Coblentz Bridge After Turner. John Ruskin (1819-1900). c. 1857 [large version]. Ink and pen on laid paper with gouache editing. 112 x 177 mm (4 3/8 x 7 inches), drawn into inscribed field 97 x 166 mm (3 7/8 x 6 1/2 inches). Provenance: Bought as Lot 180, Sotheby's, 25th November 2004, by post-auction bid. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Coblentz Bridge After Turner. John Ruskin (1819-1900). c. 1857 [small version]. Ink, gouache editing, and pen on laid paper. 112 x 180 mm (4 3/8 x 7 1/8 inches), drawn into inscribed field 53 x 81 mm (2 1/8 x 6 1/2 inches). Watermark: "JOYN[...]." Inscribed lower centre to right: "This, now—as / soon as possible / please— / send me three / more impressions / of the (inserted: sea) strands, laid down which is very nice / but I want to try cutting out a line or two in different / places. JR." Provenance: Mrs. E. M. Gordon, her executor's sale at Christie's, part of Lot 41, 8th July 1986. Both pictures bought as Lot 180, Sotheby's, 25th November 2004, with a post-auction bid. [Click on image to enlarge it.]

Commentary by Paul Crowther

The present works are the original drawings for the woodcuts reproduced as Fig. 32 (the smaller picture) and Fig. 34 (the larger picture, with added curves) in Ruskin’s book Elements of Drawing, first published in 1857. The inscription on the smaller picture is probably addressed to Miss Byfield who did the woodcuts. Apparently Ruskin intended to revise the book further for use in his teaching as Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford, but never did so. This means that it remains the most important direct statement of Ruskin’s philosophy of the theory and practice of pictorial creation.

Because of this importance, it is worth looking in detail at the significance of the two drawings for Ruskin’s text. According to him, the aim of the book is "to obtain, ..., a perfectly patient, and to the utmost of the pupils power, a delicate method of work, such as may ensure his seeing truly."1 Indeed, the most important thing, according to Ruskin, is not that one looks at visual forms in order to produce good drawing, but that through the achievement of good drawing one’s perception of nature is made all the more truthful. Simply following rules will not, in Ruskin’s terms, enable good composition or invention, but "they will often assist you to set forth what goodness may be in your work in a more telling way than you could have done otherwise" (Ruskin 164). In order to do this, Ruskin suggests that it is worth looking at how rules or laws of composition are used by the great artists. It is in this context that he uses the present works.

First for consideration is the "law of principality." He introduces it thus, "The great object of composition being always to secure unity; that is, to make out of many things one whole; the first mode in which this can be effected is, by determining that one feature shall be more important than all the rest, and that the others shall group with it in subordinate positions" (164). As an example of this, he refers us to one of Turner’s "simplest" works—the old bridge over the Mosel at Coblenz, with the town on the right, and the Ehrenbreitstein hill with fortifications on the left.

The picture which Ruskin is referring to here is presumably the watercolour of Coblentz (done in 1842), bequeathed by Mary Hanna to the Cincinatti Art Museum. However, rather than reproducing the Turner original, Ruskin offers "a rough sketch of the whole arrangement" by himself. This is Fig. 32 in the text, and—far from being a "rough sketch"—it is identical in all main compositional respects (apart from, of course, colour) to the Turner original (see Ruskin 166). Fig. 34 in Ruskin’s text involves a larger drawing after Turner’s Coblentz picture with some curved lines not found in the original (see Ruskin 175). Its significance will be discussed later.

Ruskin describes Turner’s composition in relation to the law of principality, as follows. The tower of the bridge is visually dominant, but is kept from being over-dominant by two key subordinate groups—the boats on the right, and the Ehrenbreitstein beyond. Ruskin observes that "The boats are large in mass, and more forcible in colour, but they are broken into small divisions, while the tower is simple, and therefore still leads. Ehrenbreitstein is noble in its mass, but so reduced by aerial perspective of colour that it cannot contend with the tower, which therefore holds the eye, and becomes the key of the picture" (167).

Ruskin then formulates another important compositional principle—the "law of repetition." This involves the evocation of a kind of visual "sympathy" amongst the represented objects which occurs "when one group imitates or repeats another; not in the way of balance or symmetry, but subordinately, like a far-away and broken echo of it" (167). To illustrate his point, Ruskin refers us back to the Coblentz bridge composition. The dominant tower has an echo in a smaller one to the left, and the spires of Coblentz are arranged in couples. He suggests that "The dual arrangement of these towers would have been too easily seen, were it not for the little one that pretends to make a triad of the last group on the right, but is so faint as to hardly be discernible: it just takes off the attention from the artifice..." (168). In this deflective task, the tower is assisted by the head of the mast on the boat at the far right—the mast itself being repeated at the boat’s stern. The Ehrenbreitstein appears at first to have no repetition, but Ruskin claims that it does—indeed has "almost its facsimile in the bank on which the girl is sitting" (169).

