Painting with sunlight

Ruskin and Science

By The Royal Society

Presented by The Ruskin and The Royal Society

Chamonix. Mer de Glace, Mont Blanc Massif (1854) by John RuskinThe Ruskin

Painting with sunlight

John Ruskin (1819-1900) was one of the great visionaries of the nineteenth century. He had an extraordinary ability to connect art, science and society. An early adopter of optical instruments in his artworks, he used the latest technologies to investigate mountains and clouds, assemble geological collections, and photograph and draw glacial landscapes. However, like many Victorians, Ruskin became deeply disillusioned with science’s utilitarian outlook and its destructive environmental impact. He perceived it as the divorce of science from religion.

Mount Pilatus, Lake of Lucerne (1847) by John RuskinThe Ruskin

Contemporary scientific views on the environment are becoming more aligned with Ruskin’s, which were ridiculed by his contemporaries as ‘imaginary or insane’. His essay ‘The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century’, outlining observations of changes in cloud properties and shifts in climate, is one of the earliest publications on climate change. Drawing on the collections of The Ruskin and the Royal Society, this exhibition considers Ruskin alongside his scientific contemporaries. 

John Ruskin in his study (1890s) by John McClellandThe Ruskin


Ruskin’s diverse interest in many fields of science reflected the popular fascination with earth sciences in the nineteenth century. Ruskin was a regular visitor to the Alps and his many mountain artworks include some of the earliest photographic depictions of Mont Blanc. Initially inspired by his intention to prove that paintings of mountains by J. M. W. Turner, RA (1775-1851) were scientifically accurate, Ruskin continued to extend the uses of science to art, and of art to science, throughout his career.

Sketch by a Clerk of the Works (1860) by John RuskinThe Ruskin

Well-read in the sciences, Ruskin met and corresponded with some of the preeminent researchers of his time, including Fellows of the Royal Society Charles Lyell (1797-1875), William Buckland (1784-1856), Henry Acland (1815-1900) and Charles Darwin (1809-1882). However, he was also deeply engaged with the application of science to the benefit of society, and its relationship with morality and religion, writing to Acland in 1851: ‘If only the Geologists would let me alone, I could do very well, but those dreadful Hammers! I hear the clink of them at the end of every cadence of the Bible verses.’

Royal Society Visitors book (10 April 1862) by The Royal SocietyThe Royal Society

Although primarily a physician, Henry Acland was also a competent artist. Ruskin and Acland were students together at Oxford in 1837. They were later part of a group of scientists and artists who established the Oxford Museum of Natural History in 1851. Ruskin supported Acland’s artistic endeavours, while Acland provided a sounding board to Ruskin’s disillusionment with religion.

Diary of John Ruskin (1861/1863) by John RuskinThe Ruskin

At Oxford, he regularly attended the geological lectures of Buckland, through whom he met Lyell and Darwin. Ruskin’s knowledge of geology spurred more detailed engagement with geological landscape and depiction of mountains in art.

This image shows the watercolour key that Ruskin developed for the diagrams in his geology diaries, or ‘Rock Books’ as he named them.

In the late 1840s and 1850s, Ruskin’s theories of geology and art appeared in popular American periodicals dubbed ‘Artistical Geology’.

Mount Pilatus (1854) by John RuskinThe Ruskin

Ruskin described his mountain drawings as ‘absolutely correct' with all that is useful for geological science or landscape art. ‘You will never love art well until you love what she mirrors better’ he wrote. Ruskin followed in Turner’s footsteps in the Alps.

As with Turner, many of Ruskin's paintings and sketches were not intended for public display, but were produced as ‘memoranda’ or ‘on the spot’ documentation of the environment. For both, the experience of observing a mountain landscape underscored the grand design of the universe by God.

Total solar eclipse, 18 July 1860 (1862) by Warren de la Rue (1815-1889)The Royal Society

Ruskin’s only known visit to the Royal Society was when he attended the April 1862 lecture on the 1860 total solar eclipse by British astronomer Warren de la Rue, FRS (1815-1889).

