by the viewer’s inner vision and active will.[45] However, for Spuybroek, the animation of the linear rib moves beyond its activation by the subject to the ‘active form of support and transfer of loads rather than a simple form of resisting forces’. The structure is active, and activity is life.[46] This concept of active rigidity, specified by Ruskin as an expression of Gothic architecture, developed by Worringer and later by Spuybroek, could be aptly applied to the skeleton as an entity, itself possessing properties of structural stability whilst retaining flexibility and a potential for animation and growth.

Ornaments from Rouen, St Lô, and Venice
Fig. 6.5 R. P. Cuff after John Ruskin, Ornaments from Rouen, St Lô, and Venice . Engraving, reproduced in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849). Library Edition, Plate One, facing 8.52.
Window from the Ca’ Foscari, Venice
Fig. 6.6 R. P. Cuff after John Ruskin, Window from the Ca’ Foscari, Venice . Engraving, reproduced in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849). Library Edition, Plate Eight, facing 8.132.

The lines of growth and action, so conspicuously abstracted for our attention in Study of a Lettuce Thistle, are active within the Gothic, in foliated figuration. In Plate One of The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), Ruskin has depicted multiple architectural forms from Rouen, Saint-Lô, and Venice, made up in their entirety of ornamental carving (Fig. 6.5). The prickly thistle (bottom left) is transplanted, petrified in some instances, into the very fabric of the structural element. The thistle leaves look so very lifelike that one could reach out and imagine touching a painful barb. In the lower left of the plate, several stems are bundled into a kind of prickly bouquet. It is difficult to tell if the bouquet is of organic tissue or stone, so close is its association with the ornamental web covering the adjacent capital. The somewhat unruly lines of the spinous stems in the lower left are stylised on the column, but in such a way as to remain lifelike. The monochromatic plate emphasises for us the shadows which throw into relief the lightness of the leaves. Their form is created by these shadows, thrown forward to sit upon the architectural element, certainly a part of the structure but also separate in that the line of growth is contained within the lines of the ornamental leaves as they twist and reach around the edges, and the strangely swollen bottom corners of the capital. There is still a separation between form and function; the lines of action are not integral to the action of the column. The column, although consumed by leafy growth, does not quite embody the nature of the plant. The plant’s essence has been distilled into the dynamic line of action, the line on which everything depends. In Ruskin’s depiction of a portion of the facade of Ca’ Foscari in Venice, reproduced as Plate Eight in Seven Lamps, things go further, the line goes deeper (Fig. 6.6). The lines of action exist within and give form to the sweeping curves and startling points of the stone tracery, which channel force, carrying the weight of the building’s facade through its veins and spines. The two quatrefoils produce soft shapes, perfectly circular lines that generate the quiet foliation of negative space so often discussed in relation to Gothic form, but this serene petal-like element is vividly interrupted, almost pierced, by the intervening point of the ogee of the arch beneath, and most of all by the echo of this ogee in the processed lines of stone above it. The essence of Gothic—the pointed Gothic arch—is brought into being by the convergence of two central veins, two touching thistle leaves. Looking closer at this sharp point in the lines of stone: the dynamism of that sharp point is the energy of the thistle in action. Everything depends on this. Gothic foliation generated in the negative space by tracery is, we see vividly here, composed of, or rather configured by lifelines that shape the form of the entire element. Sharp, barbed, piercing spines: lines of action are the essence of the Gothic.


Metaphors, misalignment, and the gaps in language

Ruskin consistently looked for the lines in nature, remarking that an observer of nature must seize upon ‘every outline and colour’.[47] Just at the process of drawing sharpened Ruskin’s perceptions, he began to see in the natural forms and formations that he was observing and subsequently drawing a kind of repetition of line and shape: the expression of similar patterns within various natural phenomena. He expressed these lines in a drawing he titled Abstract Lines, printed in the first volume of Stones (Fig. 6.7). Various lines curl, twirl, and float across the page. Some lines are jagged, like the topography of broken rocks or mountains, whilst others are supple and sinewy. Some of the lines are continuous, whilst others bifurcate or branch repeatedly. These were Ruskin’s lines of nature. In great cloud formations billowing through mountainous regions, Ruskin saw the waves of the sea breaking against jagged rocks. The clouds not only looked like waves in his drawings and watercolours, they were waves. In his verbal accounts he also saw, for example, cresting waves on the floor of St Mark’s in Venice.[48] Such a resemblance of form linking natural phenomena and architecture can be discerned in many of Ruskin’s drawings made during his European tours. The process of drawing not only fostered associations between natural forms, it also enabled Ruskin to develop the descriptive potential of metaphors in his writings, as he freely applied metaphors to nature, art, and architecture.[49] Elizabeth Helsinger contends that Ruskin gave motion to the landscapes he described through the use of constant and multiple verbs and verb forms so that ‘every element seems to vibrate or, more exactly, to shimmer and scintillate in a dance of light’. Metaphor also played a key role in his translation of the world into words. Certain metaphors dominate throughout Ruskin’s works, particularly in his diaries and in Modern Painters. These metaphors provide the manifestation of ‘inner energy’ to the objects in nature, such as fire, rock, and the sea—all elements possessed of energy.[50] Ruskin detected the living power or force felt in all things, and made no sharp division between animate and inanimate nature. Light and colour mark the presence of energy, be it energy expended through growth or energy exhausted through decay.

