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John Ruskin

6 of 72 portraits of John Ruskin

John Ruskin, by Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm, 1st Bt, 1881 -NPG 1053 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Later Victorian Portraits Catalogue

John Ruskin

by Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm, 1st Bt
Plaster cast, painted black , 1881
24 1/2 in. (622 mm) high
NPG 1053


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Inscriptionback to top

Incised along right edge: ‘BOEHM fecit’;
on base: ‘JOHN RUSKIN’;
and on back: ‘Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm 1881’.

This portraitback to top

In 1879, following Ruskin’s resignation as Slade Professor of Art, friends in Oxford led by Dr Henry Wentworth Acland combined to commission a portrait statue for what had been named the Ruskin School of Drawing. The first stage in this process was to ask the sculptor Boehm to execute a bust. ‘I shall be only too glad to sit to Boehm anywhere and anytime he likes,’ Ruskin wrote in November 1879. ‘I suppose I shall have a line from him to-day or to-morrow, and will at once answer, making appointment.’ [1] Sittings began almost at once, Ruskin travelling daily to Boehm’s studio in Kensington. He approved of the likeness, saying it was ‘yet more like’ than Hubert von Herkomer’s drawing (NPG 1336) although adding that ‘my eyes are a loss’ in the clay version. [2] But he also distanced himself from the project. ‘I have nothing whatever to do with any manner of self-exhibition,’ he wrote. ‘Dr Acland asked me to sit to Boehm, and I did, to please Acland and because I wanted to talk to Boehm … Portraits of anybody are the last thing I ever think of and my own would be the last of those…’ [3]

Joseph Edgar Boehm was appointed sculptor-in-ordinary to Queen Victoria in 1880 and subsequently knighted. He had been introduced to Ruskin by Thomas Carlyle in 1875, when Ruskin reported that Boehm was ‘such a duck – The very ideal of noblest intense Germanism – with the grey gleaming eye, and inexhaustible will – rationalism – imagination – and bodily vigour….’ At that time, Ruskin also expressed the wish that Boehm ‘will like me, and ask to do [sculpt] me – that will be ever so much better than if I ask him … But if he doesn’t, I will.’ [4] In the event, no approach was made until Acland’s proposal in 1879.

Recalling Ruskin’s sittings, in 1890 Boehm commented, ‘I never saw any face on which the character and the inside of a man was so clearly written. He can never have tried to dissimulate.’ [5]

Created in clay, the bust was apparently cast into terracotta with two such versions being exhibited in May 1880, at the Royal Academy (1635) [6] and at the University Galleries (now Ashmolean M., Oxford). Boehm also produced a full-length ‘sketch’ or maquette in clay, which was to be created life-size. [7] The subscription list, headed by Prince Leopold and promoted by Acland, was launched in Oxford on 25 May 1880. Insufficient funds were raised, however; instead a marble version of the bust (595mm high without base) was carved, either by Boehm or a workshop. This was presented in 1881 to the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art, Oxford, and transferred thence in 2001 to the Ashmolean Museum (WA2001.18). Inscribed ‘Hanc Johannis Ruskin Hujusce scholae fundatoris Effigiem Amici posuerunt MDCCCLXXXI’, [8] it represents the portrait’s primary version.

According to Marion Harry Spielmann, the likeness has a hardness of expression, showing ‘something of a misanthrope’ and ‘the scholar, the thinker and the disputant, rather than the man’. [9]

It is thought that from the marble bust several plaster casts were made, including NPG 1053. [10] Two others are in the Ruskin Gallery, Sheffield (630mm high including base; on loan from Guild of St George, CGSG03477) and Geelong Art Gallery, Australia (625mm high, 1943.6). [11]

NPG 1053 was purchased in 1896 from George Howard, 9th Earl of Carlisle. [12] In the early 1880s, for Howard’s house Naworth Castle, Cumbria, Boehm had modelled a gesso frieze depicting the Battle of Flodden Field, to Edward Burne-Jones’s design, and it is possible that the bust was acquired by Howard through this connection.

The hollow pedestal was added in 1900, and the whole repainted with ‘black bronzing’ in 1915. [13]

When Boehm featured in Vanity Fair (Jan. 1881; see Boehm, ‘All known portraits’), he was drawn by Leslie Ward (‘Spy’) with Ruskin’s bust on the turntable.

See also Cook & Wedderburn 1903–1912, vol.36, no.39; and Dearden 1999, no.149(2).

Dr Jan Marsh

Footnotesback to top

1) Letter from J. Ruskin to H. Acland, Nov. 1879, Cook & Wedderburn 1903–12, vol.37, p.301; quoted Dearden 1999, p.119. See Dearden 1999, pp.119–21 for a full account of the commission.
2) Letter from J. Ruskin to Sara Anderson, 1 Dec. 1879, Cook & Wedderburn 1903–12, vol.37, p.303. In fact, the sculptural convention of deeply incising pupils does convey the piercing gaze of Ruskin’s blue eyes.
3) Letter from J. Ruskin to Mary Wakefield, 5 Sept. 1880; quoted Dearden 1999, p.120.
4) Letters from J. Ruskin to Joan Severn, 26 June 1875, and to C.E. Norton, 15 July 1875; quoted Dearden 1999, p.119.
5) Letter from J.E. Boehm to M.H. Speilmann; quoted Spielmann 1891b, p.122.
6) Untraced; noted as ‘life-like’ by The Times, 3 May 1880, p.9.
7) The Times, 26 May 1880, p.11; the cost to be £700 in terracotta, £1000 in bronze and £1200 in marble.
8) ‘Friends installed this effigy of John Ruskin, founder of this School, 1881’.
9) Spielmann 1900a, pp.178–9; for repr., see Bookman, Dec. 1900, p.186.
10) See Spielmann 1891b, p.122; and Dearden 1999, pp.232–3. The plaster versions may have been created from the mould used for the terracotta versions.
11) See Dearden 1999, nos 147–51.
12) According to NPG records, the correspondence regarding acquisition has been lost and some earlier publications state that the work was a gift; ‘purchase’ is firmly recorded in a note dated Nov. 1980. The acquisition date is variously given as July and Nov. 1896.
13) For repainting, see note citing NPG accounts, vol.7, 17 Mar. 1915, stating that the ‘old colour’ was removed and the new paint applied by Brucciani & Co. All information from NPG RP 1053.

Physical descriptionback to top

Head-and-shoulders, collar-length hair, parting on right, side whiskers.

Provenanceback to top

9th Earl of Carlisle, from whom purchased 1896.

Reproductionsback to top

Reproductions of other versions of this image
Cook 1890, frontispiece.

Spielmann 1891b, p.121.

Spielmann 1900a, p.141.

Bookman, March 1900, p.186.

Cook & Wedderburn 1903–12, vol.21, p.ix.

Penny 1992, vol.3, p.12.

Hewison 1996, pp.49 and 51.

Dearden 1999, pl.22.

View all known portraits for Sir Joseph Edgar Boehm, 1st Bt

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