Ruskin, visual collector


I’ll be upfront: I’ve yet to really read any John Ruskin. A British art critic in the nineteenth century, a well-travelled Oxford scholar, a prolific writer and a collector of observations—I was curious as to why a man who drew unceasingly his entire life would be branded an ‘amateur,’ and that even so he might be presented as ‘an outstanding artist in his own right,’ as the National Galleries of Scotland recently presented him in a dedicated exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh.

While the gallery notes proclaim, ‘Drawing for Ruskin was an analytical process and represented an opportunity to mediate on many aspects of the physical world,’ sentiments that resonate strongly with me and my own predilection for drawing, his preoccupations seem to be more with the surface detail of things—column tops, archway ornaments and the correct shape of leaves. Very rarely do his drawings and watercolours come together as images. It became apparent very quickly during my visit to this show that Ruskin worked not as an artist, but solely to document intellectual curiosities. This is a fine task in itself, and it is laudable that Ruskin found a notation in drawing that enabled him to gather data from the physical world for further reflection, study and publication. What is discomfiting, then, is that a state gallery might conflate this visual collection with art. And that the members of the public shuffling around me might attribute awe-inspiring skills to the originator of a spread of drawings which I found largely fussy, weak and lacking either insight or confidence.

Literary and Philosophy Library, Newcastle upon Tyne

Literary and Philosophy Library, Newcastle upon Tyne

On revisiting Newcastle upon Tyne and discovering the glorious little haven of the Literary and Philosophy Society Library, I stumbled across a little volume by Marcel Proust, an introduction to his own translation of one of Ruskin’s written works, and was very curious to learn of Proust’s adoration of Ruskin. Proust’s gentle, meandering words ushered me more firmly down the pathway of my own reflections. ‘To what extent this wonderful soul faithfully reflected the universe,’ gushes Proust (1987: 49), ‘and under what touching and tempting forms falsehood may have crept, in spite of everything, into the heart of his intellectual sincerity, is something we will perhaps never know.’ Proust (1987: 32) describes how Ruskin’s many guises led to many conflicting things being said about him, and how these contradictions made Ruskin himself appear contradictory and dubious. Yet in Proust’s eyes, Ruskin pursued only beauty, and caused his art and his science to submit to the dictates of beauty. Accused of letting imagination run wild in science, and of binding up art in scientific tethers, Ruskin saw the task of both as akin to the high calling of the poet: ‘a sort of scribe writing at nature’s dictation a more or less important part of its secret, the artist’s first duty is to add nothing of his own to the sublime message’ (Proust, 1987: 31; 34).


His best works on display in Edinburgh were without a doubt Mountain landscape, Macugnage (1845) and Crossmount, Perthshire; Study of crag, tree and thistle (1847), both sepia studies which blaze like beacons for their sheer strength as pictures. The former is my first encounter with a Ruskin landscape that dissolves atmospherically into the distance, and to great effect; the latter bulges from the centre in a rare expression of depth. At times one is delighted with his feeling for colour, and his ability to weave a peaceful colour harmony. Rocks and ferns in a wood at Crossmount, Perthshire (1847), which graces much of the promotional material, translates well into print, largely because of the soothing purple-green-blue amalgam of foliage. There is even something startlingly delightful about the dramatic twist of the trees from his viewpoint, something dreamily unsettling like a rolling William Robinson painting. But even here, one pleads with Ruskin; he is still so shy to lay down his marks. Botanical precision wins out as he carefully colours around pointed ferns, cautious to leave white paper for the paler fronds to be filled later. One does not frown upon precision; but his meticulous marks exhibit a fear of error rather than a certainty in what he has seen and a conviction in what he aims to record.