Fig. 6.7 R. P. Cuff after John Ruskin, Abstract Lines . Line block, reproduced in The Stones of Venice 1 (1851). Library Edition, Plate Seven, facing 9.268. Photo: The Courtauld Institute of Art.

Metaphors are, of course, always an integral part of language. Indeed, the evolution of language is driven by an appropriation of our analogous memories of the experienced material world in order to communicate new knowledge about the physical and metaphysical world. This produces both an inadequacy and richness of language, as words and their meanings change, intersect, and cross over. One method of overcoming this inherent inadequacy is to invent new words.[51] The other is to select a metaphor, an easily recognisable term, and to deftly project and establish its meaning within a new contextual framework. ‘Metaphoric translation’ wrote Mieka Bal ‘neutralises foreignness’, something strange becomes familiar, something unknown becomes graspable via the use of analogy and metaphor.[52] However, there is always a ‘lack’ or ‘surplus’ in the image or object in relation to words, argued Bal, which creates a gap between things—between object and referent—just as in the spaces seen across a page of typed text. In this way, the gap that separates two parts is essential for the production of meaning. Like the spaces between words, the gaps are part of language and enable the possibilities of articulation. The same could be said of articulating a skeleton from a pile of bones: the interval between parts provides order and brings apparent wholeness to the chaos of disordered bony material. Although metaphors may act to ‘neutralise foreignness’, Bal reminds us that the gap between words and things always persists and it is important to keep it in mind.

What is specific about Ruskin’s use of metaphor is the way he employed it to draw connections between the natural world on the one hand and art and architecture on the other. Mark Frost argues that ‘Ruskin did indeed attempt to ally conceptions of environment drawn from Christianity, Romanticism, and science, but these were incapable of stable conjunction’.[53] Many of the novel or radical ‘sciences’ that found traction in the nineteenth century relied on familiar analogies and metaphors in order to explain what had newly been discovered. This also facilitated the broader acceptance of ideas. The multifarious instability of nineteenth-century investigations of nature begged for some sort of unifying essential theory within disparate fields of interrogation. Ruskin’s determination to uncover ‘a natural realm, complete, coherent and unbroken’, resulted in his frequent application of the same metaphors, which acted as a unifying device in the simplest of terms.[54] He used metaphors that conveyed the essence of nature but that were also not fixed in a concrete homonymic form, thus enabling the genesis of a variety of conceptual forms and an application within a variety of fields of interrogation. The skeleton fit the bill entirely.


The mountain’s anatomy

From the jambs, wings, bones, spines, and ribs of the architectural body, the skeleton metaphor was projected throughout Ruskin’s writings on architecture, art, geology, and natural history. As we have seen, the skeleton was already an established metaphor, used to indicate the bare outline or ‘essence’ of a thing.[55] The term traversed the physical, conceptual, and metaphysical realms and became the paradigm for extracting the essential components to any system of thought—real or imagined—from which something could be built upon. With the skeleton as recognised anatomical and abstracted noun and metaphor, Ruskin was able to unite natural phenomena and artifice by reducing everything down to an essential line which could then be threaded through all things in nature, art, and architecture, in a manner similar to William Gilpin (1724–1804) in his search for the lines of the picturesque, William Hogarth (1697–1764) with his ‘line of beauty’, and Edmund Burke (1729–97) in his lines of sublimity. Ruskin had read Hogarth and was almost certainly familiar with the work of Gilpin and Burke (although their published contributions were absent from the inventory of Ruskin’s library).[56] In Ruskin’s work, the essential line was both real and conceptual. By conceptual I mean that the visual recognition attributed to the metaphor has become eroded and can at times be lost, for the very thing that identifies the noun—the three-dimensional articulated bones—has become a two-dimensional line that may be continuous or that may intersect and articulate with other lines.

Ruskin evokes the linearity of the skeleton metaphor dozens of times in his writings on nature, art, and architecture. In volume two of Modern Painters, Ruskin writes that ‘the fairer forms of earthly things are by [darkness] subdued and disguised, the round and muscular growth of the forest trunks is sunk into skeleton lines of quiet shade’.[57] In this instance, Ruskin presents the skeleton line as the lines of the tree when shrouded in darkness, something closer to a shadowy platonic form than to a material substance. The skeleton metaphor is now being used to describe conceptual lines in nature. For Ruskin, the skeleton, now bereft of the materiality of bones, finds its form being imagined in numerous other ways, its ‘lines’ now freed from substance and implanted into the cracks and crevices of rocks and glaciers and in the topological surface of mountainous landscape.[58]

In ‘The Laws of Hill Anatomy’ in the first volume of Modern Painters, the dramatic, energised and expressive forms of the human body are contrasted and conflated with the anatomy of the mountain:

Mountains are to the rest of the body of the earth, what violent muscular action is to the body of man. The muscles and tendons of its anatomy are, in the mountain, brought out with force and convulsive energy, full of expression, passion, and strength; the plains and the lower hills are the repose and the effortless motion of the frame, when its muscles lie dormant and concealed beneath the lines of its beauty, yet ruling those lines in their every undulation. This, then, is the first grand principle of the truth of the earth … But there is this difference between the action of the earth, and that of a living creature; that while the exerted limb marks its bones and tendons through the flesh, the excited earth casts off the flesh altogether, and its bones come out from beneath. Mountains are the bones of the earth … The masses of the lower hills are laid over and against their sides, like the masses of lateral masonry against the skeleton arch of an unfinished bridge.[59]

With contractive and forceful motions, the mountain’s bones cast off their flesh and ‘come out from beneath’, forming a titanic crust: an exoskeleton. But the skeleton does not exist on the surface alone; like the laminar layering of bone itself, or, to use a geological analogy, the layers of metamorphic rock formed from multiple lava flows, the sequential lines of the mountain’s many endoskeletons tell of its age and its makeup. The proverbial rib has been thrust into the body of the Earth, its skeleton now connected to the anatomy of plants (such as in the description of the ribs of the burdock leaf) and architecture (the skeleton arch of the bridge).

