This lecture explores the aesthetic and ethical parameters of John Ruskin’s watercolour practice. As in his acts of verbal description, the Victorian critic’s pictures staged distinctive modes of attention for his audiences, modelling ways of closely observing visual phenomena and taking their significance in. In the process, however, as they brought the observed world onto the two-dimensional sheet, revelling in their grasp of detail, the drawings also refused to pin that world down, proposing that the act of depiction instead remain open, mobile, never fully complete. Like the best of his writings, then, Ruskin’s drawings constituted an art of unpossession, with real consequences for the understanding of his thought. But as it ranges over the sheer variety of his visual work—from nature studies to architectural fancies to copies after pictures from the past—the lecture also suggests some of the ways the visual might be distinguished from the verbal in Ruskin’s case. Drawing out the difference picturing makes in his relation to the world, it examines how Ruskin’s engagement with the medium of watercolour led his pictures to suggest things his words could never say.
Jeremy Melius is a historian of modern art, focussed on the trajectories of art making and art writing in Britain and Europe since 1800. Currently a Visiting Scholar at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, he has published widely on figures such as John Ruskin, Walter Pater, Adolf Hildebrand, Pablo Picasso, and Lee Bontecou. He has recently completed a book on the invention of Botticelli and is at work on another concerning the fraught relation between Ruskin and art history.
Organised by Professor Caroline Arscott (The Courtauld).