A decade after De la Rue's lecture, Ruskin wrote:
‘Science does its duty, not in telling us the causes of spots in the sun, but in explaining to us the laws of our own life, and the consequences of their violation.’

Chromatic scale (1862) by Warren de la Rue (1815-1889)The Royal Society

At his Royal Society lecture, Warren de la Rue used diagrams and models, and projected photographs of the eclipse captured with the Kew photoheliograph, which he had designed in 1854. Ruskin was also an accomplished lecturer who used models and large-scale diagrams.

Agate (Brantwood Trust)The Ruskin

The nineteenth century was one of the great ages of collectors and explorers. Ruskin’s rare mineral collections, and his illustrated lectures and publications on the relations of art and science, demonstrate his fascination with the fabric of the earth.

Ruskin argued that a stone was ‘a mountain in miniature’ and for this reason landscape analysis should begin with diligent study and drawings of rocks and stones as the ‘materials of mountains’, drawn with precise detail and subtle colour.

Rocks and torrent, Glenfinlas (1853) by John RuskinThe Ruskin

Mountains in Miniature

Ruskin’s first passion was geology. He claimed that his art was rooted in his ‘love of mountains and sea’. He was one of the most prolific private mineral collectors of the nineteenth century. With a personal collection of over 2,000 specimens, he donated minerals to schools and colleges across the country. Having studied mountain formation and glaciers, he returned again and again to Chamonix, below the slopes of Mont Blanc. His concern with the impact of climate on glacial erosion is a leitmotif in his work. In 1874 he wrote of the Glacier des Bossons: ‘I was able to cross the dry bed of a glacier, which I had seen flowing, two hundred feet deep, over the same spot 40 years ago.’

Many contemporary scientists were also keen Alpinists, with a shared interest in landscape and geology.

Geological formation: study by John RuskinThe Ruskin

In Travels through the Alps of Savoy (1843), James Forbes, FRS (1809-1868) published the theory on which Ruskin’s understanding of glaciers was based: ice, although apparently brittle, behaves as a viscous substance when subjected to steady pressure. John Tyndall, FRS (1820-1893), in a paper to the Royal Society in 1857, proposed instead that glacier motion was a combination of fracture and regelation. This became known as ‘the Great Glacier Controversy’. In Modern Painters, Ruskin sided with Forbes. In Ruskin’s view: 'Twenty years of useless debate and senseless theory respecting glacier motion might have been spared us’ if other scientists, such as ‘Professor Agassiz’ had been able to draw accurately ‘a single curve of mountain crest, glacier wave, river's bank, or fish's tail'.

Diary of John Ruskin (1861/1863) by John RuskinThe Ruskin

Ruskin had been interested in mineralogy and geology from an early age. His first published essays – at age fourteen – appeared in Loudon’s Magazine of Natural History and concerned the colour of the Rhine and the strata of Mont Blanc.

The fossil flora of Bovey Tracey, Figure 23 (1862) by Oswald Heer (1809-1883)The Royal Society

Ruskin’s passion for geology brought him into contact with the leading scientific thinkers of the day, including the influential Scottish geologist Charles Lyell, whose Principles of Geology had sparked fierce debate.

In private correspondence, Ruskin repeatedly engaged with Lyell’s thinking on dynamic and continuous natural processes, in order to examine the integration of science and religious belief in relationship to the environment.

Charles Darwin's barometer Charles Darwin's barometer (1830) by John Frederick NewmanThe Royal Society

In 1837, Darwin, just back from the voyage of the Beagle as the ship’s geologist where he had used this mountain barometer, read a paper at the Geological Society. Ruskin spent the evening talking with him. They would meet again in Oxford and at Ruskin’s home in the Lake District. Despite their mutual respect, Ruskin couldn’t accept Darwin’s theory of evolution: ‘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’.

On the viscous theory of glacier motion (1845) by James David Forbes (1809-1868)The Royal Society

Scottish physicist James Forbes regularly travelled to the Alps to aid his scientific inquiries into glacier formation and movement. During one such Alpine tour in 1844, Forbes met Ruskin by chance at Simplon, Switzerland leading to a lifelong correspondence.