We can see early examples of Ruskin’s affinity towards hills and mountains (the Alps especially) and bodily metaphor in his numerous boyhood poems, later published in the collected work Poems, in 1891. In the text accompanying his poem ‘Chamouni’, penned when he was but fourteen years old, Ruskin wrote that ‘the blue sky, shone calmly through their openings, and the labouring sun struggled strangely—now gleaming waterily on the red-ribbed skeleton crags’.[60] Here, ‘the red-ribbed skeleton crags’ are a visual metaphor for the lines of hematite in the rocks, their rusty hue a testament to the oxidised iron—evidence of its breathing.[61] In this way Ruskin took from the skeleton its line and form, utilising its unique qualities as being strong yet graceful, dead yet highly active when in the living body, and applied it to forms that could also be deemed materially ambiguous. Introduced as part of Ruskin’s particular observational and perceptive power, the skeleton became more than a metaphor in Ruskin’s poems; it was the line which, although ghostly, was very much present and which formed the skeleton of the mountain, and he develops this skeleton line in his writing on mountains and glaciers. In the fourth volume of Modern Painters (1856), Ruskin described foliated and sedimentary geological lines as ‘abstract’, in that they follow the surface line of a rock’s topography or mountain’s terrain, and define the form and mass of the three-dimensional shape of the rock or mountain in a single line. Ruskin observed that this line was echoed in the layers of striated rock directly underneath. He then illustrated these abstracted lines of differential and sequential rock formation and referred to them as ‘skeleton lines’ (Fig. 6.8). In this way, surface and depth are unified via metaphor, but also by the material lines that run through the heart of the mountain echoing outwards and extending into the macrocosmic outline of the mountain’s surface, thereby expressing the awesome temporality of geological time. The skeleton is thus solidified as an important trope for Ruskin describing what he regarded as essential: the extracted fundamental nature or ‘spirit’ of a thing, and its internal essence finding external expression.

Contour of the Gorge of Ardon, in the Valais
Fig. 6.8 John Ruskin, Contour of the Gorge of Ardon, in the Valais (figure 17) and Order of the Beds in the Same (figure 18). Woodcuts, reproduced in Modern Painters 4 (1856). Library Edition, figure 17, 6.193; figure 18, 6.194.

The skeleton in its linear form—the abstracted essential line—was also described by Ruskin as the governing line (in regard to arboreal forms) and the ‘aweful line’ of landscape, perhaps drawing inspiration from Gilpin and Burke and the sublime horror of mountains.[62] Ruskin believed that in identifying form, be it natural or manmade, the aweful lines must be seized upon so that the essence of form—what is essential to the form—can be grasped. The most beautiful lines, Ruskin asserted, are those found in nature, ‘their universal property being that of ever-varying curvature in the most subtle and subdued transitions, with peculiar expressions for motion, elasticity, or dependence’.[63] Such expressions are reminiscent of Hogarth’s line that ‘waves’ (the wavy and the serpentine line) and Burke’s lines of beauty.[64] This is, of course, what Ruskin perceived in the Gothic line, too: two serpentine lines, tethered to two architectural columns at both ends, connecting the two columns in a gentle yet energetic way at the arch’s apex. The two lines want to find each other and their union is simply breathtaking. The Gothic line is the Gothic arch, the spine of the lettuce thistle, the curve of a pair of ribs connecting to a backbone, the jaw of an enormous whale, the rise and fall of the mountain.

Yet, as we have seen, the skeleton metaphor transcends the metaphorical and returns full circle so to speak, to become tied up in the physical matter of iron hematite—a stain of its breath. As metaphors become material, I am reminded of Ruskin’s conceptions of vibrant material transformation, as detailed in ‘The Law of Help’. He also considered the broader transformation of matter over time, in which the mountain was fed by its own ruin in an infinite cycle of erosion and deposition, decomposition and growth.[65] In understanding the circular transformation of matter, of infinite cycles of renewal, Ruskin was certainly thinking ecologically. But what is particularly interesting here is that Ruskin was able to take the abstract line and give it material form as oxidised iron, which acted as both evidence of the mountain’s age but also of its vibrant and vital material transformation, a material that breathes. It is the golden stain of time, the rust in the fountain, the blood generated in our bones. Iron becomes part of a self-sustaining circulation of matter, and the skeleton of bone, abstracted into a metaphorical line, becomes materialised once more as a skeleton of iron.[66]


‘The prickliness of its leaf becomes at last its grace’

We are quite familiar with Ruskin’s constant effort to make connections between art, natural philosophy, geology, and architecture. What is so striking, however, is his choice of the skeleton as his unifying concept. The skeleton can be seen as an essential line, a line abstracted from both the surface and the interior of the mountain, and which signifies the mountain’s form, age, and material. Elizabeth Helsinger argued that, for Ruskin, ‘the metaphors express visual information important to the painter-topographer in the form of a strong distinctive impression, a central thought that is the mark of imaginative vision’.[67] Yet the metaphor of the skeleton gave more than a strong impression, and it was less imaginative than other poetic metaphors and pathetic fallacies employed by writers and poets.[68] The term invokes the very essence of a thing; the very lines of its makeup, the essence of its structure.