Mountain landscape, Macugnage, by John Ruskin (1845)

Mountain landscape, Macugnage, by John Ruskin (1845)








I read with horror but not surprise a passage of Ruskin’s writing selected and abridged by Proust (1987: pp. 30-31):

‘Every class of rock, every kind of earth, every form of cloud, must be studied and rendered with equal precision. … Every geological formation has features entirely peculiar to itself; definite lines of fracture, giving rise to fixed resultant forms of rocks and earth; peculiar vegetable products, among which still farther distinctions are wrought out by climate and elevation. In the plant, the painter observes every character of colour and form, … seizes on its lines of rigidity or repose, … observes its local habits, its love or fear of peculiar places, its nourishment or destruction by particular influences; he associates it … with all the features of the situation it inhabits …’ {Modern Painters, CW 3: 34-48} … ‘The greatest picture is that which conveys to the mind of the spectator the greatest number of the greatest ideas.’ {Ibid., CW 3: 92}

What ghastly sort of aesthetic utilitarianism demands the maximum communication of messages visually? Perhaps one who had so much to say had not the luxury of meditating on a single idea, and offering it elegantly and succinctly to his audience. Ruskin’s visual verbosity matches his literary manner, and his task differs dramatically from ours as artists. But as artists, we have far more to bring to our canvases than precise transcription.

Study of a Gneiss Rock, Glenfinlas, by John Ruskin (1853-4)

Study of a Gneiss Rock, Glenfinlas, by John Ruskin (1853-4)











Study of a Gneiss Rock, Glenfinlas (1853-4), painted in Scotland, more successfully merges Ruskin’s penchant for scientific details and an artistic sentiment. The details of the foliage at the top add to, rather than detract from, the greater image: the picture is solid. But what can we say of this oddity? Is it nothing more than a fluke? Having achieved this synergy between his desire to record fact and the production of a solid picture, one hopes against hope that Ruskin will surge onwards, equipped with this new skill, and at last emerge as more than an amateur. But alas, this work seems an anomaly in his tireless output.




A pair of his notebooks which are on display in a cramped corner might have served as a better focus for an exhibition on such a complex character as Ruskin. The notebooks quietly plead, ‘Let’s remember him as a collector, curious and interested, and not try to cloak his endeavours in ‘artistic impulse.’ I sense, rather than being compelled by any true artistic impulse, that Ruskin would have preferred to record all he saw with absolute truth and precision, had he the ability. He simply had no interest in imposing design on the natural world or in introducing visual lies for a pleasing quality of linework. More than anything, one senses his fear at failing to record nature with the utmost, unartistic truth in his timid pencil strokes and panicked application of watercolour. The pencil—a glorious medium in its own right—is abused as a crutch by Ruskin, who scratches an uncertain scene in graphite before tentatively filling the shapes with a wash of colour. Nowhere does he seem to use it as a guide for more assured brushwork; almost nowhere does he trust himself to simply apply paint. Everywhere, the skeleton of pencil is showing through—except in two notable, tiny feather paintings: Study of a peacock’s breast feather (1873) and Three feathers (1875). At last he stops scratching and picking, plucks up the courage to abandon his pencil, applies his infinitely fine brush with precision, and forces himself to draw well. I wish only that he had the courage to work this way more often.

Ruskin School of Art, Oxford

Ruskin School of Art, Oxford

Now, it may be true that Ruskin did not promote himself as an artist, but rather as an intellectual. His efforts in drawing were solely for his own improvement, his own engagement with and meditation on the external world. Nonetheless, seeing a show like this is extremely disheartening, for Ruskin was tutored in drawing from an early age, having demonstrated reputed precocious ability; he evidently devoted countless hours to the activity, toting not merely a small sketchbook for opportunistic scribbles but large and unwieldy sheets of paper in a determined effort to go out drawing. And let’s not gloss over the fact that he sat as the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University in 1869, going on to found his own school, The Ruskin School of Fine Art and Drawing, also at Oxford, shortly after in 1871. What is troubling about Ruskin, this jack-of-all-trades, dabbling in everything, is that evidence points to him more than simply dabbling in drawing, and yet never attaining a level of true accomplishment. Is hard work and undying curiosity not enough? Or is the lesson of Ruskin not to spread yourself too thinly?