In Forbes, Ruskin recognised a ‘fellow-workman’, the ‘only member of the Geological Society… who could draw a mountain’. In Ruskin, Forbes found a formidable, ‘willing and courageous’ advocate. Ruskin repeatedly defended Forbes’s theory of viscous glacier movement, especially during the hostile ‘Great Glacier Controversy’.

Chamonix. Aiguille Verte and Aiguille du Dru (1854) by John RuskinThe Ruskin

Ruskin parodied scientific experiments regarding glaciers with tongue-in-cheek descriptions of building mountains out of blancmange and ‘mellifluous glaciers’ of honey crossing his plate through ‘magnificent moraines composed of crumbs of toast’. However, his fascination with the science behind the dynamic effects of snow and ice on landscape are at the heart of his works.

Mer de Glace (1874) by John RuskinThe Ruskin

Ruskin’s diary for August 1849 records many ascents onto the glaciers around Chamonix, led by the local guide Joseph Couttet. Ruskin believed that many forms of landscape knowledge emerge from observing the glacier in proximity, and that visual observation led to what he called ‘vital truth’ in the perception of the world.

Ruskin argued that artists should look for ‘leading lines’ in the landscape to depict its forms. He used the aiguilles, or beds of slaty crystalline rock that form the peaks in the Alps, to illustrate his point.

Cloud perspective: rectilinear (1860) by John RuskinThe Ruskin

Technologies of sight

Along with other artists and scientists of the day, Ruskin explored new ways of representing and communicating scientific discovery, experimenting with optical devices such as the microscope, telescope, stereoscope, camera lucida and photography.

Some account of the art of photogenic drawing (1839) by William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877)The Royal Society

‘The art of photogenic drawing’, a key advance in the development of photography, began when William Henry Fox Talbot, FRS (1800-1877) – a self-confessed terrible artist – was sketching with a camera lucida at Lake Como in 1833. In 1849, with his assistant John Hobbs, Ruskin was the first to produce a ‘sun drawing’ of the Alps, using a daguerreotype. Two years later, at the Great Exhibition of 1851, John Adams Whipple (1822-1891) and George Bond (1825-1865) received a gold medal for a lunar daguerreotype displayed at Crystal Palace. This had a profound influence on the astronomer Warren De la Rue, who was a strong advocate for astronomical photography in science.

Venice. Photograph from a glass negative after Daguerreotype (c.1846-1852), owned by The Ruskin Museum, Coniston. The Ducal Palace and the Piazzetta by John RuskinThe Ruskin

Ruskin was an early practitioner of photography to capture Venetian architecture, and Alpine scenes and glaciers, as well as amassing one of the foremost collections of daguerrotypes. Simultaneously ‘natural’ and ‘mechanical’, photographic technologies troubled long-held assumptions on the relationship between art, nature and religion.

Leaf of a Plant (Science Museum Group collection) (1844) by William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877)The Royal Society

Such ambivalence is also encapsulated by Fox Talbot’s first full paper publication on photography, or ‘photogenic drawing’. This, and his book The Pencil of Nature (1844-1846) provoked disbelief that the images had indeed been made ‘without any aid whatever from the artist's pencil’.

Chamonix. Les Aiguilles (1854) by John RuskinThe Ruskin

Ruskin proclaimed the daguerreotype ‘the most marvellous invention’ of the nineteenth century. The image ‘Chamonix. Mer de Glace, Mont Blanc Massif’ is part of a series documenting the largest valley glacier in the Alpine region, created by Ruskin and his assistant Frederick Crawley, and is recognised as one of the first photographic images of the Alps.

At first, Ruskin was astonished by the daguerreotype’s accuracy of detail. He later deplored its mechanistic effects due to the loss of a direct connection with what we see; 'do not think you can capture a real landscape in a black stain portable in a portfolio'.