The skeleton is a true Gothic concept, a form of delicacy and strength, of nature and life: savage, changeful, natural, grotesque, rigid, and redundant. It acts in service to the internal elements made by the craftsmen who actively articulate the nature of the stone, following the will of the line: the Gothic rib, configured into a skeleton. I have spent much time meditating on the work of the Gothic craftsmen, bending to the will of the lines they carve. In this act of servitude, there is a figurative offering of oneself to the will of the stone. However, stone is unconscious material and as such there is a subconscious reflection of the craftsman’s own will at the point where mind and material meet, at the point of contact between the surface of the stone and the blade of the chisel. In perceiving the Gothic figure as we do, we become connected to the craftsman as they too perceived the line. Through them, we find ourselves reflected back. Our will and the Gothic line are one and the same. Emotional motivation drives the craftsman’s composition. As Ruskin says in ‘The Task of the Least’ in Modern Painters 5 (1860), it is this human motive ‘to which all its lines and forms have some relation’.[69] Their motivation is not to create something imperfect; as Ruskin asserted, the craftsmen do not aim to make mistakes, but their results are always imperfect. Just as we are imperfect, so too is the Gothic line open to misalignment and unique imperfection. It is where beauty is to be found, and where relation with ourselves, with each other and to the architecture of the past, resides, in the recognition of our own imperfect wills. ‘Imperfection is in some sort essential to all what we know of life’.[70] The skeleton, and its associated parts, can be utilised to trace and understand connection in Ruskin. Metaphors are a way of connecting the visual with the communicable. The skeleton metaphor was employed by Ruskin to conterminously pull together as well as pull apart ideas; to ‘articulate’ concepts as well as to dismember them, and to create structured and congruent arguments that consistently refer to the relationship of part to whole.

In a similar manner that a skeleton is an assemblage of parts brought together and united to form a whole, Ruskin drew together physical and metaphysical lines to compose relational systems—systems comprised of earth elements, nature, affect, and divinity—that when articulated together, transcended the sum of their individual parts. Ruskin’s aim for organic unity in architecture—architectural organicism―played out through the Gothic craftsmen, foliated plant and arboreal forms, and the articulation of Gothic members into a holistic architectural skeleton. Life is found in the relation of the organism to its organs, an interrelation of its parts to the whole. The parts of the living organism relate and correlate with each other. The skeleton line indicates an understanding of the part as being essential to the whole in a micro-/macrocosmic dynamic: the part is the whole and the whole is the part. Ruskin understood the skeleton as the essential structural part to the living body, and that life, and that life and death were forever intertwined, for what is life but a progress towards death.[71] It may be, however, that the skeleton line became too abstracted from the living body, and perhaps its organic origins become blurred and potentially overshadowed by mid-nineteenth-century debates concerning natural history and comparative anatomy, which may have led to its rapid disuse in Ruskin’s metaphorical ‘toolkit’ in favour of more ‘helpful’, quick, and life-affirming metaphors from the natural world.[72]

For Ruskin, ‘help’ meant putting things together, composing lines, to make a single thing out of them, something greater than the sum of its parts. Competition, anarchy, corruption, and separation were the laws of death. It was perhaps the skeleton’s essential nature, of being articular, that led to its downfall. As easily fragmentable, there is an embodied violence to the skeleton, a disarticulate nature that misaligned with Ruskin’s sense of natural and living wholeness. The decline of Ruskin’s use of the skeleton metaphor may have been a result of its relationship to death and Darwinian theories, its rejection in favour of more obvious associations with living nature, rather than a box of bones or artificially rearticulated representations in museums.[73] Although Ruskin called upon ‘Mr Darwin’ many times in Proserpina and Love’s Meinie, it was in service of communicating species variation and evolution, not in relation to natural selection and death. The idea of life as a struggle for survival, a competition, a predator-prey relationship, a striving to seek the advantage, and the idea that death was the outcome of life in every instance, painted a bleak picture of nature and creation for Ruskin. He therefore remained at fundamental loggerheads with Darwin, not just regarding the idea of sexual selection, from the 1860s until the end of his life. Ruskin did concede that interspecies variation and development occurred, although he was not convinced of the impetus being the drives of pure survival.

This could be one of the reasons that the skeleton metaphor was utilised less and less by Ruskin in the years subsequent to the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859. Its association with death could not be overcome, the metaphor was now complicit with modernity, and every city in England, every town, became furnished with a vast prefabricated metal skeleton frame: sad, dead, beached whales, vast railway stations on empty squares, soulless ‘black skeletons and blinding square’.[74] As the nineteenth century wore on, the skeleton lost its associations with life, so that, to put it into the terms of Modern Painters 2 (1846), the Promethean sculptor / Gothic mason becomes an uncaring anatomist with dissecting tools in hand: ‘while the sculptor ceases not to feel, to the close of his life, the deliciousness of every line of the outward frame’, ‘the anatomist’, in his dissecting work, ‘in a little time loses all sense of horror in the torn flesh and carious bone’, the envelope ripped open to expose the deathly white stuff within.[75] The physical skeleton removed from or exposed at the expense of the living body cast a grim shadow over the application of the skeleton metaphor to living natural forms, and you’d be hard pressed to find it used to describe geological striations in any twentieth-century book on natural history.

