Exhibit of the Month: An escape from the mundane

editorial image

The vibrant and energetic brushwork of The Towers of Thun suggests an unexpected liveliness and spontaneity in the character of John Ruskin.

Often perceived as a dour and solemn Victorian, John Ruskin was in fact a passionate and animated figure.

Ruskin was one of the most celebrated critics and writers of the nineteenth century.

His multi-faceted interests ranged from geology to the rights of workers and it was in fact a mixture of both these things that encouraged him to place a collection of artworks in Sheffield in 1875.

In the previous decades however, Ruskin was a keen traveller, scouring France, Italy and Switzerland for magnificent buildings, paintings and landscapes to feed his views on art, architecture and natural science. He documented what he saw in drawings and page after page of notes.

This watercolour is one such document.

Thun is a town situated in the foothills of the Swiss Alps, and a large lake laps at its edge.

While the watercolour is named after the Thun’s twelfth-century castle, the view of it is rather sketchy; it’s obvious that its architecture is not the most important part of the painting.

Instead, the rooftops appear in a garish, glaring orange and the sky is almost scribbled onto the paper with wide, vivid brushstrokes.

It’s the colour and light that’s absorbing Ruskin’s interest.

He’s excited by it and tries to capture its luminosity and brilliance with haste rather than precision.

This is typical of Ruskin’s work. At times meticulous in recording detail and elsewhere producing vague memoranda, Ruskin compiled sometimes years of study before committing his notes to publication.

Ruskin had been recording the intensity of blue in skies since his youth, measuring it through a device called a cyanometer – a numbered list of blue shades he held up against the sky.

His notes on weather and the sky’s blueness informed his writing on everything from painting to land cultivation and climate change.

In Thun itself, Ruskin complained of the tourists taking boat trips, their noses stuck in imported newspapers, conversing about the weather back home and oblivious to the spectacle of the landscape around them.

It was Ruskin’s view that if we took more time to glory in what nature has to offer us, then we would open ourselves up to a new world of beauty and wonder that would lift us above the more mundane aspects of everyday life.

The Towers of Thun is on view in the Ruskin Collection at the Millennium Gallery until August