Ruskin School of Art, Oxford

Ruskin School of Art, Oxford

The reception of the public was equally worrying, with the near-exclusively grey-haired visitors full of clever things to spout admiringly in Ruskin’s direction. Even with the marked contrast of John Everett Millais’s dignified and pictorially lovely 1854 portrait of the man, also painted at Glenfinlas in Scotland. One can’t help but think that celebrating an amateur is a relief and a comfort to the unaspiring layman, whose weak efforts might just as easily be described as ‘exquisitely detailed’ and ‘the result of an intense and passionate artistic impulse’ by gallery pamphlets. And that would be a real shame, for in celebrating art that is less than awe-inspiring, we set lower standards for the artists of our own time, who then need to do so little to bewitch an undiscerning public—which, arguably, is the great artistic malaise of our day.




Proust, Marcel. 1987. On reading Ruskin: Prefaces to La Bible d’Amiens and Sésame et les Lys with selections from the notes to the translated texts. Trans. Jean Autret, William Burford and Phillip J. Wolfe. Yale: New Haven.


Fabled cities

Princes St GardensMy triumphant return to Edinburgh reduced me to a giddy five-year-old. The city had become part of the fabric of my dreams: otherworldly, symbolic, a mythological city of my own personal folklore. On my first foray into the wide-open world I settled on this place for no solid reason, and I built myself a life in this story-book setting, in the streets that seem to shift and change in their illogical woven arrangement.


I had little money, an odd assortment of things in a battered suitcase I’d picked up from the side of the road, and an acceptance letter from the University of Edinburgh. It had never before crossed my mind that it was within my reach to travel, for the world is so unimaginably distant when you know nothing but the unending expanse of Australia. But, with infinite cool, I persuaded myself that life abroad would be no different than life at home, and that since one could never be truly prepared it was best to just leap. I would simply study as I usually did, get a job as I always had, live simply and be open. Edinburgh marks the threshold: that attitude has come to define my life.

Black Medicine

Returning to Edinburgh after five years was nothing short of a homecoming, and I hadn’t expected to be so taken with it after all that has happened in between—the cities I’ve fallen in love with, the lives I’ve built. But this first romance is deeply rooted in my being, fondly dwelt upon, sweetly revisited. Those grey drizzled bricks and those winding cobbled passages are like nowhere else. The sheer magic of the geography: dreary laneways that usher you onto the Cowgate; spiralling roads that suddenly bring you to the Grassmarket; wind-whipped streets that back onto the Meadows. It’s nigh impossible to visualise your route, but from any given location you know three portals that connect to three other pockets of the city, and thus you skip from corner to corner until you find yourself where you hoped to be, or somewhere unexpected and worthy of exploration.


Edinburgh taught me a boldness. It taught me to impose on others, to ask for the pleasure of their company, knowing they held back out of politeness. It taught me how far I could rely on myself, and to push yet further. It taught me that the world was within reach, and it taught me to be dissatisfied and to demand more. When I had made a comfortable enough nest in Edinburgh, I ventured out into Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, the Netherlands. And I began to ask myself why I didn’t impose greater challenges on myself, why I didn’t know any other languages, why Australia seemed inevitable when my grandparents themselves had shipped their lives across the world. Perhaps we belonged wherever we felt we did.

Time travel

A past self, Edinburgh

Coming back felt like time-travel—like meeting my past self face to face, that often-solitary self who was first unleashed on the world, who quietly and unassumingly found her place like water trickling in between the cobblestones, before rushing on yet further, moving ever fluidly through the world. So many in my life don’t know this me, can’t see how profoundly I was moulded by this ancient place that has cocooned countless others before. But some know the bewitching ways of Auld Reekie—Anna concurs: ‘I always have a sense of happy contentment whenever I get off the train at Waverley.’ Either this unbelievable city is real, or I woke up in my dreams.