G. Allen after John Ruskin, Acanthoid Leaves
Fig. 6.9 G. Allen after John Ruskin, Acanthoid Leaves . Steel engraving, reproduced in Proserpina 1 (1875). Library Edition, Plate Twelve, facing 25.289.

Yet the skeleton is not completely interred in this collective phantasmagoria. Ruskin wanted to keep the skeleton—or at least the thistle—alive. I will come now, at the end of my chapter, to where I began, to Ruskin drawing thistles. In Proserpina, Ruskin returns to the plant, describing it as a ‘composed’ flower, ‘being, on the whole, bossy instead of flat’.[76] In the stunning, rather stately and somewhat playful Plate Twelve titled Acanthoid Leaves accompanying this description, Ruskin sketched two long, uprooted, marsh thistle stems cupping another thistle leaf in the centre of the page (Fig. 6.9). Ruskin points out that the same sprig of thistle was used to draw the lateral stems, whilst the central figure was a ‘young leaf just opening. It beat me, in its delicate bossing, and I had to leave it, discontentedly enough’. He describes in detail the drawing process:

sketched first with a finely-pointed pen, and common ink, on white paper: then washed rapidly with colour, and retouched with the pen to give sharpness and completion. This method is used because the thistle leaves are full of complex and sharp sinuosities, and set with intensely sharp spines passing into hairs, which require many kinds of execution with the fine point to imitate at all.[77]

G. Allen after John Ruskin, Crested Leaves: Lettuce-Thistle
Fig. 6.10 G. Allen after John Ruskin, Crested Leaves: Lettuce-Thistle . Steel engraving, reproduced in Proserpina 1 (1875). Library Edition, Plate Thirteen, facing 25.290.

Ruskin is adamant that the sharp sinuosities and spines of the thistle must be captured for its true form to be realised. The spines of the laterally positioned thistles come together to create an inverted arch, like two bony ribs, albeit pathological with spindles of ossified tissue projecting outwards from the various grooves and sulci. The two thistle spines also resemble the antlers of a great stag, its points echoed in the fierce barbs of the thistle’s sharp edges. Ruskin, too, saw bones in the stiff folds of the thistle leaf, their action like that ‘of a ship’s spars on its sails; and absolutely in many cases like that of the spines in a fish’s fin, passing into the various conditions of serpentine and dracontic crest, connected with all the terrors and adversities of nature’. Lines of action, lines of strength, lines of warning. The true nature of the thistle lies in its fierceness. ‘The prickliness of its leaf becomes at last its grace’.[78] The subsequent Plate Thirteen titled Crested Leaves: Lettuce-Thistle (Fig. 6.10) is described by Ruskin as being of an easier variety to capture due to its many soft planes of ‘succulent and membranous surface’ and the singular ‘definite outlines, and merely undulating folds; and this is sufficiently done by a careful and firm pen outline on grey paper, with a slight wash of colour afterwards, reinforced in the darks; then marking the lights with white … it is much the best which the general student can adopt for expression of the action and muscular power of plants’. Inspired by Study with a Lettuce Thistle, Plate Thirteen is a portrait of living nature, its leaves twisting upward in a tell-tale spiral of asymmetrical growth. The thistle is composed of multiple lines of action: the upright rigid lines of the stalk, the central veins of the leaves as they project outwards, the soft rounded lines of the thistle head. The forceful, vital, active lineation is realised in the spinous prickles of the leaves facing left, right, and left again, before reaching the bloom of the thistle at its head. For Ruskin the skeletal—the essential—line still persists as a fundamental truth, and in de-aestheticising the skeleton, he says, modern science misses out much. ‘You will find a thousand botanical drawings which will give you a delicate and deceptive resemblance of the leaf, for one that will give you the right convexity in its backbone’. ‘The goodness or badness of such work depends absolutely on the truth of the single line’.[79]



I wish to thank my coeditor and collaborator, Thomas Hughes, and my mentor and friend, Mechthild Fend. Thanks also to Chris Donaldson and Sandra Kemp for inviting me to present an earlier draft of this chapter at The Ruskin—Library, Museum and Research Centre, University of Lancaster.