A sub-variety of the law of repetition is symmetry i.e. "the balance of parts or masses in nearly equal opposition" (Ruskin 169). In nature or the human form this is never exact, there are always some differences. These differences, indeed, the "grace and power of the human form" arise from such mediating differences (169). The balance effect is used by landscape painters to express "disciplined calmness." In terms of the Coblentz bridge "the boats on the one side of the tower and the figures on the other are set in nearly equal balance; the tower, as a central mass, uniting both" (170).

Ruskin now considers a further law—that of "continuity." It involves creating unity through "giving some orderly succession to a number of objects more or less similar. And this succession is most interesting when connected with some gradual change in the aspect or character of the objects" (Ruskin 170). In the case of the Coblentz Bridge, Ruskin thinks that it is the gradual succession of the bridge’s retiring arches which led Turner to do the picture in the first place. In effect, he sought out the ideal bridge in visual terms and found it in Coblentz.

The bridge is again used by Ruskin to illustrate a further law—that of "curvature." In his words, "it is necessary to a good composition that its continuities of object, mass, or colour, should be, if possible, in curves, rather than straight lines or angular ones" (176). He sees such continuity as especially well achieved in the Coblentz bridge’s arches, insofar as they create a curve from elements which are connected to one another.

Curvature relates also to a further law—that of "radiation." This concerns how lines or processions of objects can be united so as to form groups. Ruskin holds that there are two kinds of harmonies of line. One occurs when, moving side by side, they converge or diverge from one another in different ways, or intersect with or oppose one another. However, "the most simple and perfect connection of lines is by radiation; that is, by their all springing from one point, or closing towards it; and this harmony is often, in Nature almost always united with the other..." (180). For Ruskin, the law of radiation is especially important for compositional grouping. In the case of the Coblentz Bridge, he thinks that a system of curvature springs from the top of the tower on the bridge, extending to both left and right of the picture. These curved lines of aesthetic force (so to speak) are shown in Fig. 34.

There are a number of other compositional laws described by Ruskin. However, it is interesting to reflect finally on the theoretical status of the points made by Ruskin. Are they anything more than stipulations based on his own compositional preferences? The answer is yes. In fact, they have a much broader validity. This can be shown by developing Ruskin’s point that the "grace and power of the human form" is based on difference and slight variation between otherwise symmetrical structures. The body’s unity as a space-occupying structure involves not only symmetries between the left- and right-hand limbs and organs, but also a sense of difference and particularity concerning these. As living organs and limbs they cannot have absolute identity, and as rational beings we recognize this. Such knowledge and its ramifications—such as favouring one hand over the other—is an essential feature of human cognition. It is how the body dwells in the world—its very axis of orientation.

However, we do not simply occupy a portion of space, we move through it as well. And the way we move through it is complex. For example, when it comes to negotiating the physical environment our orientation tends to be based on operational efficiency. Our very perception of space and its contents is organized in terms of getting jobs done, rather than a discovery of space traversal that harmonizes with the body’s own axis of orientation. But can there ever be such a harmonious traversal?

Yes. Ruskin shows us a glimpse of it. By studying the structures that Turner recognized intuitively in the Coblentz Bridge, we learn how to look at our physical setting so as to find features that harmonize with the body’s axis of orientation. The physical terrain of Coblentz gives up such possibilities when we consider it under the right visual aspects, such as the ones shown by Turner, and reflected upon by Ruskin. What is at issue here is a general possibility. Drawing can satisfy the gaze for its own sake rather than for informational purposes alone. To do so requires selectivity, a selectivity that, through drawing, identifies visual aspects suggestive of virtual motor analogues to the body’s own axis of orientation, i.e., spatial features that attracts us to explore them, because of their harmony with this axis. There is basic structure here—unity and symmetry—but mediated by particularities and variations that declare it in visually interesting ways.

Familiarity with Ruskin’s laws of drawing helps in the selection of relevant aspects. They allow us to identify (and thence create) visual scenes where the body can feel at home with itself as both a thing in space, and as a mover through it. The pictorial composition presents, in virtual terms, a pleasurably inhabitable perceptual space.

You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art and the National Gallery of Slovenia and the Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, Galway (2) and link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.


1. There are many editions of Ruskin’s book. In scholarly discussions of his work [it] is customary to use the "Library Edition." In that edition, the present reference is—The Elements of Drawing, The Elements of Perspective, and The Laws of Fesole: Library Edition, vol. 15 of E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds., The Works of John Ruskin, London: George Allen, 1904, p. 13.

Related material


Crowther, Paul. Awakening Beauty: The Crowther-Oblak Collection of Victorian Art. Exhibition catalogue. Ljubljana: National Gallery of Slovenia; Galway: Moore Institute, National University of Ireland, 2014. No. 116 and 117.

Ruskin, John. The Elements of Drawing, The Elements of Perspective, and The Laws of Fesole: Library Edition, vol. 15. of E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, eds., The Works of John Ruskin. London: George Allen, 1904.

Ruskin's drawings

Created 08 January 2015