Kew Observatory sunspot notebook (1864) by Warren de la Rue (1815-1889)The Royal Society

Another new optical technology, funded by Benjamin Oliveira, FRS (1806-1865) and commissioned by the Royal Society, was the photoheliograph. This was the first purpose-built apparatus to photograph astronomical bodies and phenomena.

This photograph of sunspots was taken at the Kew Observatory on 8 April 1864 with the Kew photoheliograph designed by De la Rue in 1854. The development of photoheliograph technology resulted in the breakthrough discoveries made at the Observatory on the influence of magnetism on sunspots.

Peacock and Falcon Feathers (1873) by John RuskinThe Ruskin

Ruskin did not deny the effectiveness of observational tools for understanding structure and form: for example, in seeing the separate cilia of this peacock feather with a microscope.

However, he was increasingly critical of scientists whose technologies enabled them to examine the skies while poisoning the air and darkening the sun.

As with the daguerreotype, Ruskin criticised the microscope's effects of hyper-real detail and the separation of sight from an emotional response to nature: sensory perception: ‘No science of perspective, or of anything else, will enable us to draw the simplest natural line accurately, unless we see it and feel it’, he remarked.

Jessica ('Jessie') Duncan Piazzi Smyth at Guajara Station, Tenerife (1856) by Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900)The Royal Society

Nineteenth-century astronomy increasingly depended on documentation through photography.

Cloud horizon (1856) by Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900)The Royal Society

As this stunning watercolour depicting the ‘cloud horizon’ below the peak of Mount Guajara demonstrates, scientific research at this time also used more traditional forms of visual documentation. This particular watercolour was refashioned as a plate to illustrate the 'Astronomical experiment on the peak of Tenerife’ published by Charles Piazzi Smyth, FRS (1819-1900).

Above Baveno and the entrance to the Domodossola valley (1846) by John RuskinThe Ruskin

The Skies are for all

Meteorology appealed to Ruskin as ‘a science of the pure air, and the bright heaven’. As with the painters John Constable (1776-1837) and Turner before him, Ruskin was familiar with the classification of cloud types by Luke Howard, FRS (1772-1864). Ruskin had been fascinated by clouds since childhood and often painted cloud formations using a cyanometer, a device for measuring the colour blue, created by Horace Bénédict de Saussure (1740-1799). Ruskin used meteorological imagery to counter his scientific adversaries and offered powerful critiques of the adverse effects of industrialisation: John Tyndall’s experiment on atmospheric scattering (or why the sky is blue) is satirised in Modern Painters (1843-1860) and both Tyndall and Thomas Henry Huxley, FRS (1825-1895) came under fire in ‘The Queen of the Air’ (1869).

Cloud forms that have been (1893) by Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900)The Royal Society

By 1870, in his famous lecture ‘The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century’, Ruskin had become convinced that the sky was being dimmed by a ‘veil of pollution’ from industry. He concluded that scientists may now be able to create ’within an experimental tube, a bit of more perfect sky than the sky itself’. At the same time, he argued that, for all their theories and experimentation, scientists still ‘don’t know much yet about either about rock-beds, or cloud-beds’.

Cloud perspective: curvilinear (1860) by John RuskinThe Ruskin

This series of diagrams was used by Ruskin to illustrate the use of geometric compositional rulings in drawing curved shapes – in particular, the perspective to the depiction of clouds. He believed that a firm grasp of the rules of proportion and perspective was necessary to capture ‘the expression of buoyancy and space in sky’.

These drawings bring together Ruskin’s core principles of empirical principles of thought and expression in both science of art.
In his instruction manual ‘Elements of Drawing’, he explained: ‘All drawing depends, primarily, on your power of representing Roundness … For Nature is all made up of roundnesses; not the roundness of 25 perfect globes, but of variously curved surfaces. Boughs are rounded, leaves are rounded, stones are rounded, clouds are rounded, cheeks are rounded, and curls are rounded: there is no more flatness in the natural world than there is vacancy’.