[1] Ruskin may have misidentified the variety of thistle: the shape of the leaves look more like a Scotch or milk thistle than a Lettuce thistle, the edges of which are flat and relatively spineless. The leaves are edible and taste remarkably like lettuce, hence their name.
[2] Ruskin, 25.287 (Proserpina 1, 1875).
[3] Mark Frost, ‘Reading Nature: John Ruskin, Environment, and the Ecological Impulse’, in Laurence W. Mazzeno and Ronald D. Morrison (eds.), Victorian Writers and the Environment: Ecocritical Perspectives (Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2017), p. 18. See also Ruskin, 15.91 (The Elements of Drawing, 1857).
[4] Ruskin, 15.91.
[5] Ruskin, 9.268 (The Stones of Venice 1, 1851).
[6] Mark Frost, ‘The Everyday Marvels of Rust and Moss: John Ruskin and the Ecology of the Mundane’, Green Letters 14 (2011): pp. 10–22.
[7] Frost, ‘The Everyday Marvels of Rust and Moss’, p. 11.
[8] Ruskin, 25.60–3 (Love’s Meinie, 1873–81).
[9] Ruskin, 35.314 (Praeterita 2, 1886–7).
[10] The fifth volume of Modern Painters was divided into three sections: on art and the physical and material facts, on art and its obedience to the laws of beauty, and on art and its relation to God and man. The last division was titled ‘The Law of Help’. See Ruskin, 7.203 (Modern Painters 5, 1860).
[11] Allen MacDuffie argues that Ruskin’s interest in ‘energy as a property of a system’ and his description of biophysical energy exchanges between humans, environmental systems, economics and aesthetics, sets him apart from his contemporaries. ‘Ruskin’s vision of energy is comprehensively ecological’, writes MacDuffie, ‘since it involves not simply a consideration of natural systems, but the manifold, shifting, strange, unbounded zones of interchange among natural formations, cultural productions, working conditions, modes of economic organisation, transportation networks, and human-constructed environments’. See MacDuffie, Victorian Literature, Energy, and the Ecological Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 137–38.
[12] Ruskin, 7.215.
[13] Ruskin, 7.204.
[14] Ruskin, 7.205.
[15] Ruskin, 7.205.
[16] Ruskin, 7.206–7. Also see Clive Wilmer, ‘“No Such Thing as a Flower … No Such Thing as a Man”: John Ruskin’s Response to Darwin’, in Valerie Purton (ed.), Darwin, Tennyson and Their Readers: Explorations in Victorian Literature (London: Anthem Press, 2014), pp. 97–108.
[17] Ruskin, 7.207. For the definition of ‘Articulation, n.’, see OED Online (Oxford University Press, 2017).
[18] My interpretation is similar to the way Jeremy Melius describes the sense of relations between parts, or the ‘relationships’ perceived in artworks, as ‘chains of feeling’ in which a hierarchy of affection can be discerned and linked through chain-like connections. In a sense I am interested in the links of the chain, and how Ruskin traces these articulations with the osteological line. See Melius’s chapter in this book.
[19] Ruskin, 25.324–5 (Proserpina 1, 1875): ‘the animal’s limb bends at the joints, but the vegetable limb stiffens. And when the articulation projects as in the joint of a cane, it means not only that the strength of the plant is well carried through the junction, but is carried farther and more safely than it could be without it: a cane is stronger, and can stand higher than it could otherwise, because of its joints’.
[20] Frost, ‘Reading Nature’, pp. 15–18.
[21] John Ruskin to Charles Eliot Norton, Ambleside, 8 August 1867, reproduced in Jeffrey L. Spear, ‘“My darling Charles”: Selections from the Ruskin-Norton Correspondence’, in John Dixon Hunt and Faith M. Holland (eds.), The Ruskin Polygon: Essays on the Imagination of John Ruskin (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1982), p. 245.
[22] Paul Walton was unable to identify the particular drawing of the tree that Ruskin described in Praeterita. See Paul H. Walton, The Drawings of John Ruskin (Hacker: New York, 1985), p. 60.
[23] Ruskin, 3.200–1 (Modern Painters 1, 1843).
[24] Ruskin, 9.91 (The Stones of Venice 1, 1851). For the application of abstract lines in decoration and the transference of natural contours to architecture, see pp. 266–70. For the abstraction of mountain lines, see pp. 335, 339–40. For the governing lines in trees, see pp. 91–6, 116.
[25] Ruskin, 9.388. On classical Greek architecture’s association with the lintel, see Ruskin, 10.252 (The Stones of Venice 2, 1853). The fact that Ruskin used this analogy with zoology is telling. He was well informed of recent debates and breakthroughs in such fields as comparative anatomy, zoology, palaeontology, geology, and botany, as is evidenced by the contents of his personal library and his correspondences with leading figures in science, such as the zoologist and palaeontologist Richard Owen (who made important contributions to comparative anatomy) and the geologist Charles Lyell (whom Ruskin had also met). An amateur naturalist himself, Ruskin would later write his own treatises on birds (Love’s Meinie, 1873–81), flora (Proserpina, 1875–86), and mountains (‘Of Mountain Beauty’ in Modern Painters 4, 1856) becoming a recognised and respected voice in ornithology and geology. Ruskin carried Georges Cuvier’s Le Règne Animal (The Animal Kingdom, 1816) with him whilst traveling through Italy, being perhaps more sympathetic with Cuvier’s Catastrophe theory over the secular debates regarding Lamarckian evolution due to his Evangelical beliefs. There are many traces of Cuvier in Ruskin’s rhetoric, descriptions, terminology and metaphor. Ruskin’s notable references to Cuvier were discussed by Mark Frost in his 2005 thesis, ‘“The Law of Help”: John Ruskin’s Ecological Vision, 1843–1886’ (PhD diss., University of Southampton, 2005), p. 127.
[26] On foliate forms in Gothic architecture, see Ruskin, 10.256–8.
[27] Ruskin, 9.30.
[28] Ruskin, 9.4.
[29] Ruskin, 10.182 (The Stones of Venice 2, 1853).
