Pencil of Nature

PRE-RAPHAELITE (founded 1848) Biography

Pencil of Nature (United Kingdom, c.1855)

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Paper Drawing


29.20cm high
21.60cm wide
(11.50 inches high)
(8.50 inches wide)
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Description / Expertise

This anonymous work, drawn after a photograph, is a typical product of the school that flourished in Britain between the mid 1850s and early 1860s, under the joint influence of Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood painting, photography and, most importantly, the writings of Ruskin. It is here tentatively attributed to J W North, but the characteristics of the school make firm attributions difficult in the absence of signatures.

In the later 1850s Ruskin actively sought to influence the course of contemporary art. In 1851, he had championed the Pre-Raphaelites in the press and then encouraged Millais personally. After the annulment of his marriage in 1854, Ruskin threw his energies into advocating his ideas widely. He directed the work of the landscape painters, J. W. Inchbold and John Brett (numbers 45- 46, plate 31). Many other young artists came to seek his advice while he catalogued the Turner watercolours and drawings in the National Gallery building, which then also housed the Royal Academy Schools. His writings at this date were aimed at a wide public. Elements of Drawing (1857) was a 'teach-yourself' book. Between 1855 and 1859 he produced Notes on Some of the Principal Pictures exhibited in the Rooms of the Royal Academy (usually referred to more briefly as Academy Notes) which were scathing and authoritative guides to the annual exhibitions. They were very popular and made or broke reputations: Shirley Brooks voiced the complaint of a 'Perfectly Furious Academician' in Punch (24th May 1856)

I takes and paints,
Hears no complaints,
And sells before I'm dry.
Till Savage Ruskin
He sticks his tusk in,
And nobody will buy.

As his praise of Turner suggests, Ruskin always knew that imagination was the highest artistic quality. But he felt that detailed observation of nature was the surest foundation for imaginative work and hence that the young artist should restrict himself to this. He valued the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood for their truth to nature and precise technique. Many of the individual criticisms in Academy Notes savage other artists' careless or inaccurate treatment of details. Elements of Drawing also emphasises detail. The third and fourth volumes of Modern Painters, which appeared in 1856, are largely taken up with minute natural observations. Because of the availability of this powerful body of writing, a large number of young artists began to work in a Ruskinian spirit, concentrating on meticulous drawings or paintings of trees and foliage, of which the present work is a typical example.

Around 1859, Ruskin's confidence in his rightness was severely shaken because he suffered a crisis of religious faith, and also probably partly because after he had forced Brett in the 'Val d'Aosta' (Royal Academy 1859, Private Collection) to paint exactly as he desired he found he did not like the result. He ceased to produce the Academy Notes and the Ruskinian style quickly declined in popularity. Short lived as it was, it had an immense impact on the generation of British artists born around 1840,(1) on a significant group of American painters(2) and on many amateur artists, the audience to which Elements of Drawing was primarily directed.

(1) See A. Staley, The Pre-Raphaelite Landscape, (Oxford University Press, Oxford 1973)

(2) See Brooklyn Museum, 1985, The New Path (catalogue of the exhibition)