When he came to sit his finals in ‘Greats’ (Classics) in Oxford in 1842, the sickly John Ruskin was unwell again, and was awarded a rare “honorary double fourth-class” degree. His only real claim to fame at the time had been his winning the Uiversity’s Newdigate Prize for poetry in 1839. Yet within ten years, without ever training as an artist, he was to become the most influential figure in British painting
Ruskin was born into an affluent family, and travelled widely in the UK and Europe when still a child. He went up to start his studies at Christ Church College, Oxford, in 1836, in which his academic achievements were limited.
He published his first substantial writing on painting in 1843, which was to become the first volume of his highly influential series Modern Painters. This appeared anonymously as the work of “a graduate of Oxford”, and its main purpose was to extol the aesthetics of current artists, particularly JMW Turner, as being comparable to those of the Old Masters. Its initial reception was mixed, but the support of prominent literary figures such as Charlotte Brontë and Elizabeth Gaskell ensured Ruskin’s success.
When the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (PRB) formed in 1848, while its ideals were largely original, its emphasis on painting only from nature, and depicting nature in ‘true’ detail, were greatly influenced by Ruskin’s writing, even though members of the PRB did not meet Ruskin until some time later. By then, Ruskin had already criticised some of the early Pre-Raphaelite paintings. He sprung to their defence in 1851, writing to The Times newspaper in their support.
Ruskin then became embroiled in the tumultuous personal lives of the members of the PRB. His own wife divorced him to marry the painter John Millais. From 1855 he wrote an annual review of the key British exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. His opinions expressed in his review made and destroyed reputations and careers. Although he gave considerable financial and critical support to several members of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, that proved as capricious as his critical opinions.
It would be unfair, though, to dismiss Ruskin as not being an artist himself. He painted rather well.
Ruskin painted extensively during his travels, and undertook summer painting campaigns in the Alps. The Aiguille Blaitière from about 1856 is one of the more complete of those works.
This was a difficult time in British painting. The dominant and increasingly avant garde landscape painter JMW Turner died in 1851, leaving no pupils or natural successor, but something of a vacuum. Artists who had undergone a classical training, such as Frederic, Lord Leighton, were notably absent – Leighton didn’t return to Britain until 1859.
The same year that Ruskin made his view of The Aiguille Blaitière, the young landscape artist John Brett (1831–1902) travelled out to the village of Rosenlaui in Switzerland, where he made his first substantial landscape painting.
Brett was a relative latecomer to the Pre-Raphaelite circle. Although he, and his older sister Rosa, started painting professionally from about 1850, Brett was not admitted to the Royal Academy Schools until early 1853, by which time the PRB itself was dissolving. When in London, he made contact with artists of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, and discussed their art and techniques with Holman Hunt in particular. He read Ruskin’s writings, and admired the paintings of John Constable.
Brett’s Glacier of Rosenlaui (1856) is an extraordinarily accomplished initial landscape painting.
Influenced by the fourth volume of Ruskin’s Modern Painters, and the nearby work of John William Inchbold, who was painting about ten kilometres away at the time, it appears to have been painted entirely en plein air, in front of the motif. Despite its great detail, particularly in the foreground, as prescribed by Ruskin, he signed and dated it 23 August 1856.
Brett also painted a few impressive watercolours before returning to England. In December, this painting had impressed Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Holman Hunt, and had even received praise from Ruskin himself. But the painting didn’t sell.
The following summer, Brett started work on a less technically challenging and hopefully more marketable painting, which was possibly inspired by Gustave Courbet’s now-lost painting of stonebreakers, which was first shown in 1851.
The Stonebreaker (1857-58) was painted closer to home, at a popular ‘beauty spot’ in the south of England, near Box Hill, which dominates the distance. The milestone at the left shows the distance to London as 23 miles, and David Cordingly considers this places it along a historic track known as Druid’s Walk, which leads from the Pilgrim’s Way, over the Leatherhead Downs to Epsom and London.
This time, perhaps following his experience in Switzerland, Brett made extensive sketches and studies of the motif, and worked on the final oil painting for at least twenty days en plein air, but then completed it in the studio during the following autumn and winter. The painting was shown at the Royal Academy in 1858, where it aroused considerable critical interest.
In the summer of 1858, Brett set off again to the Alps, where he ended up painting a second remarkable mountain view, this time at Val d’Aosta in north-west Italy.
Val d’Aosta (1858) was painted from a hill about a kilometre north-east of where Brett was lodging, according to Christopher Newall. In contrast to Glacier of Rosenlaui, Brett augments the geological details in the foreground with a sleeping woman and a brilliant white goat. Surprisingly, it omits the fortress of Châtel Argent and the Château de Saint-Pierre, although these appear in sketches which he made at the time. The only buildings which are shown are smaller, more rustic farms and dwellings, set in finely detailed orchards, vineyards, and pastures.
Probably started with a series of studies and sketches, Brett seems to have worked on the oil version in front of the motif, then brought it back to England for completion during the late autumn of that year. He considered it finished by Christmas, and it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1859. He had painted it in close collaboration with Ruskin, and later Ruskin asked Brett to give him “some lessons in permanent, straight-forward oil painting.”
