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John Ruskin

8 of 72 portraits of John Ruskin

John Ruskin, by Conrad Dressler, 1888 -NPG 2030 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

Later Victorian Portraits Catalogue

John Ruskin

by Conrad Dressler
Bronze, 1888
6 3/4 in. (171 mm) high
NPG 2030


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Inscriptionback to top

Signed and dated below left shoulder: ‘Conrad Dressler / 1888’;
with unidentified foundry stamp below: ‘A1478’;
and below that a diamond-shape logo.

This portraitback to top

At the end of May 1884, Conrad Dressler visited Ruskin at Brantwood in order to sculpt his portrait. The two had met six months before, in London. ‘I soon felt quite at home under his roof,’ Dressler recalled.

His friendliness went so far as to drop all convention. He asked to call me by my christian name and treated me more like a son than even a friend.… he invited me to [breakfast] with him in his library and this I continued to do until the end of my visit. What delightful conversations we had there. What treasures he showed me. I had here the first opportunities of studying his noble face, so often lit up by enthusiasm as youthful as any I could have…

I cannot tell how many sittings we had. They took place in the coach house, a very convenient place for my purpose and I had as many as I wanted. Some were long and some were short as the humour served. I had with the help of the old butler made a little platform for the Professor to sit upon. From this position he could watch me at my work for a couple of hours sometimes, talking most of the time, telling me of the great works which he knew in Italy and of the spirit which animated them, often deploring the change in the spirit of modern times. He would also criticise my work and tell me to seek for more harmony and suavity; the treatment of the hair appeared to him very rough at first. After four or five sittings he was however so pleased with the result of my labours that he said he was sure I would only spoil it now. When I told him however that if I did spoil it I should bring it right again in the end he bade me go on in my own way. [1]

One evening, after dinner with Joan and Arthur Severn, when Ruskin had been reminiscing about his life in a lively fashion, he stood at the window looking at Coniston Old Man in the late evening light. ‘One could see that he was mentally reviewing his life’s work. His head was held up although his body was slightly stooping … In his gaze there was a mystery which I had never seen so strongly marked before. I was even then deeply impressed and I determined to endeavour to reproduce what I had seen.’ [2] Ruskin’s opinion on the result was conveyed in 1888 when an illustration was proposed. ‘Oh please, no bust! Dressler’s better than Boehm’s [NPG 1053|mw5509] – but looks more frantic than I’ve ever been.’ [3]

The present work is cast in bronze from a reduced-size version. The original was modelled in clay from which plaster casts were made, 405mm (15 7/8in) high. The first of these, signed and dated 1885, was presented to Ruskin and first exhibited in 1919 (234); it is now untraced. The second, signed and dated 1892, was repr. in Spielmann 1891b (p.124) and presented to Whitelands College. The third, signed and dated 1903, was presented in 1904 to the Ruskin Memorial Hall, Bourneville (now part of Birmingham City University). Two terracotta casts were made: one, signed and dated 1885, was exhibited at the New Gallery in summer 1888 (32), engraved for the Graphic, 27 January 1900, p.126, [4] presented to the National Gallery in 1902, [5] and is now in the Tate Collection (2242). The second, signed and dated 1887, was offered at Sotheby’s, 23 November 1982 (233).

In 1888 a reduced-size plaster version (head only) was made, signed and dated by the artist, which was given to Ruskin and later owned by Harold Rathbone, a Liverpool patron and a friend of Dressler, and John Hutchinson. A smaller version of the original was also made, from which two bronzes were cast, one presented to Marion Harry Spielmann, now untraced; the other being the present work, presented to the National Portrait Gallery in 1924; the incised signature indicates it was produced under the artist’s instruction. The donor, Irish-born picture dealer Alfred Jones, of 2 Terrace Walk, Bath, at the same time presented a bust of Hubert von Herkomer by Edward Onslow Ford (NPG 6196). [6]

Dr Jan Marsh

Footnotesback to top

1) Letter from C. Dressler to M.H. Spielmann, 18 June 1890; quoted Dearden 1999, p.150.
2) Letter from C. Dressler to M.H. Spielmann, 18 June 1890; quoted Dearden 1999, p.152.
3) Letter from J. Ruskin to M.H. Spielmann, 8 May 1888, Cook & Wedderburn 1903–12, vol.37, p.604.
4) Engraved by Paul Jonnard and captioned ‘Head of Mr Ruskin, by Conrad Dressler / Executed in 1884, and exhibited in the New Gallery, 1889’; the dates given do not quite align with those provided by Dearden.
5) By Rev. J.B. Booth: see his correspondence with NG 1901 (NG7/260/21-23). As James Dearden notes (private comm., 23 July 2008) these casts are numerous and confusing.
6) See letter from A. Jones to J.D. Milner, 14 May 1924, stating that he would bring ‘the portrait bust of Carlile [sic] also H. Herkomer, R.A. and will leave same at the Gallery for you’ (NPG RP 2030). A note dated 19 May 1924 records Jones’s arrival with ‘Bust John Ruskin & H.Herkomer’ (NPG RP 2030). In his letter Jones evidently mistook Ruskin for Carlyle, as no bust of the latter came to the Gallery from him. Jones, who died in 1928, presented several hundred pictures to the Victoria Art Gallery, Bath.

Physical descriptionback to top

Head only

Provenanceback to top

Alfred Jones, by whom given 1924.

Exhibitionsback to top

New Gallery, London, 1888 (original work, of which this is a subsequent version).

Dowdeswell & Dowdeswell, London, 1889 (with other busts by Dressler; see also Ford Madox Brown and William Morris).

Reproductionsback to top

Reproductions of original work
Spielmann 1891b, p.124 (engr. by Jonnard).

Graphic, 27 January 1900, p.166 (engr. by W. Biscombe Gardner).

View all known portraits for John Ruskin