John Ruskin Daguerrotypes at the Watts Gallery

The second sentence of Stephen Wildman's excellent exhibition catalogue, 'John Ruskin: Photographer and Draughtsman', serves as a good introduction to the work of G. F. Watts and John Ruskin:

"By the 1890s both were seen as men who had greatly expanded modern ideas of the ethical possibilities of art."

The gallery's core collection is the work of artist Watts (it was originally his home and studio) but, until June 1st of this year, they have a marvellous exhibition, in two spacious rooms, of Ruskin's drawings and daguerrotypes.  Ruskin's three volume 'Stones of Venice' is one of the most distinct books in my memory. I remember reading it (part of it at least) in the Courtauld Book Library some fifteen years ago and noting its impressive presence and the quality and mysterious feel the drawings within it had.

The photographs in the slideshow below are taken from the catalogue (thanks to Stephen Wildman and the Watts Gallery). It is interesting firstly to note the remove at which these images are seen by us here on the screen:

1. The mid-nineteenth century daguerrotype (silver plated copper, approx. 8cm x 15cm, with effectively no grain so incredibly precise sharpness and detail but small physical size)

2. The twenty-first century digital capture of this (Transformation of the image into pixels of digital colour information)

3. The print of this, also on exhibit / the lithographic CMYK ink book print (Transformation of the pixels to coloured dots of ink transferred to paper)

4. My digital capture of the litho print (Transformation of the ink on paper into pixels with a standard - sRGB - colour profile)

5. The reception of this by you from your screen (The rendering of this in pixels at a certain size and colour approximation)

Each image in the exhibition is presented in the original Daguerrotype with a supplementary modern paper-printed reproduction. These reproductions have a very different feel and tone from the daguerrotypes, the difference between metal and paper, between silver plated copper and pulped and flattened wood, which is of course significant. The colours become more vibrant and saturated but something of the ethereality and infinite detail of the original is lost.

'Castelbarco Tomb and Gate, Santa Anastasia, Verona, 1852'

The fine white line left by an unintended hair, an aberration in the original daguerrotype, curls directly from the top of a finial ball on the base of the nave roof. Behind, in the distance, a campanile can be seen, the deep turquoise of the degraded chemical that once shone clear white has now become the most stunning aqueous sky.

The white drainpipe to the right holds a fascination and calls to mind a similarly arresting white pipe on graphite coloured brick in a photograph by Eugene Atget ("Coin du Quai Voltaire", 1916).

To the right of the round arched doorway to the church, a black expanse punctuated with horizontal slashes, in the top quarter of a marble block is a bright, cyan haloed sphere. The curious accidents of the photographic process, and the degradation and anolomies of chemical changes through time that have affected this daguerrotype, have heightened all the more the shimmering radiance in the strange geometry of the various architectural elements. At the centre-left of the frame lies Guglielmo di Castelbarco in stone, his turned head in the centre of the frame gazing at us from beyond this world.

'West Facade, Santa Maria della Spina, Pisa, 1846'

The frontage is slightly left of centre and tilted somewhat to the right. We are led in to the image by the pair of oculi set respectively in two triangular lintelled gables that flank the central recessed gable, atop which stands, within an ornate tabernacle, a statue of Christ. The slight compositional wonkiness allows a view past the side of Santa Maria della Spina to a five storied building, with numerous narrow rounded arch windows, reached by an iron gate in the distance. Two bollards, which must have been quite near to the camera and dominate the lower part of the daguerrotype, seem to connect with the base of the church, which must be twenty or thirty metres away, and seem to hold it in suspension through the two corresponding dark portals of the church above. The fine figures of the statues atop spires and pinnacles rise upon the roof. Behind and to the right of the statue of Christ, uncovered upon a steep pyramidal spire, stands a figure entirely in white, eroded through time to have a smooth linear quality. It looks like black oil pours from her cupped hands vertically down over the stone carved drapery over her legs and circles the plinth upon which she stands.

(No doubt that, although quite obviously being a very fine example of gothic architecture indeed, Ruskin would have particularly loved this building having surely been familiar with Turner's outstanding watercolour of Santa Maria della Spina of 1832, now in the Ashmolean Museum collection).

In the exhibition catalogue there is a quite curious quote from Ruskin in a letter to Julia Margaret Cameron of 1868:

'Fifteen years ago I knew everything that the photograph could do and could not do, I have long since ceased to take the slightest interest in it, my attention being wholly fixed upon the possibility of wresting luminous decomposition which literally paints with sunlight - no chemist has yet succeeded in doing this - if they do, the results will be precious in their own way.'

Well, he was quite wrong, or perhaps too hasty, to claim entire knowledge of the limits of photography as, little did he know then that the very chemist who had prepared his daguerrotypes had indeed, with the intervention of Ruskin and his manservant Hobbs (he usually was the camera operator), 'fixed upon the possibility of wresting luminous decomposition...', as these daguerrotypes that we look upon attest to. Some one hundred and fifty years after they were made they resonate not only with their original metallic splendour but the patina of time and the changes in chemical compositions that have breathed a strange vitality into these small copper slabs that will continue to slowly and subtly alter.