Of respect and respectability

Lavender Gardens © Samantha Groenestyn; oil on canvas

Lavender Gardens © Samantha Groenestyn; oil on canvas

I lately find myself floating untethered across Europe, of unfixed address and relying on the kindness of friends. Determined to do away with distractions, excess possessions, and non-painting-related ambitions, my faithful and scuffed old suitcase and I have somewhat conspicuously fallen off the path of respectability.


Making big wishes, Vienna

Wafting from city to city, from house to house, welcomed warmly into the homes of friends, I’m permitted into the private spheres of young doctors, paramedics, physicists, engineers and environmental charity workers, and granted a sobering insight into the contrasts in our chosen careers. But I’m also freshly awoken to how difficult it is for each of us to forge our way. My friends are well-travelled, well-educated, some are employed, some have suspended employment for the sake of a relationship, some have worked offshore, some are physically overworked, others are mentally under-challenged, some need to secure funding to guarantee their own ongoing employment. Those of us with money are not necessarily respected, because their jobs are too physical or not demanding enough of their time. Those of us who are working for the betterment of the world are anxious at not contributing enough. And I, as capable as they, cling resolutely to my cause in the face of my meagre earning-power.

Married to the sea, my all time favourite web-comic

Married to the sea, my all time favourite web-comic











This unsettling confrontation with earning ability has been somewhat tempered by some thoughts from philosopher Alain de Botton. I found his book Status anxiety on a bookshelf in a new home and read it hungrily and hopefully. For at heart, we all want to occupy ourselves with something which challenges and satisfies us, and we want others to respect us for our efforts. But are our equations, prescriptions, policies and drawings enough when the measure held against our work is money? De Botton lays out an historical account of our attitude to wealth that can at least reassure the financially-challenged that they are not necessarily worthless. He describes the complete historical about-face of our estimation of wealth, and, most strikingly, its connection with virtue.

Poverty wasn’t always such a psychological burden to bear, argues de Botton (2004: 67-68), particularly in a world where one was born either into nobility or peasantry according to God’s will. One’s moral worth could not be wrapped up in one’s social standing if that immutable standing was allotted by God. Poverty might bring physical discomforts, but not shame. And since the aristocracy acknowledged that their luxuries were only made possible through the untiring efforts of the lower classes, it was only fitting that they demonstrated charity and pity toward these unfortunates. A delicate balance of interdependency between rich and poor reinforced the idea that virtue and moral worth were not reflected in wealth (2004: 70).

But in about the middle of the eighteenth century, argues de Botton (2004: 75-76), some hopeful meritocratic ideas began to take root and to dismantle these beliefs and thus to erode our collective appraisal of poverty. And, more sinisterly, supply and demand were switched. Rather than considering the role of the poor a necessary evil, fatefully bestowed, their position came to be described as dependent on the whims of the rich. Without demand, their labour would be for naught. Thinkers as forceful as David Hume and Adam Smith helped to redefine who depended on whom (2004: 76-78):

Hume loving, Edinburgh

Hume loving, Edinburgh

‘In a nation where there is no demand for superfluities, men sink into indolence, lose all enjoyment of life, and are useless to the public, which cannot maintain or support its fleets and armies.’ (David Hume, 1752).

Portrait gallery

National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh

‘In spite of their natural selfishness and rapacity, though they mean only their own convenience, though the sole end which they propose from the labours of all the thousands whom they employ be the gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires, the rich divide with the poor the produce of all their improvements. They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessities of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus, without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species.’ (Adam Smith, 1776).

Adam Smith, Edinburgh

Adam Smith, Edinburgh

Charity became a burden; the poor became a nuisance (2004: 78). Coupled with progressive ideas that every individual ought to be rewarded according to his or her abilities and achievements, the modern attitude to poverty is one of disdain. For the flipside of meritocracy is that those who do not excel deserve the hardships and stigma that they have thus earned. It seems a regrettable but inevitable price to pay. Since one ought to be able to improve one’s position, failure to do so has come to imply moral failure in a way it did not in the past (2004: 87). De Botton (p. 85) explains, ‘An increasing faith in a reliable connection between merit and worldly position in turn endowed money with a new moral quality.’ And, worse: ‘To the injury of poverty, a meritocratic system now added the insult of shame’ (2004: 91).

