In 1842, Ruskin wrote to his tutor, Walter Lucas Brown, ‘Chamonix is such a place! There is no sky like its sky’ (LE 2 (1903)/223). After his first trip in 1833, Ruskin revisited Chamonix in multiple European tours and returned to the subject, in word and image, throughout his life. Today, Chamonix. Mer de Glace, Mont Blanc Massif is recognised as one of the first photographic images of the Alps. The daguerreotype is part of a series documenting the valley glacier in the Alpine region, created by John Ruskin and his assistant Frederick Crawley. Ruskin would return to this exact view in 1874, in the watercolour also held at The Ruskin (1996P1206).
The viewpoint is the Montanvers Hotel above Chamonix. The Murray Guide (1838) describes the scene: ‘The view of this enormous sea of ice is one of the most striking in these scenes of wonder … Directly across the Mer de Glace are some of the those pinnacled mountains which form so striking a feature in the Chamouny scenery. The nearest is the Aiguille du Dru, and still further on the right, is the Aiguille du Moine. A thousand nameless pinnacles pierce the clouds between them, and seem to prop the loftiest of this stupendous mass which is the Aiguille Verte, that rises more than 13,000 feet above the level of the sea and nearly 7000 feet above the Montanvert’
Ruskin wrote about viewing the Mer de Glace for the first time, having read geologist James David Forbes’ Travels in the Alps of Savoy (1843): ‘[Forbes] solved the problem of glacier motion for ever, – announcing, to everybody’s astonishment … – that glaciers were not solid bodies at all, but semi-liquid ones, and ran down in their beds like so much treacle … I well remember the intense mortification of first looking down on the dirt bands of the Mer de Glace, after I had read Principal Forbes’ book. That we never should have seen them before! – so palpable, so inevitable now, with every inch of the ice’s motion kept record of, in them, for centuries, … And of course it flowed; how else could it have moved but by a series of catastrophes?’ (LE 27 (1907)/639)
Ruskin described the daguerreotype as ‘the most marvellous invention of the nineteenth century’ (LE 3 (1903)/210). One of the first photographic processes, the daguerreotype was named after the French artist and inventor Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, who presented the technology to the French Académie des Sciences in 1839. The remarkably sharp image is created by exposing a light-sensitive silvered copper plate in a box camera, which is developed with mercury vapour and ‘fixed’ with a salt solution. Daguerreotypes are auto-positive and therefore unique. The mirror-like surface is fragile and unstable, so images were often sealed in a protective case.
At first, Ruskin was astonished by the daguerreotype’s accuracy of detail, the extraordinary potential of its ability to render gradations of light and line for both science and art. However, he later deplored its mechanistic effects due to the loss of a direct connection with what we see. In 1868 he wrote to the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron that he had lost interest in photography and instead offered a bold challenge to science: the possibility of painting with sunlight. ‘No chemist has yet succeeded in doing this,’ he wrote.
Chamonix. Mer de Glace, Mont Blanc Massif is one of 125 daguerreotypes in The Ruskin Whitehouse Collection, created by Ruskin and under his direction, which together form one of the most important surviving groups of early photographs in the world. The iconic image documents a natural formation dramatically altered by human activity: the ‘sea of ice’ captured in the 1854 daguerreotype has since retreated as a result of climate change.
Reference no. 1996D0075