‘Quite the most precious gift’

This is what Ruskin called a set of drawings by Burne-Jones, which Ruskin included in the resources he assembled for teaching at his Oxford Drawing School. This collection was incorporated into the Ashmolean in the twentieth century and you can now explore it in digitised form as The Elements of Drawing: John Ruskin’s Teaching Collection, images and catalogues including his notes and instructions.

Ruskin’s collection reveals much about his interests and priorities in relation to art, including his ongoing preoccupation with the Gothic style in architecture and the art which was influenced by it and in turn represented it further. It also reminds us that Ruskin was also very much a ‘fan’ of the Pre-Raphaelites, whose work embodied all that he most valued and admired. These drawings, in particular, show how even a classical subject – here William Morris’s retelling of the story of Cupid and Psyche from the Metamorphoses of Apuleius – could be recast in the mould of Pre-Raphaelite preoccupations with the medieval. It could also be placed within a spectrum of subjects which ranged from the biblical to the Arthurian without appearing out of place. In this example winged Cupid, though far from angelic, is very much in the mould of Burne-Jones’s numerous angels; compare this one or this. Indeed, apart from the rather revealing state of Psyche’s clothing and her sleeping form, this picture is rather reminiscent of Christian annunciation scenes, including the one that Burne-Jones himself painted. In such scenes Burne-Jones’s medieval aesthetic, reinvented and reshaped to the needs and interests of the mid to late nineteenth century, is clearly evident.

In inspiring, encouraging and then promoting the work of the Pre-Raphaelites, Ruskin helped to make clear the lines of connection between them, and between their art and the Gothic architecture which he had described so enthusiastically. Arguably, Ruskin already belonged to a wide-ranging fandom for medieval architecture, comprising those people who studied it, wrote about it, and designed and created new buildings according to its forms and printicples. With Burne-Jones and the Pre-Raphaelites in particular, already fans of such architecture, came its development into a recognisable and distinctive form of painting.

Oh, and while we’re making connections, C. S. Lewis (a great fan of William Morris) also wrote a version of the story of Cupid and Psyche. His novel, published in the 1950s, was called Till We Have Faces.

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