Ruskin was a spectacular public speaker who campaigned for education for all. Throughout his career, he used large-scale lecture diagrams to further his visual arguments. He directed their preparation and choreographed their display alongside models, casts and natural materials at his popular public lectures, as part of an innovative and multi-media pedagogy. For the lecture ‘Storm Cloud of the 19th century’ at the Royal Institution in 1884, he produced a dazzling cloudscape by projecting drawings enhanced with luminous coloured paint onto the interior of the lecture theatre.

Peacock and Falcon Feathers is one of the few lecture diagrams known to have been prepared by Ruskin himself. It is part of a group of diagrams depicting feathers and bird’s wings, including preparatory material for Love’s Meinie (1873). It is an example of Ruskin’s alternative model for the study of the natural world based on empirical observation, contradicting the scientific orthodoxy of the day. In the Elements of Drawing (1857) Ruskin had described using a microscope to examine the structure of bird’s feathers: ‘the separate cilia of the down… mechanisms at the joints which no eye of lens can trace’ (LE 15 (1904)/409). Elsewhere he writes: ‘If I had Darwin] in Oxford for a week’, he wrote as Professor of Art, ‘and could force him to try to copy a feather…, his notions of feathers… would be changed for all the rest of his life. But his ignorance of good art is no excuse for the accurately illogical simplicity of the rest of his talk of colour in the Descent of Man’ (LE 25 (1906)/263-264).

Produced between 1853 and 1883, using Japanese paper layered on canvas, Ruskin’s lecture diagrams had a historic status of ‘ephemera’ and as a result, few have survived. The Ruskin holds the largest cache of 44 lecture diagrams created by Ruskin and his associates. Their subject matter reflect Ruskin’s wide-ranging thought, from architecture to natural science, myth to military history. A set of diagrams were purchased by the educationalist John Howard Whitehouse in 1931. In 1971, their number was more than doubled thanks to Peter Evans, who donated a cache of diagrams to the collection in 1971.Together, the diagrams offer new knowledge of Ruskin’s key role in nineteenth networks of people, places and ideas.

Reference no. 1996P0907


  • Title: Peacock and Falcon Feathers
  • Creator: John Ruskin
  • Date Created: 1873
  • Rights: The Ruskin, Lancaster University

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