A new departure in sculpture
Ruskin’s influence alone seems insufficient to account for the technical rigour with which his precepts were adopted by the O’Sheas and their contemporaries within the stone trade. While The Stones of Venice may have served as a poetic call to arms, the skill of the craftsmen was rooted in the aesthetic, technical, and educational changes that occurred in artisan training in the late 1840s and early 1850s, which drew on cross-currents between industry, science and art that were already firmly embedded in contemporary art education.
There is every indication that the carving on the Museum Building was carefully planned and executed with controlled proficiency. Ruskin’s illustrations of Venice likely provided the model for the type of capital employed in the interior of the Museum Building, which are similar to those from the upper arcade of the Palazzo Ducale, and the carving itself has resonance with Fig. 8 from the Stones of Venice vol. II , which shows a series of concave Byzantine capitals, one of which (no. 13, from San Marco) has naturalistic carving ‘treated in a manner which shows the mind of the workman to have been among the living herbage’. However, a more rigidly controlled format is introduced at the Museum Building: the carving is grafted onto a strictly symmetry layout on each side of the capital, comprising a single design mirrored eight times in the round. This was quite unlike the foliage illustrated by Ruskin in The Stones of Venice, many of which, he commented, have ‘no two sides alike’.
The Return to Nature
The O’Sheas’ approach to carving at the Museum Building – i.e. of specimens symmetrically arranged on the capitals – is exactly that advocated by James K. Colling, a lecturer at the newly established Architectural Museum in Canon’s Row in Westminster: ‘Natural objects geometrically disposed might be made to produce for us a system of ornamentation copious, original, and beautiful.’
Founded in the early 1850s by Gilbert Scott in collaboration with several key figures, including Ruskin, the Museum advocated a revival of the best Gothic sculpture of the high and late Middle Ages. Such a training ground had been advocated as early as 1842 and taken up by the Builder in 1845. As Brian Hanson has shown, Scott’s first-hand experience of the Cologne Bauhütte showed him the value of working from both casts of existing gothic exemplars and casts taken directly from nature, i.e. casts of leaves. While Ruskin donated casts of Venetian capitals from the Doge’s palace and ‘other places’, the majority of the casts in the museum were from English and French cathedrals.
Before its establishment Colling’s illustrated writings drew on a range of works from the larger English cathedrals and churches, with particular attention to the chapter house at Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire, the greatest English example of carving in the naturalistic style. Here was another valuable lesson that would be fully absorbed by the O’Sheas – the undercutting of the carving:
While sketching at Southwell I was particularly struck with the remarkable fidelity with which the natural foliage is imitated, and the extraordinary manner in which the whole of the carving is under-cut and made to stand out from the more solid part of the stone.
Colling reproduced engravings of drawings of both natural leaves and high Gothic ornament from his own sketchbooks, commenting that ‘It was from nature that the medieval artists obtained their abundant variety, and they often went back to the pure source for fresh inspiration.’
The origin of this naturalism in English High Gothic sculpture was French, and incorporated maple, oak, hawthorn, ranunculus and potentilla, vine, ivy and hop, carved as Nikolaus Pevsner commented, on the achievement of the Southwell chapter house, with ‘supreme skill’.
In 1848 Colling published the first volume to his practical guide on Gothic ornament, Gothic Ornaments, Being a Series of Examples of Enriched Details and Accessories of the Architecture of Great Britain drawn from Existing Authorities, the second volume of which would appear in 1850. The examples were ‘drawn sufficiently large in scale to be practically useful in facilitating the labours of the architect and artist.’
The opening of Colling’s second volume focuses on both the inheritance of botanical specimens in Gothic precursors, and outlines how architectural carvers might re-engage directly with nature.
I would suggest to those who wish to study the forms of leaves in nature, that they should make a collection of tracings of such as they may meet with, in a similar manner to the Plates given. Most leaves may be traced, after having been pressed for a short time in a book, by simply passing a pencil along the edges, while held down upon a piece of paper with the left hand. Very complicated, or delicate leaves, may be attached to the paper with a little gum water.
The advantage of having the simple forms of leaves, which can be readily referred to when designing foliage, is very great. It is, also, as well to have several varieties of each kind of leaf, with a sketch of a small branch, shewing the seeds, flowers, or any peculiarity. Colling’s work must have prepared Deane and Woodward, and other architects, to respond more positively to Ruskin’s plea in the late 1840s and early 1850s for a naturalistic approach to ornament.