[30] Ruskin, 10.183.
[31] Georges Cuvier argued that movement was a condition of life. See Cuvier, The Animal Kingdom, Arranged According to its Organisation by Baron Georges Cuvier [1816], (trans.) E. Blyth et al. (London: William Clowes, 1827), p. 16.
[32] ‘Active rigidity’ is defined in Ruskin’s ‘The Nature of Gothic’ as the fifth of his six tenets of Gothic architecture. Ruskin, 10.239.
[33] Ruskin, 10.239. Also see Nikolaus Pevsner, Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc: Englishness and Frenchness in the Appreciation of Gothic Architecture (London: Thames & Hudson, 1969), p. 24.
[34] Leon Battista Alberti (1404–72) is often referred to as ‘the father of architecture’. I would consider him to be the first theorist in Western architecture to have directly addressed the skeletal elements in a building’s anatomy and would argue that he conceived of these elements as being alive. See Leon Battista Alberti, De re aedificatoria [1452], On the Art of Building in Ten Books, (trans.) Joseph Rykwert, Neil Leach and Robert Tavernor (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1991). Also see Caspar Pearson, Humanism and the Urban World: Leon Battista Alberti and the Renaissance City (Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 2011).
[35] For Ruskin’s analogies between architecture and the animal skeleton, see Ruskin, 9.128, 295 (The Stones of Venice 1, 1851).
[36] George Witt, A Compendium of Osteology: Being a Systematic Treatise of the Bones of the Human Body; Designed for the Use of Students; to Which Is Subjoined an Improved Method of Preparing Bones for Osteological Purposes (London: Longman & Co., 1833).
[37] Ruskin, 25.232–3 (Proserpina 1, 1875–86).
[38] Alfred Bartholomew, ‘Of Abutments’, in Specifications for Practical Architecture (London: J. Williams & Co., 1840), chapter 52.
[39] Although the stones remain in place, it is not due to their physical inertia but through a maintained state of ‘static equilibrium’. Any alteration to the state of static equilibrium would result in catastrophic structural failure. Jacques Heyman, The Stone Skeleton: Structural Engineering of Masonry Architecture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), pp. 16, 79.
[40] Lars Spuybroek imagines a digital Gothic city composed of architectural designs that follow the writings of Ruskin by affirming the Gothic style as an interpretation of the organic: as a living, ‘foliated’ form that exists in a continuous process of formation. See The Sympathy of Things: John Ruskin and the Ecology of Design [2011] (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), p. 5.
[41] Spuybroek, The Sympathy of Things, pp. 11, 15. Wilhelm Worringer proposed that the structure becomes ‘vitalised’ at its moment of production. See Abstraction and Empathy: A Contribution to the Psychology of Style [1908], (trans.) Michael Bullock (Chicago: I van R. Dee, 1997), pp. 94–95, 112.
[42] Spuybroek, The Sympathy of Things, pp. 9, 28.
[43] Lars Spuybroek, ‘Gothic Ontology and Sympathy: Moving Away from the Fold’, in Sjoerd van Tuinen (ed.), Speculative Art Histories: Analysis at the Limit (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017), pp. 143, 146, 152.
[44] Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy, pp. 76–7, 112–21. See also Spuybroek, The Sympathy of Things, p. 28.
[45] Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy, p. 5.
[46] Spuybroek, The Sympathy of Things, p. 5. In his thesis, Worringer wrote that ‘life is activity. But activity is that in which I experience an expenditure of energy. By its nature, this activity is an activity of will’. See Worringer, Abstraction and Empathy, p. 5.
[47] Elizabeth K. Helsinger, Ruskin and the Art of the Beholder (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1982), pp. 24–5. See also Ruskin, 3.253–8 (Modern Painters 1, 1843).
[48] Ruskin, 10.62, 88, 162 (The Stones of Venice 2, 1853).
[49] Being an exceptionally influential writer and art critic, Ruskin’s organic metaphors were quickly absorbed into the descriptive and critical language of the day. See Stephen Kite, ‘Building Texts + Reading: Metaphor, Memory, and Material in John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice’, Library Trends 61 (2012): pp. 418–39; and Helsinger, Ruskin and the Art of the Beholder.
[50] Helsinger, Ruskin and the Art of the Beholder, pp. 31–2.
[51] Jay Appleton has discussed the historical problems that have arisen in the discourse of landscapes, paying attention to the confusion that can be generated from an author’s implementation of common adjectives as abstract nouns. See Jay Appleton, The Experience of Landscape (Chichester: John Wiley & Sons, 1996), pp. 18–21.
[52] Mieke Bal, A Mieke Bal Reader (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006), pp. 152–61.
[53] For Ruskin’s conception of ‘ecosystem’ see Frost, ‘The Everyday Marvels of Rust and Moss’, p. 13.
[54] Frost, ‘The Everyday Marvels of Rust and Moss’, p. 10.
[55] The noun ‘skeleton’ is reported to have been first recorded c.1600, which is where such terms as ‘skeleton crew’ (1778) and ‘skeleton key’ derive their meaning. See Douglas Harper, ‘Skeleton’, in Online Etymology Dictionary (2001), accessed 1 September 2020, Excluding ship and bridge building, I have never seen the term skeleton applied in architectural discourse in the centuries preceding the 1800s. However, the rich metaphorical potential of terms like ‘skeleton’ makes it impossible to trace precisely when the meaning of a particular word was transposed, when, in other words, a skeleton made of bone became a skeleton made of stone, iron and, in due course, steel. I do not propose that the material skeletons of bone and iron were considered to be the same thing. On the contrary, the metaphor is a figure of speech, and looking at the skeleton as a metaphor implies that it is both different from and analogous to the unit made of animal bones. Bodily analogies are a legacy from early-modern ways of thinking about the body and the world as connected, and do not always imply a causal relationship. See Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 56.
