Jul 18 2019

North American admirers of Ruskin seek to fund donation of rare bronze portrait of Ruskin to Brantwood

July 18th 2019

I first encountered John Ruskin thanks to Gabriel Meyer. Fifteen years ago Gabriel had read at our gallery in West Hollywood from his book documenting the tragic conditions in Sudan. We remained friends, and when he became the President of the Ruskin Art Club he invited me to come to a lecture-- intrigued, my  wife Beverly and I joined the lively, thoughtful group.   Gabriel is a riveting speaker, a compelling personality—no less, I now imagine, than Ruskin himself. 

The Club gave notice last year  of a May, 2019 focused Ruskin tour organized by Nicholas Friend, art historian and founder of the academic tour company Inscape. A small group was to meet first in Oxford, and from there travel intellectually and literally in Ruskin’s glowing wake……We accepted this invitation and arrived as directed on May 10 for a marvellous lunch at the Randolph Hotel directly across from the Ashmolean Museum; there, soon after lunch, Keeper Colin Harrison presented Ruskin watercolors and Ruskin’s Turners with a dazzling scholarly narrative…….!  

This auspicious start was followed by seven packed days of visits, lectures, breakfast, lunch and dinner together with ten others.  Our tour included Birmingham and its Pre-Raphaelite collection, the Wyre Forest, Ruskin Land, and Unclly’s Farm (with a memorable home-cooked venison lunch!)   Then on to Lancaster University’s architecturally outstanding Ruskin Library. Off to the Lake District, Grasmere and Dove Cottage, Wordsworth’s home and museum—and "miracolo dei miracoli”—the finest weather ever experienced in that notoriously inclement region.  

The highlight of the tour without question was a two day visit to Ruskin’s glorious Brantwood residence overlooking the lake, its multicolored rhododendrons towering above us. We enjoyed  lectures by a ceramicist, by Howard Hull, charismatic Director of Brantwood; a tea ceremony, and thoughts on the importance of Ruskin in Japan—e.g., which came first, “wabi-sabi” or Ruskin’s dictum, "Accept this then for a universal law, that no noble work of man can be good unless it be imperfect.”  From Grasmere to Sheffield, and finally to Manchester and the John Rylands Library.

All of this was prelude to an incredible opportunity to say "thank you" to John Ruskin in a unique and personal way.

I am a private art dealer, and just before leaving for England a rare 1903 bronze portrait of “Seated Ruskin" by Gutzon Borglum came to my attention from a New York gallery (more details below).  In the course of visits to museums and conversations with scholars close to Ruskin, it appeared that not only did no example of this rare sculptural portrait reside in the United Kingdom, but also not a single scholar was aware of its existence! 

One of the only depictions of John Ruskin by any American artist, I thought how wonderful if we could arrange to acquire this work for Brantwood as a gift.  With this in mind, I negotiated the purchase price down to $9,000, including shipping to Coniston, an amazing price--Borglum’s portrait head of Abraham Lincoln (only slightly larger) is for sale at $85,000!   

Director Hull gave his blessing and agreement that, if the funds were raised to acquire the bronze for Brantwood, it would likely reside on the center table in front of the fireplace flanked by the very chair in which Ruskin sat for Borglum’s sketches  executed in 1897, a chair in which I too had rested a moment in contemplation.  There could be no more appropriate setting in all of the United Kingdom!

Dr. Gabriel Meyer and the Board of the Ruskin Art Club of Los Angeles endorsed our campaign with the promise to poll members of the Club. My wife and I initiated the effort by donating $900—the 10% deposit needed to reserve the piece while the balance is raised, due in full by the end of July.  As of July 4, with the participation of generous members of our little tour group, we are only $5,800 away from the total needed for this historic gift.

This journey galvanized values I have always held, and inspires me to read further and frequently in Ruskin’s works!  If I can play a small role in thanking Mr. Ruskin for his great heart and mind by placing in his honor a majestic American bronze portrait by one of America’s greatest artists at Brantwood, this journey will also have been an entirely memorable exercise of sensibility culminating in a Good Work!

Stuart Denenberg

West Hollywood, California

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GUTZON BORGLUM  (American 1867-1941)

Ruskin Seated

Cast patinated bronze, 14 1/2 x 8 1/4 x 14 1/2 inches

Signed: "Gutzon Borglum/1903"

Marked: "Roman Bronze Works N.Y" (on self base), “RUSKIN" (front of self base)

Gutzon Borglum, famed American sculptor of the Mt. Rushmore Memorial, met John Ruskin at Brantwood around 1896-97 where, over the course of a few days, he developed several sketches. Relying upon these, Borglum completed a seated bronze portrait in 1903 that the sitter did not live to see.

Reminiscent of Tolstoy’s unstinting praise, Borglum called Ruskin "the greatest unappreciated creative genius the world has ever known.” The bronze portrait emphasize powerfully expressive hands and flowing beard and hair, Ruskin wrapped in a voluminous blanket which, while it hides a frail body, gives the work a monumental, even majestic presence.  Borglum knew that his subject was being lionized on both sides of the Atlantic, and he rushed to complete this powerful depiction in time for the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition. There the Metropolitan Museum, New York, made its acquisition, only its second such purchase of a contemporary bronze.

Provenance: Private collection, Stonybrook, NY.

Exhibited: Rodin and America: Influence and Adaptation 1876 – 1936 at the Iris & Gerald B. Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University October 2011 – January 2012 (this cast)

Reference: Rodin and America: Influence and Adaptation 1876 – 1936 , Editor – Bernard Barryte and author Antoinette Lenormand-Romain – illustrated