Positioned high up on the façade of the Doge’s Palace in Venice, the painting looks across to the southern portico of St Mark’s Basilica, with its dramatic architectural forms and exquisitely carved masonry. It has clearly been raining, for, through the arches, the flag stones of St Mark’s square are reflective and sodden.
Ruskin had been captivated by Venice ever since his first visit to the city in 1835, and he was to return there at least once in every decade of his working career. Over time, he became acutely aware that this mythical place was in great danger of being lost forever, not only due to general decay but also modernisation and over-zealous restoration. Indeed, the south side of St Mark’s was refaced between 1865 and 1877.
Ruskin felt compelled to record what he could, and between 1849 and 1852 (over two extended residencies), he undertook an in-depth survey of its art and buildings. His wife, Effie, described some of his feverish activities in a letter home: ‘John excites the liveliest astonishment to all and sundry in Venice… Nothing interrupts him and whether the square [St Mark’s] is crowded or empty, he is either seen with a black cloth over his head taking daguerreotypes [sic] or climbing about the capitals covered with dust, or else with cobwebs exactly as if he had just arrived from taking a voyage with the old woman on her broomstick.’1
The artist’s intense studies bore fruit in the form of his iconic book, The Stones of Venice (published in three volumes between 1851 and 1853), and the accompanying large-formatted fascicles, Examples of the Architecture of Venice, designed to act as its supplement by providing grand-scale illustrations in mezzotint. The present work was not engraved but it is understood to be connected with this project.
The watercolor is loosely based on two daguerreotypes that were taken by John Hobbs, Ruskin’s manservant, who had learnt to use a daguerreotype camera and who worked under his guidance between 1845 and 1854.2 Ruskin had first encountered daguerreotypes in 1840 and he was enthusiastic about the new technology. However, whereas the photographic image records each and every detail, the medium of watercolor affords the artist more control over what is included and what is not. Here, Ruskin has focused on the elements that were important to him; for example, the finely carved capital of the Pillar of Acre and the so-called ‘Lily capitals’ that cap the freestanding columns supporting the portico. He has been careful, however, to omit details of which he disapproved, such as the modern gas lamps that had been installed only a few years before and appear in the daguerreotypes.
The watercolor is exceptional on many levels, not least for its scale, for it is among the largest works of Ruskin’s entire oeuvre. His other important Venetian watercolors largely survive in public institutions, such as the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the British Museum in London, The Ruskin Foundation at Lancaster University, the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven and the Fogg Museum at Harvard. However, these sheets are generally smaller.
The work has a long and distinguished exhibition history and its provenance can be traced back to Ruskin himself. In 1968, it was acquired by Evelyn Joll (1925-2001), the eminent art historian who was employed by the London art dealers, Agnew’s, between 1949 and 1992, and who served as the firm’s chairman from 1982. The watercolor has remained with his descendants until this day and its inclusion in this sale is, therefore, undoubtedly an event of considerable significance, providing collectors with an exceptional opportunity.
We are grateful to Professor Stephen Wildman for his help when cataloguing this work.
1. K. Jacobson & J. Jacobson, Carrying off the Palaces John Ruskin’s Lost Daguerreotypes, London, 2015, p. 61
2. Ibid, p. 254, nos. 30 & 31
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