'A Pen of Iron': Ruskin and Printmaking
11 January - 30 March 2003
'Here is a steel point, and 'tis like Job's "iron pen" - and you are going to cut into steel with it, in the most deliberate way, as into the rock for ever.' The Cestus of Aglaia (19.100)
When John Ruskin first encountered the work of J.M.W. Turner, it was through the medium of engraved prints in a book of poems given to him in 1832 for his thirteenth birthday. Their influence lasted throughout his life. Fifty-seven years later, struggling against mental illness to complete what would be the final chapter of his autobiography, one of the things he chose to write about was the importance of a select group of Turner's engraved prints.
Ruskin's engagement with the art of the print was not a peripheral activity; it was a major occupation. For The Seven Lamps of Architecture, The Stones of Venice, and Modern Painters alone, he produced over 150 etched, engraved, and lithographed plates and more than 200 engravings on wood. He etched some of the finest plates by his own hand; others were made in collaboration with professional engravers, under Ruskin's careful supervision. But printmaking became far more to Ruskin than the merely practical matter of illustrating his books. It was an art form to which he increasingly attached symbolic value; an art form dominated by the image of the engraver's 'pen of iron', recording the noblest truths permanently into the steel plate. For Ruskin, the technical difficulty of engraving, the many weeks of labour involved, the permanence of the result, and the potential for printing hundreds or thousands of impressions - all these placed a heavy responsibility on the printmaker: 'Where will you look for a chance of saying something nobly, if it is not here?' Ruskin asked, in Cestus of Aglaia (19.100-1).
This exhibition begins with a selection of original prints which provide a background to Ruskin's engagement with the medium, and then offers the opportunity to explore a wide range of aspects of his own printmaking activities. By looking at progress proofs (none of which have been exhibited before) we can watch Ruskin at work, developing a print and guiding the engraver towards the final image. We encounter the rich complexity of his concept of engraving and its symbolic links with fundamental aspects of life: with ploughing; with the value of honest toil; with death itself. We see Ruskin struggling with personal tragedy, employing the 'pen of iron' to engrave a permanent symbol of his love for Rose La Touche, and printing it on the title page of the volumes of his 'Collected Works'. We see him engraving his own drawings of the finest Gothic architecture, trying to preserve a permanent record of whatever he could against the destructive effects of decay and bad restoration. We see him finally fail in his attempt to engrave Turner's work to his own satisfaction.
Millais, Summer Indolence.
From Passages from Modern English Poets, illustrated by the Junior Etching Club
Many of the prints in this exhibition (such as Blake's Newton, Millais's Summer Indolence, or Hunt's Desolation of Egypt) are original works in their own right - the image we see is the image the artist intended us to see; it does not 'reproduce' some other work, even though it may exist in multiple versions. But none of the prints on display should be regarded as 'reproductions' - even those which present an image of an existing painting or watercolour. Some are best understood in the way that Turner thought of the engravings made after his work - as translations, from one medium to another, effectively creating a new work of art. Others are better approached as Ruskin usually considered them - as interpretations of another artist's work. Writing in The Cestus of Aglaia, at a time when photography was beginning to offer what might be thought of as a 'truthful' image, Ruskin insisted that 'a square inch of man's engraving is worth all the photographs that ever were dipped in acid' (19.89). It is part of Ruskin's tragedy that he devoted so much thought and creative energy to a process whose decline (due to commercial pressures and changing technology) was inexorable, and inevitable. Yet his prints remain: engraved, as he intended, with an iron pen in the rock, for ever.
Catalogues are available for many of our exhibitions - see our Publications List for details.
Ruskin Library Web Pages created and maintained by Jen Shepherd
All images and text (c)The Ruskin Library, unless otherwise stated.