As I hope you recall, my last blog left you on tenterhooks, perched on the edge of your seat, pondering the burning question: Was John Ruskin, the famous nineteenth century London art critic, pleased by the advent of the camera? Would he have been thrilled out of his tree by the miraculous technology of today’s tiny cell phone camera, which puts capturing both panoramic vistas and intricately detailed close ups into the hands of the rank amateur?
As you may have deduced (aided, perhaps, by the title of this blog) the answer is a resounding no. Cameras, Ruskin came to believe, stop us seeing. He noticed that would-be photographers were so preoccupied with their cameras, so busy twiddling and fiddling with various knobs, that they quite forgot to look at the particular bit of the universe that had inspired them in the first place. Not so with the gentle art of sketching; having selected the scene, the artist takes out her sketchbook, pencils and paper, finds a place to sit that is neither too hot nor too cold, too bright nor too shady, carefully sizes up her subject, and finally puts pencil to paper. Producing even a simple sketch requires several minutes of intense looking, and it is in the looking that the magic happens.
Ruskin became a passionate enemy of the camera and promoter of drawing—indeed, he spent four years on a campaign to get people sketching again. He wrote books, gave speeches and funded art schools that still flourish today—schools that were (at least in his day) dedicated not to drawing well, but to drawing at all. His ideal was that people should slow down and smell the coffee (which had become quite a popular drink by his time): “The really precious things are thought and sight, not pace. It does a bullet no good to go fast; and a man, if he be truly a man, no harm to go slow; for his glory is not at all in going, but in being.”
How beautiful is that—“his glory is not . . . in going, but in being”? (By “man”, of course, Ruskin and everyone else at his time, and many people today, myself included, understand “and woman.”)
Ruskin died in January, 1900—the year the chief of the Patent Office famously observed that it might as well be shut down, since everything that possibly could be invented, had been (was ever a statement as colossally and monumentally wrong as that!) I am glad, for his sake, that Ruskin wasn’t born a century later, and so was spared the frenetic acceleration of life brought about, first by the motorcar, then by the computer.So today, in honor of John Ruskin and all the many 20th century self-help gurus who have rediscovered the beauty of life in the slow lane, I invite you and your children to join me on the cool, unhurried pages of a sketchbook. And when you have produced a drawing —you’ll notice, I didn’t say “a good drawing”—whip out your cell phone, snap a photo, and save it till I’ve figured out how you’ll send it to me.