De Botton goes on to explore antidotes to this new state of affairs, a string of themes that reads like my biography: Christianity, Politics, Philosophy, Art and Bohemia. Perhaps my attraction to these things has lessened my own regard for money and for the esteem that comes hand in hand with it. At heart, his message is to seek value elsewhere; define worth on your own terms, as many have before. Build, adopt or steal an unshakable moral code so that in dark times you can measure your life and your own worth against this and not money; so that you can respect yourself and stay focused on your life’s work. Perhaps that confidence and determination is enough win the respect of those who doubt you.

Love Newcastle













De Botton, Alain. 2004. Status anxiety. Hamish Hamilton: London.



The Meadows © Samantha Groenestyn

Right this minute, a bunch of custom notecards are making their way to my dear friend Elizabeth in Scotland! Liz and I used to live together in Edinburgh, and these cards bring back happy memories for me as I hope they will for her.

Edinburgh Castle © Samantha Groenestyn

Skye sheep © Samantha Groenestyn

Rolling hills © Samantha Groenestyn

Yep, I’m available for commissions. Just send me a friendly note!




Of past selves

Breakfast, Edinburgh © Samantha Groenestyn

Until this week, I had the idea that I make two types of art: small and quite stylised illustrations in gouache on paper, and large and quite realistic paintings on canvas. In fact, my large paintings have been neglected this year, unsurprisingly, since I have been fairly prolific in my illustrative output. I pulled out an old unfinished one on the weekend, one that would have been part of a series of pre-illustration pieces depicting breakfasting friends in Europe. I’d started it in acrylics, since I’d never learned to use oils until starting at the atelier, so I dusted off my old acrylic paints and set up on the veranda and worked solidly on the rather sizeable piece—about a metre by a metre and a half.

The trouble, of course, was that this painting existed in some distant, dark-aged past, and while my untrained self had managed to reproduce things like shadows and planes in a near-enough sort of fashion without having any real knowledge about such things, trying to go back to this old painting was just maddening. My past self certainly wasn’t kind to my later selves: my drawing was hasty and inaccurate, the perspective dire and my brushwork (most likely due to the quality of my brushes) abysmal. I tried to repaint sections, neatening up the lines and coverage, paying more attention to planes. When it came to painting an entirely untouched section, I realised what a liability the cheap acrylic paint was, and the (probably cheap) surface: the paint would not stick, it went on patchy and rough. I wrestled with it for two solid hours, and then I stepped back and surveyed my efforts. I felt suddenly at ease: this painting is not to be—not this way, not now. Because I don’t paint this way anymore. Breakfast, Copenhagen might resurface as an oil painting or as a gouache painting: either way, it will rely on sturdy draughtsmanship, careful brushwork, informed anatomy. But this painting can’t be salvaged, and I’m going to feel very relieved to remove the canvas from the frame and dispose of it accordingly.

The most significant thing I’ve had to admit to myself is that illustration has become my main art form. I didn’t feel I thought of it that seriously, despite having thrown myself into it so vigorously, and I felt I always had my other kind of painting, but this isn’t the case. Perhaps I ought to think more deeply about what kind of painting I most want to do, and most want to be recognised for. I enjoy illustration, and love that it can be in people’s lives and is in many ways less intimidating than art gallery art. Perhaps best of all, it has forced me to explore subject matter I wouldn’t have approached otherwise, and to explore qualities not associated with realism: distorted textures, imposed patterns, amplified colours and simplification of forms. Illustration may have just saved me from a creative rut. It brought my imagination to art, something I was always afraid of in my aspirations to be a human photocopier.

I certainly won’t be abandoning illustration anytime soon; I’m throwing myself into it harder than ever. I’m thoroughly enjoying this part of my artistic career. But I’ll be making sure to make time for the type of art that is really what I’m about.

