For the epigraph to The Art of Botanical Illustration (1951), Wilfrid Blunt chooses an attractive promise John Ruskin makes in Modern Painters (five volumes, 1843-1860):
“If you can paint one leaf you can paint the world.”
I’m not so sure. The line is from a chapter titled “On Leaf Beauty,” in which Ruskin also says, “We cannot learn to paint leaves by painting trees full; nor grass by painting fields full. Learning to paint one leaf rightly is better than constructing a whole forest of leaf definitions.” That makes more sense, especially “rightly.” If Ruskin is endorsing artistic devotion to detail over scale, of letting the particular speak for the general, he’s right. When I think of War and Peace, I remember Prince Andrei lying wounded on the ground during the Battle of Austerlitz, not Napoleon.
Ruskin is a writer I’ve read unsystematically for forty years. He’s best in small portions, as in Praeterita or single letters from Fors Clavigera. I’ve said before, he would have made an exceptional blogger, though today his garrulousness on the page is probably off-putting for readers. Of course, garrulousness is a highly prized virtue in some regions of the blogosphere. Saying you don’t like Ruskin is like saying you don’t like the United States. Both are too vast and various, too heterogeneously cobbled together out of disparate parts, too resistant to glib generalities, to be indiscriminately embraced or repudiated. Love of either must mingle with impatience and disappointment.
I’ve been exchanging emails with the English poet Clive Wilmer, a Ruskin admirer who in 1986 edited Unto This Last and Other Writings for Penguin Classics. After noting my occasional mentions of Ruskin, Wilmer says: “He is, as you have noticed, one of my guiding stars.” He certainly shows up regularly in Wilmer’s poetry. From a three-poem sequence, “The Infinite Variety,” comes “Minerals from the Collection of John Ruskin” (Selected Poems, 1995):
“The boy geologist who clove the rocks
Here on display grew up to be the great
Philosopher of colour into form
And, in the products of just workmanship,
Discerned the paradigm of the just state.
“It was the Lord’s design he made apparent—
These bands, and blocks of azure, umber, gilt,
Set in their flexing contours, solid flow
That has composed itself in its own frame:
Red garnet neighbouring mica, silver white;
A slice of agate like an inland sea…”
“Clove” is shrewd, suitably old-fashioned-sounding, part of Ruskin’s fanciful etymology for the title Fors Clavigera. Wilmer’s poem addresses Ruskin’s uneasy synthesis of aesthetics, science, politics and religion, a potent Victorian brew. “Solid flow” is very nice. In The Art of Botanical Illustration, Blunt quotes Ruskin as saying he was “at war with the botanists.” An amateur proto-scientist, Ruskin ridiculed real scientists, mocked their taste for exactitude and its specialized language. Blunt writes:
“He saw no necessity, for instance, for describing the leaves of Viola epipsila [dwarf marsh violet] (`Heavens knows what: it is Greek, not Latin, and looks as if it meant something between a bishop and a short letter e’) as either pubescent-reticulate-subreniform or lato-cordate-repando-crenate, or its stipules as ovate-acuminate-fimbrio-denticulate. He firmly declined to read about a fruit `dehiscing loculicidally.’”
Wilmer includes among his poems a prose anecdote/meditation, “A Woodland Scene.” This is from the second of its five sections, describing a painting about which little is known:
“Watercolour, overlaid with bodycolour. `Ruskinian,’ a friend calls it. And so it is: in its anxious piety—in the endeavour to speak, crisply, of the transitory variegations of light on bark, or, where a bough has been shorn off, of light on pith; everywhere modified by the intervention of leaves, translucent or shadow-casting. Ruskinian, too, in the implied continuity of the given world with whatever a mesh of boughs and branches, contained within an arbitrary rectangle, can itself contain. Speaking, then, of the world at large, the picture expounds no painter, is devotional.
“Encrusted with light, the leaves lose substance. Fretted with bodycolour, surface becomes depth. It is a sunny day. In our looking, we cool ourselves on the banks of a stream. We are somewhere in the depths of a wood. No people, no birds or beasts, and the world is still.”
This is prose worthy of Ruskin on a good day, almost a pastiche of his best effects. There’s something admirably valiant about a writer championing an important writer of the past who, though not entirely erased from cultural memory, is no longer central and certainly not fashionable. Guy Davenport often encouraged me to read Ruskin, in particular Fors Clavigera. He will never again have a large, devoted following of readers, but I can think of few others so deserving of reclamation. Consider one of his most peculiar volumes (all of his books are peculiar, and their weirdness is beguiling) – Proserpina (1886). To give its full title: Proserpina: Studies of Wayside Flowers while the Air was Yet Pure among the Alps and in the Scotland and England Which My Father Knew. This is how Ruskin closes his introduction, which is dated “Rome, 10th May (my father’s birthday)”:
“I found the loveliest blue asphodel I ever saw in my life, yesterday, in the fields beyond Monte Mario,--a spire two feet high, of more than two hundred stars, the stalks of them all deep blue, as well as the flowers. Heaven send all honest people the gathering of the like, in Elysian fields, some day!”
[Go here to see Ruskin’s exquisite drawing of a snake's-head fritillary stem and flower, and here for his rendering of oak leaves.]