Ruskin’s Academy Notes on the finished painting, when it was exhibited in 1859, begin with enthusiastic praise, before he started to find fault:
A notable picture truly; a possession of much within a few feet square. Yet not, in the strong, essential meaning of the word, a noble picture. It has a strange fault, considering the school to which it belongs — it seems to me to be wholly emotionless. I cannot find from it that the painter loved, or feared, anything in all that wonderful piece of the world.
(John Ruskin, Academy Notes, 1859, in Cook ET & Wedderburn A (eds) The Works of John Ruskin, vol 14, pp 234-8.)
Val d’Aosta didn’t sell, but Brett persisted. At the end of 1862 he set off for Italy to try again.
Florence from Bellosguardo (1863) was probably started in January 1863, and painted without the aid of significant preparatory studies, and entirely from the motif. Even with Brett’s apparent eye for fine detail at a distance, much of it must have been painted with the aid of a telescope, and it has been suggested that he may also have used a camera lucida and/or photographs.
Regardless of how he managed to paint such great detail, it is a triumph of painting, both technically and artistically, and it came as a shock when it was rejected by the Royal Academy in 1863. John Ruskin was out of the country, and of all Brett’s friends and associates, responded most weakly, urging Brett to make studies in black and white, preferably using pen and ink.
Thankfully for Brett, the painting was purchased in May 1863 by the National Gallery, and he was acclaimed in the press as ‘head of the Pre-Raphaelite landscape school’, although by that time he was probably the last of its practitioners. Brett had also intended the painting as homage to the Brownings, as he had enjoyed the support of Robert Browning through that difficult period. Brett didn’t hang around in England after this, but later that summer was in Italy again working on further paintings.
Massa, Bay of Naples (1863-64) is perhaps the most spectacular of the oil paintings which Brett completed during this Mediterranean campaign, and appears to have been painted from a vessel on the water.
He had travelled there on board the SS Scotia, although it is unclear whether that ship served as his floating studio, or he may have transferred to another. The Scotia arrived in the Bay of Naples by 9 September, following which he went to stay in Sorrento, then Capri by November. It is therefore likely that he continued to work on this canvas during the winter of 1863-64.
To Brett’s delight, Alfred Morrison bought this painting on 6 May 1864, for the substantial sum of £250, and the artist was to benefit further from Morrison’s generous patronage. By August in 1865, Brett could afford to buy his own yacht, and he thereafter steadily abandoned his Pre-Raphaelite landscapes in favour of maritime views of British waters, which sold much better.
In the summer of 1870, Brett sailed around the south-west coast, making detailed notes, sketches, and studies as he went. The British Channel Seen from the Dorsetshire Cliffs (1871) is a large canvas which Brett apparently painted from those, during the later part of that year. Although not geographically-specific in any way, it is usually thought to have been painted from the cliffs above Lulworth Cove in Dorset. When it was exhibited at the Royal Academy, debate concentrated on whether the azure colour used for the sea was appropriate.
He continued to paint some pure seascapes, such as the highly successful Britannia’s Realm (1880), although by now these were products of his Putney, London, studio and based on earlier notes and sketches. Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1880, this was purchased ‘for the nation’ from the Chantry Bequest even before it had been seen by the public. Brett was then able to order an even larger yacht, and spent the summer painting the rugged coast of Cornwall in more Pre-Raphaelite style. He was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy the following year.
Ruskin’s influence on British landscape painting was almost disastrous, largely because of his limited insight into the practicalities of painting. At that time, there was considerable experience in the practical issues involved in painting en plein air using oil paints, but most of that had been gained in the warmer and more stable weather of the Roman Campagna. None of the PRB, nor Ruskin, had any experience of that, nor did they seek the advice and guidance of those who did.
The fundamental problem for the Pre-Raphaelite landscape artist was the near-impossibility of the task posed by Ruskin, I am sure quite unwittingly. Painting substantial canvases in fine detail en plein air using oil paint is extremely time-consuming. In the more equitable and stable weather of the Mediterranean and Middle East, each painting is likely to take two months or more; in the more changeable climate of the British Isles, even a single summer may be insufficient.
Because of the protracted periods required, the artist cannot capture consistent details. During the course of painting, much of the motif will have changed substantially, and the painting ends up as a composite of appearance over time.
Unless a painter has a generous patron, such investment of time in a single work is also commercially very risky. As each of the Pre-Raphaelite landscape painters discovered, when you can only paint two or three significant works per year, it is very hard to pursue painting as a profession.
It is no small surprise, therefore, that most of those who painted landscapes in Pre-Raphaelite style did so for a short and relatively unproductive period, before moving on to less ambitious work. So by about 1870, after less than 25 years, the Pre-Raphaelite landscape was gone. Having started the century with two of the greatest landscape painters in Europe, Constable and Turner, by 1870 British landscape painting was all but dead.
Meanwhile, across the Channel in France, the Impressionists defied critics rather than being directed by them, built upon established traditions of painting, and were able to paint many thousands of works, and eventually achieve popularity and financial security.
Barringer T (2012) Reading the Pre-Raphaelites, revised edn, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 17733 6.
Newall C (2012) Review of Payne (2010), Burlington Mag. 154, July 2012, pp 498-499.
Payne C (2010) John Brett: Pre-Raphaelite Landscape Painter, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 16575 3.
Prettejohn E (2000) The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites, Tate Publishing. ISBN 978 1 854 37726 5.
Staley A (2001) The Pre-Raphaelite Landscape, 2nd edn, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 08408 5.