Julian Spalding

Mario Minichiello


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John Ruskin drew nearly everyday of his life, like Mario Minichiello, though wild strawberry flowers were more to his taste then tarts in Amsterdam brothels. He strongly resisted the ideas of his contemporaries, like Charles Darwin, who claimed that the appearance of the former had as much to do with sex as that of the latter. Beauty, for Ruskin, had to have a moral purpose. The feelings that arose in him when he contemplated a sunset, a rose, high clouds or an agate couldn't, he thought, merely spring from the sublimation of his sexual desires. Thinking they did might excuse us from reading his wonderful prose today, but even in our post Freudian age, one has to admit he did have a point. A moral purpose drives Minichiello's work, too, but I don't have the skills to wade through the murky waters where morality and sexuality mix. These drawings do it better than I could with words. So I'll stick to drawing and Ruskin.


John Ruskin believed drawing was the foundation for visual thought, just as writing is the foundation for verbal thought. His writings on drawing were designed not to teach people how to draw, but how to see. That is why they were so radical, and still are. They were not manuals for artists, but training for life. He believed that if we looked more closely and with more feeling at the world around us, we'd care for it better and make it better.

For Ruskin, seeing could be exhilarating, but also painful. It was as if all his feelings lay exposed in his eyes. His writings are full of extraordinary descriptions of weather, trees, rocks and buildings. He drew nearly every day to help him understand what he saw around him, and to train his eyes, as he put it, 'to see more clearly'. He was one of the first to notice atmospheric pollution. As industrialisation spread, he observed, described and drew changes in the weather. His watercolours of the gathering 'storm clouds' of the nineteenth century are some of his most moving and beautifully observed works. His writing might appear strange to readers today (he came from a very different intellectual milieu — he used to translate Ancient Greek texts before breakfast to get his mind into gear), but his drawings speak to us very directly.

They are remarkable for their unconventional clarity. Perhaps not even Dü rer could draw blades of grass as beautifully as Ruskin. His works aren't a display of manual dexterity, but of visual intensity. Apart from in some early drawings, Ruskin did not seek to create works of art, but to record what he felt. His drawings fade away across the page as he loses interest in what he sees. He never tries to 'make a picture'. For him, seeing was a tool for living, a step towards a moral vision. The idea that we can develop our ability to see would strike a lot of people as odd, but that's exactly what John Ruskin believed, and it may well be his greatest contribution, among many, to mankind.

Ruskin, passionately, wanted to improve the world. He believed this could be done in two ways. Firstly, by preserving what's beautiful in nature and in man's environment. His writings led, among other initiatives, to the formation of the National Trust, and new approaches to conservation in Italy. Secondly, by changing political and economic systems to ensure the cultural development of everyman and respect for the natural world. His ideas had a formative influence on the development of the Labour Party, on Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and still influence political thinking around the world.

Ruskin spent most of the money he inherited from his father's sherry business (Ruskin, Telford, Domeq) on philanthropic projects. One of these was the Guild Of St George, which he founded in 1871, a sort of self help society which would change Britain by rebuilding from the bottom up, by cultivating acres of wasteland. It never got very far, but it did own a collection of works of art, minerals, miniatures, and much else besides, which Ruskin acquired to create a museum in Sheffield to inspire the metal workers there, who Ruskin thought were the best in the world.

Ruskin's Guild survives, a century after his death, and is still a campaigning organisation (he never wanted it to become a Ruskin society, or full of 'Ruskinians'). The Guild has decided to begin where Ruskin himself began, with drawing. Its new campaign, Drawing Power, aims to show how drawing can play a bigger part in everyone's lives, not for its own sake, but because it helps us to see.

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Julian Spalding
Master of the Guild of St George

To find out more about Drawing Power visit its website at www.linst.ac.uk/drawingpower
Or contact the Campaign Director:
Sue Grayson Ford
7 Gentleman's Row, Enfield EN2 6PT
phone: 020 8364 0991, email: artconnect@ukgateway.net