And so: to celebrate art of bygone eras, I’m pleased to share that I’m displaying my Breakfast series for the entire month of November at SOL Breads in West End, Brisbane.

Breakfast, Paris © Samantha Groenestyn

Breakfast, Paris is of two Australian girls, Melinda and Sarah, whom I met in Paris and even spent some time in London with. We shared many a croissant in the sunny window of our Montmartre hostel.

Breakfast, Edinburgh (above) is a portrait of my free-spirited Scottish friend Judy, a wee sprite of a girl. We worked together at a bar, and spent some time in bars in Italy. Her approach to life is so chilled, but so adventurous.

Breakfast, Berlin © Samantha Groenestyn

Breakfast, Berlin is a painting of my favourite friend, quantum physicist Nathan, playing guitar at ‘the guitar café’ in Prenzlauerberg after 2 crepes. I love that his future self seems to be sitting behind him. Closed time-like curves, anyone?


Red house over yonder / Scott Monument

Red house © Samantha Groenestyn












A few years ago, I lived in Edinburgh. When I arrived, fresh off the bus from the airport, suitcase in tow, one of the very first sights to greet me was the looming Scott Monument, shadowing a noisy bag-piper. It’s probably the best monument in the world.

At first sight

While Edinburgh is full of monuments, as I soon learned–Adam Smith on a pedestal, David Hume in a toga (O-week, first year?), an assortment of dudes-on-poles–none are quite so imposing as that commemorating Sir Walter Scott.

Dude on a pole

Adam Smith

While dudes-on-poles and Mr Smith lose their dignity to pigeon shit and traffic cones, Scott is ensconced in a veritable fortress of thought, in the Denkmal castle so big that you can actually pay money to climb the built-in staircase to the top.

View from halfway

Not bad for a writer, eh? I developed a fixation with this Gothic structure, the very feat of engineering one envisions as a child making witches castles at the beach, drizzling wet sand into craggy spires. This is the sort of legacy to which one should aspire.

Gothic splendour

My dad is a builder, and the red house is a sprawling country bungalow flanked by cane fields in Far North Queensland. When he set out on his own and started his own business, and came up with the name Shadow Constructions, my eyes glazed over with the recollection of the Scott Monument. No other construction ever shadowed so mightily. ‘Dad,’ I implored–‘this silhouette: your identity.’



Arthur's Seat and blossoms © Samantha Groenestyn

‘Built into the contractions of the human heart, the skilled craftsman has extended rhythm to the hand and the eye,’ is how Richard Sennett* summarises routine. Rather than equating routine with boredom and mindless repetition, Sennett argues that ‘doing something over and over is stimulating when organised as looking ahead’ (p. 175). While thinking ahead to a finished product or a gained skill is motivating, the repetition comes to be performed for its own sake, a kind of cathartic release.

This is certainly something experienced by knitters, who, while they anticipate the finished garment, tirelessly knit stitch after stitch and take pleasure in it. People who do not make things always frustrate me with the same question: upon seeing a finished piece of any variety, they gasp and ask, ‘How many hours did that take you?’ Perhaps I could even answer the question if it was in the form of ‘how long’—perhaps a month or two, but only in the evenings, and I’m out several evenings a week—but something so specific as hours? This obsession with the commitment required to produce a final object starts from a false place that misses the point of crafts. If one knits, or sews, or paints, or writes, one knows that although possessing the consummation of one’s labour will be terribly rewarding, for now all that matters is the doing. A creative person is so caught up in ‘being as a thing’ (p. 174) and so consumed in the process, that she could hardly want it to end, and, indeed, immediately follows with another project so as not to have time elapse without the desired activity.

‘Sheer movement repeated becomes a pleasure in itself’ (p. 175).

* Sennett, Richard. 2009. The Craftsman. Penguin: London.

** A treat from an older travel sketchbook. I lived in Edinburgh a year, and this sketch was done on my street as the cherry blossoms exploded into Spring. This sketchbook marks the time I first started to take sketching seriously, having fresh material for my eyes, and started a habit that has become all-consuming.