John Ruskin and Wild Flora

Speaker: Prof David Ingram # University of Edinburgh Honorary Professor

4th Nov 2013

15:30 - 17:00

Conference Room, David Hume Tower


John Ruskin (1819-1900) had a profound influence on many aspects of British cultural life, including: art appreciation (he championed JMW Turner, inspired the Pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts movements and was the first Slade Professor at Oxford); architecture (he campaigned for the appreciation and conservation of the buildings of Venice and injected intellectual rigour into the 19th century Gothic revival); social reform (his book Unto This Last inspired many of the new ‘socialists’, including Morris, Tolstoy and the architects of the welfare state and National Health Service, Attlee, Beveridge and other members of the 1945 Labour Government); and the conservation of the built and natural environments (he was influential in the foundation of the National Trust and his late lecture The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century was a prophetic warning of the impending impact of industrial emissions on climate).

Ruskin was an acute observer and, as an accomplished artist, used drawing as a means of ‘seeing’ and teaching others to ‘see’. A central tenet of his seminal, five-volume work of art criticism, Modern Painters (1843-60), was that the primary concern of art should be the accurate documentation of nature. Such an approach, he argued, enabled Turner to develop an increasingly profound insight into the ‘portrayal of natural forces and atmospheric effects’, placing him head shoulders above his contemporaries and predecessors.

Ruskin’s talents as an observer resulted in his becoming a naturalist of sensitivity and insight, with a passion for wild flowers and wild landscapes. Although Proserpina, his textbook on botany, was both idiosyncratic and highly controversial, it included writing of beauty and understanding. His passion for wildness also led him to become an innovative and unconventional garden maker following his move, in 1872, from London to Brantwood in the English Lake District.


Seminar Summary


It is Ruskin’s interpretation of ‘wildness’ in both plants and gardens that as a botanist I shall explore in my image-based seminar.  In so doing I shall first explore the little-known plant drawings scattered among Ruskin’s diaries, notebooks, letters and papers in the collection of the Ruskin Library of Lancaster University (exhibited in 2011; publ. cat. Ruskin’s Flora, by David Ingram & Stephen Wildman). Few of the drawings were complete, never having been developed beyond what was necessary for recording the essence of whatever Ruskin was studying at the time, and most were clearly originally intended for the eyes of none but himself, although many were subsequently developed as diagrams and engravings to illustrate his numerous lectures and books. The drawings will lead on to my recent studies of the restored ‘wild gardens’ of both Ruskin and his cousin, Joan Severn, at Brantwood (due to be published in April 2014 by the Ruskin Foundation, with Pallas Athene, as a book entitled The Gardens of Brantwood – Evolution of a Lakeland Paradise), and their correspondence with William Robinson, the celebrated 19th century wild garden maker.


Speaker Biography

David Ingram began his career as an apprentice gardener, later becoming an academic botanist and then a plant pathologist, studying the physiology and genetics of fungal pathogens of vegetable crops. In 1990 he became Regius Keeper (Director) of The Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, where he expanded his emerging work in conservation and public engagement with science. Following his first ‘retirement’ (in 2000), he became Master of St Catharine’s College, Cambridge; and following his second retirement (in 2006), he embarked on new studies of the interface between plant science, horticulture and the fine and decorative arts, in collaboration with the Universities of Lancaster and Edinburgh, the Bowes Museum, Co Durham and the Ruskin Foundation, Coniston, Cumbria. Public roles since 1995 have included being: founder Chair of Science and Plants for Schools; President of the International Congress of Plant Pathology; Royal Horticultural Society Professor (and one of only 63 holders of the RHS Victoria Medal of Honour); Board Member of Scottish Natural Heritage; Deputy Chair of the UK Joint Nature Conservation Committee; Chair of the Darwin Initiative for the Survival of Species; Programme Convenor of the Royal Society of Edinburgh; and a Genomics Forum Advisory Board member. He is currently Book Reviews Editor of the Springer journal Food Security and Honorary Professor in the University of Edinburgh (STIS), the Lancaster Environment Centre and Glyndŵr University.


For more information, please contact Alyson Macdonald (tel. 0131 650 9113).