Taking the equivalent of a ‘gap year’ from Oxford for the sake of his health, the 21-year-old John Ruskin travelled with his parents through France and Italy on a tour lasting from September 1840 to June 1841. Working their way along the coast of Italy through Genoa, Florence and Pisa they spent December in Rome before moving on to Naples early in January 1841. The return journey took them via Rome in March to Florence and Venice, and back through France. Using the young Ruskin’s spectacular drawings, this exhibition provides a vivid visual account of the Ruskin family’s travels.
The young John Ruskin’s studies at Christ Church, Oxford, were interrupted in 1840 when he showed signs of possible consumption (tuberculosis), and by Ruskin’s own account the eminent physician Sir James Clark ‘ordered me abroad before autumn, to be as much in open carriages as possible, and to winter in Italy.’ Fearing for the health of their only child, Margaret and John James Ruskin followed this advice to the letter, embarking on a grand tour which would last from September 1840 to June 1841 and cover 5000 miles. On earlier continental tours in 1833 and 1835 they had been to the Swiss Alps; this time they reached Naples before again returning via Venice. They were accompanied by Ruskin’s cousin Mary Richardson, who had effectively been adopted into the family.
Mary’s diary, running from January 1841, can be added to John’s own diaries and letters as the principal sources of information on the tour, illustrated by his drawings. Writing to his Oxford friend Edward Clayton from Venice in May 1841, Ruskin stated that ‘I find nothing equal to quiet drawing for occupying the whole mind, without fatiguing one of its powers … I have got a decent number of sketches, forty-seven large size and thirty-four small.’ Others were made before the tour ended, and it is possible now to identify 68, of which 57 are known in museum and private collections or from photographs; this display is drawn from the largest group, held in the Ruskin Library at Lancaster.
As well as succeeding in its aim of improving Ruskin’s health, the tour also served to bring his drawing abilities to maturity through concentration on a prolonged series of ambitious architectural and landscape subjects. Born on 8 February 1819, Ruskin was just 21 when many of these drawings were made, ‘coming of age’ both literally and as a draughtsman.