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John Ruskin

John Ruskin, by Theodore Blake Wirgman, circa 1886 -NPG 3035 - © National Portrait Gallery, London

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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John Ruskin

by Theodore Blake Wirgman
Pencil on paper pasted onto mount, circa 1886
10 1/2 in. x 13 1/2 in. (267 mm x 343 mm)
NPG 3035

Inscriptionback to top

Signed lower right: ‘T. Blake Wirgman / Herne Hill’.
Label formerly on frame (now removed to NPG RP 3035): ‘JOHN RUSKIN / BY T.BLAKE WIRGMAN. / Retouched by Ruskin. Denmark Hill.’

This portraitback to top

This portrait was drawn in February 1884, at Ruskin’s former home in Herne Hill, where he retained a study. At the artist’s request, sittings were arranged through a mutual friend Mrs Walter Severn. Ruskin replied: ‘I’ll sit, since you asked me, but I always refuse in general, however I’ll have this portrait different from any that have been yet – only I always fall asleep in a quarter of an hour, so everything in the way of expression must be got – tell the artist – in ten minutes.’ [1]

Theodore Blake Wirgman was a portraitist who also worked for the Graphic, where this portrait was published; seven portrait drawings (including those of Millais and Boehm) by him are in the National Portrait Gallery. Of the first sitting, he recalled:

when I asked Ruskin what his wish was with regard to the view I should take of his face, he without answering rushed out of the room and returned with a bedroom looking-glass, saying ‘Get behind me and you will see reflected the particular view I wish you to take.’ After sitting for two hours with no pause in the conversation, which was most interesting and charming, he promised me another sitting if I should wish it.

Wirgman did so wish, and eventually a second sitting took place in the studio of Edward Burne-Jones in Fulham. [2] According to Wirgman, ‘When the drawing was finished, the professor said “Yes, I see, you have got the hair from the eyebrow across the eye – it is quite right, but I usually pull it out when I go into society…”’ [3] According to Marion Harry Spielmann, who later owned the work, ‘when the drawing was finished, and the background worked up from the study … Ruskin put a few finishing touches to it himself – touches having reference chiefly to the hair and eyebrows, about which he was very particular – and the work went off to the engraver.’ [4]

Some heavier pencil strokes are visible in parts of the drawing, including the hair, beard and shadows of the coat, although they do not appear to be by a separate hand. Other areas – the sitter’s right arm and waistcoat – lack full definition. The paper has minor tears and abraded areas.

A careful pencil and wash drawing, heightened with white, of the head only, together with a sketch of eyes, is described as a preliminary study, but may perhaps have been executed at the second sitting. [5]

The portrait was published as a full-page lithograph (printed in black and grey-brown to resemble wash) as ‘No.XVIII CELEBRITIES OF THE DAY – MR JOHN RUSKIN / DRAWN FROM LIFE’, with a facsimile of Ruskin’s signature alongside the caption. [6] After being sold by the Graphic, it was acquired by Spielmann, author of several articles on Ruskin, in whose 1939 gift to the National Portrait Gallery it was included.

See also Cook & Wedderburn 1903–12, vol.36, no.49; and Dearden 1999, no.153.

Dr Jan Marsh

Footnotesback to top

1) J. Ruskin quoted in letter from T.B. Wirgman to M.H. Spielmann, 24 Apr. 1893; quoted Dearden 1999, p.149. Ruskin’s original letter is untraced.
2) Date uncertain; Dearden states it was ‘eventually’ arranged, suggesting weeks or even months elapsed, which might also help explain why the drawing was not published until spring 1886.
3) J. Ruskin quoted in letter from T.B. Wirgman to M.H. Spielmann, 24 Apr. 1893; see note 1 above.
4) Spielmann 1900a, p.180, paraphrasing from letter from T.B. Wirgman to M.H. Spielmann, 27 Apr. 1893; cited Dearden 1999, p.150. The note on a label formerly on the frame, reading ‘Retouched by Ruskin. Denmark Hill’, refers to Ruskin’s intervention, but the location is incorrect.
5) Dearden 1999, no.198; now Morgan L&M, New York, 1981.27.1.
6) Graphic, 3 Apr. 1886, p.367. See also NPG D33438 for a detached page measuring 310 x 421mm.

Physical descriptionback to top

Half-length, seated, to front, hands folded on lap, in sitting room/study of sitter’s former home, fireplace and mantelshelf to right, with sidetable and books, another table, chairs and pictures to left, all lightly drawn.

Conservationback to top

Conserved, 1984.

Provenanceback to top

The Graphic, from which collection sold at Sotheby’s; bought before 1912 by M.H. Spielmann, by whom presented 1939 (information from Dearden 1999, no.199).

Exhibitionsback to top

The Portraits of John Ruskin, Ruskin Library, Lancaster; Ruskin Gallery, Sheffield; and Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 2000–2001.

View all known portraits for John Ruskin


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