Interference spectra produced by diffraction (1860) by John Tyndall (1820-1893)The Royal Society

This illustration of interference spectra is from physicist John Tyndall’s book The glaciers of the Alps, originally published in 1860, but in a later edition edited by his wife Louisa (née Hamilton, 1845–1940).

Tyndall describes the action of the intense light upon the eye as follows: ‘As the sun's disk came more into view, its rays however still grazing the summit of the mountain, interference-spectra darted from it on all sides, and surrounded it with a glory of richly-coloured bars.’ In his own work, Ruskin discussed Tyndall’s theories that the blue of the sky is the result of light scattering by atmospheric particles favouring longer, bluer wavelengths refracted by light rather than water.

Cloud classification, plate X (1863) by Robert FitzRoy (1805-1865)The Royal Society

Taking Luke Howard’s classification of clouds into cirrus, cumulus (or nimbus), and stratus as his starting point, Robert FitzRoy, FRS (1805-1865) further developed the classification system into ‘more minute distinctions’.

Tropical and polar air currents (1863) by Robert FitzRoy (1805-1865)The Royal Society

FitzRoy, the celebrated captain of HMS Beagle was the forefather of weather forecasting based on the study and understanding of the elements, including the behaviour of winds and clouds.

Light in the West, Beauvais (1846) by John RuskinThe Ruskin

In Modern Painters, Chapter II, The Cloud-Flocks, Ruskin developed his argument on the laws of perspective for clouds. Elsewhere he reflected that clouds will not wait while we draw them:

Ruskin claimed: ‘You must try therefore to sketch at the utmost possible speed the whole range of the clouds; marking, by any shorthand or symbolic work you can hit upon, the peculiar character of each’.

Thunderclouds, Val d'Aosta (1884) by Arthur SevernThe Ruskin

Ruskin's work was part of a growing awareness in the nineteenth century of the ways that human activity could directly affect the atmosphere and life on Earth. This cloud study documents the changing atmosphere resulting from increased industrialisation.

This painting is one of the illustrations to Ruskin's lecture The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century in which Ruskin notes: ‘scientific men are busy as ants, examining the sun, and the moon, and the seven stars, and can tell me how they move, and what they are made of'. By contrast, Ruskin wanted science to examine the new ‘plague-clouds’ he believed to be the result of industrial pollution and to mitigate their effects.

The Grass of the Field (1858/1859) by John RuskinThe Ruskin

Signs of the times

Ruskin recognised that he was living through a period of unprecedented scientific, environmental and technological change. ‘The Grass of the Field’, his drawing of a delicate shaft of wheat transformed into metal, imagined a post-industrial world in which iron has grown directly from the earth. Ruskin became deeply disillusioned through his experience of modern industrial civilisation: ‘Future ages will hate this age for its scientific accomplishments’, he concluded: ‘we have lost the art of painting on glass, and invented gun-cotton and nitro-glycerine.’

Cloud research notes (1896) by Charles Thomson Rees Wilson (1869-1959)The Royal Society

While increasingly out of step with his contemporaries, Ruskin’s concern for environmental issues and the impact of new technologies on the health of the planet speak powerfully to our own era: ‘blanched sun – blighted grass – blinded man’. He used scientific techniques to refine artistic observation of the natural world and to bring to bear an artistic gaze on scientific understanding of the environment.

Mer de Glace, June 2018 (2018) by Emma StibbonThe Ruskin

In June 2018, 164 years after Ruskin created the Mer de Glass daguerreotype, Emma Stibbons recreated the same view, using another early photographic process, the cyanotype. Today, as we confront the scale of human agency in changing the Earth’s environment, Ruskin’s meticulous approach to communicating transformation within the natural world seems prescient. 

Credits: Story

Curated by Sandra Kemp, The Ruskin – Library, Museum and Research Centre, Lancaster University, and Keith Moore, the Royal Society, with the support of Sandra Santos.

Thanks to artist, Emma Stibbon, RA; Brantwood for the John Ruskin Mineral Collection; and Harriet Hill-Payne, Programmes Manager, The Ruskin.

Ruskin: Museum of the Near Future:

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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