17 August, 2006

84. The sun's drawings

John Ruskin wrote to his father in 1845, "I have been standing (but the moment before I began this letter) on the steps at the door – the water is not even plashing in the moonlight, there is not even a star twinkling, it is as still as if Venice were beneath the sea, but beautiful beyond all thought."

By his third visit to the city Ruskin could see deterioration in the fabric of the buildings, and he feared that most of their glorious details would soon be no more. He deplored the new enthusiasm for scraping centuries of grime ("the patina of the ages") from the marble facades, and he judged other renovations he saw as mostly disastrous.

As a result, his drawing style changed. Only a few years before, he had enjoyed making loose sketches, like his hero, Turner. Now he was frantic to record everything he saw before it disappeared, starting at 5:30 in the morning, drawing architectural details as accurately as he could and making copious notes all day until there was no light left.

Before he had recently left Oxford University, Ruskin had been told about the experiments of Louis Daguerre, the inventor of the 'daguerrotype' process, an early form of photography, and he had seen some of the first examples sent to England of what he called "the sun's drawings" .

However, as he said in 'The Stones of Venice', "Wholly careless at that time of finished detail, I saw nothing in the Daguerrotype to help, or alarm me; and inquired no more concerning it, until now at Venice I found a French artist producing exquisitely bright small plates (about four inches square) which contained, under a lens, the Grand Canal or St. Mark's Place as if a magician had reduced the reality to be carried away into an enchanted land. The little gems of picture cost a napoleon each; but with two hundred francs I bought the Grand Canal from the Salute to Rialto; and packed it away in thoughtless triumph."

And in his letters home about this new-fangled photo-graphing (light-drawing), he said "It is very nearly the same thing as carrying off the palace itself – every chip of stone and stain is there – and of course, there is no mistake about proportions."

Ruskin left us hundreds of excellent drawings of the 'stones of Venice', but he doesn't seem to have ever considered learning the difficult process of how to make daguerrotypes for himself instead.

I wonder what he would have given for one of today's point-and-shoot digital 'sun-drawing' machines?


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