April 20, 2018
In February, just before the opening of Eye on Nature: Andrew Wyeth and John Ruskin, a number of art dealers from the United Kingdom brought a selection of their holdings to the United States during Master Drawings week in New York. While examining the art, I came upon John Ruskin’s Towers of Fribourg (1856)—the drawing I’ve been looking for throughout my entire career!. I almost couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Very few really good examples of John Ruskin’s work come up for sale, and in the rare instance that it occurs, they are generally priced beyond our means. Surprisingly, this was the rare combination of a classic Ruskin drawing and an affordable price!!!
The drawing documents the town of Fribourg located on the Swiss Plateau straddling the Sarine River. Throughout his childhood Ruskin spent summers traveling with his parents on the continent, often by horse-drawn coach. He first visited Fribourg in 1835 at age 16. He visited again in 1854 and twice in July and August of 1856. Ruskin particularly admired the unspoiled medieval architecture of the town describing it as, “the only mediaeval mountain town of importance left to us; Innsbruck and such others being wholly modern, while Fribourg yet retains much of the aspect it had in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.”
Ruskin wrote at length on the importance of the proper conservation and preservation of architecture. He considered Fribourg’s pristine medieval buildings, untouched by improper restoration, an example of living history. His appreciation increased when he discovered that his idol, J.M.W. Turner had also sketched Fribourg. The view below by Turner is from the opposite side of the town as our Ruskin, but includes some of the same buildings. It is part of a sketchbook in the collection of Tate Britain, London.
The view Ruskin chose for Towers of Fribourg, (1856) shows the old city from below with the medieval defensive walls winding protectively up the slope. At the bottom is the Porte de Berne (Berne Gate) and Tour des Chates (Cats’ Tower) with the Tour Rouge (Red Tower) above. Ruskin wrote of Fribourg, “all its walls have got flexible spines, and creep up and down the precipices more in the manner of cats than walls,” an observation which is marvelously captured in our drawing.
Ruskin’s Towers of Fribourg, Switzerland will be on view in the Museum’s Pre-Raphaelite gallery through June 4, 2018.
Margaretta S. Frederick
Annette Woolard-Provine Curator of the Bancroft Collection