[56] Ruskin owned a copy of the Reverend John Trusler’s The Works of William Hogarth in a Series of Engravings (1833). He also owned copies of J. Hannay, J. Trusler, and E. F. Roberts’s The Complete Works of William Hogarth (1833), Austin Dobson’s William Hogarth (1891) as well as other ephemera relating to Hogarth. See Ruskin Library Catalogue, Lancaster University (2009), accessed 2 June 2020, _config=true. George P. Landow reveals how Ruskin had assimilated Burke’s aesthetics, responding to them in Modern Painters. However, Landow’s position is that there was no evidence that Ruskin knew the writings of William Gilpin. See Landow, Aesthetic and Critical Theory of John Ruskin (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1971), pp. 220–39, and passim.
[57] Ruskin, 4.80 (Modern Painters 2, 1846).
[58] Ruskin, 6.366–466.
[59] Ruskin, 3.427–8 (Modern Painters 1, 1843). See section 4: ‘Of Truth of Earth’, chapter 1: ‘Of General Structure’.
[60] Ruskin, 2.381 (Poems, ‘On tour on the continent’, 1891).
[61] Ruskin, 16.394 (The Two Paths, 1859: Lecture 5, ‘The Work of Iron, in Nature, Art and Policy’, 16 February 1858). See also Kelly Freeman, ‘Iron and Bone: The Skeleton Architecture of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History’, Object 18:1 (2016): pp. 9–44.
[62] Edmund Burke, On the Sublime and Beautiful [1757] (Boston: The Harvard Classics, 1909–14), and William Gilpin, Observations relative chiefly to the Picturesque Beauty, made in the year 1772 on several parts of England; particularly the mountains and lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland, two volumes (London: Blamire, 1786), vol. 1, p. 191.
[63] Ruskin, 9.267 (The Stones of Venice 1, 1851).
[64] William Hogarth dubbed this the line of beauty and the line of grace. See Hogarth, The Analysis of Beauty: Written with a View of Fixing the Fluctuating Ideas of Taste (London: Samuel Bagster, 1753).
[65] Ruskin, 6.239 (Modern Painters 4, 1856).
[66] Ella Mershon, ‘Ruskin’s Dust’, Victorian Studies 58:3 (2016): pp. 469–70, 476, 479–80. See also Catherine Gallagher, The Body Economic: Life, Death, and Sensation in Political Economy and the Victorian Novel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), pp. 100–7.
[67] Helsinger, Ruskin and the Art of the Beholder, p. 32.
[68] Ruskin’s ‘pathetic fallacy’ can be summarised as poetic fancy, or emotional distortion introduced in the description of the appearance of things: ‘All violent feelings have the same effect. They produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of external things, which I would generally characterize as the “pathetic fallacy”’. See Ruskin, 5.205 (Modern Painters 3, 1843, ‘Of the Pathetic Fallacy’). Ruskin takes the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge as an example: ‘The one red leaf, the last of its clan; that dances as often as dance it can’. Ruskin explains that Coleridge fancies that the leaf has a life and a will of its own. Yet a dying leaf is powerless—it does not choose to ‘dance’. There is also the contradistinct substitution of death with merriment, and the wind with music (5.206–7). See also Landow, Aesthetic and Critical Theory of John Ruskin, pp. 321–457, especially pp. 378–87.
[69] Ruskin, 7.217 (Modern Painters 5, 1860).
[70] Ruskin, 10.35 (The Stones of Venice 2, 1853).
[71] Ruskin, 4.474 (Modern Painters 2, 1843): ‘When you say a growing thing, therefore, you mean something advancing towards death’.
[72] Ruskin, 4.155. See also the letter to Dean Liddell, 1 Dec 1878, quoted in Ruskin, ‘Man is intended to observe with his eyes, and mind; not with microscope and knife’. Also see Dinah Birch, “‘That Ghastly Work”: Ruskin, Animals and Anatomy’, in Laurence W. Mazzeno and Ronald D. Morrison (eds.), Victorian Literature and Culture: Contexts for Criticism (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), and Wilmer, ‘“No Such Thing as a Flower … No Such Thing as a Man”: John Ruskin’s Response to Darwin’, pp. 97–108.
[73] In short, Darwin’s theory was a theory of adaptation in that small changes in initial conditions for life can have amplified effects. The expression of form is environmentally dependent and the most favourable expression for an animal’s particular environment will be selected. The evolution of species is thus based on selected traits that are natural (pressures exerted by nature) and sexual (pressures of selecting mates that can produce live, healthy offspring with a survival advantage). See Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species [1859], in Paul H Barrett (ed.), The Works of Charles Darwin, twenty-nine volumes (London: Routledge, 2016).
[74] Ruskin, 26.349 (The Two Paths, 1859: Lecture 4, ‘The Influence of Imagination in Architecture’, 23 January 1857).
[75] Ruskin, 4.68–9 (Modern Painters 2, 1846: Section 1: Of the Theoretic Faculty, Chapter 4 ‘Of false opinions’).
[76] Ruskin, 25.292 (Proserpina 1, 1875).
[77] Ruskin, 25.289.
[78] Ruskin, 25.289. In the footnote on p. 280 is written: ‘On a printed proof, among other matter intended for St Mark’s Rest [Ruskin, 10.163 (The Stones of Venice 2, 1853)], is the following additional passage on the subject: “Now, lastly, of the Thistle, more strictly the Acanthus. The prickliness of its leaf becomes at last its grace, so that of all leaves it is chosen at last for its Gratia by the Masters of working nations, and chosen, according to their tradition, in that Corinth where the Greek wisdom, or sophia, was to have her final obedience rendered to her”’.
[79] Ruskin, 25.90.

DOI: 10.33999/2021.62