The Stones of John Ruskin

Karen Eve Johnson, Nicholas Olsberg and John Ruskin

Ruminations on the collection of siliceous minerals

What follows is a selection from the collection of minerals given to and arranged for St. David’s School, Reigate, by John Ruskin, who prepared a full printed Catalogue of the Collection of Siliceous Minerals, dated 1883. The collection is still largely intact.

Stones were important to Ruskin’s view of architecture. Through analysing minerals he developed an appreciation of the profusion of nature as a model for design and as a fund of forms, while rocks – in their polychromy, their acceptance of age, and their bringing of independent characteristics into sympathetic combination – suggested the moral and aesthetic effects of a natural architecture.

‘It is seldom,’

he said,

‘that any mineral crystallises alone. Usually two or three, under quite different crystalline laws, form together. They do this absolutely without flaw or fault, when they are in fine temper… two or more minerals of different natures will agree, somehow, how much space each will want: agree which of them shall give way to the other at their junction; or in what measure each will accommodate it to the other’s shape!’

The texts shown here are the original display labels excerpted from Ruskin’s Catalogue.

12. Jasperine agate, in perfect brecciation. A small slice off the best piece I have in my own collection.
79. Perfect quartz crystal, showing its mode of growth, by the accident of a pause when it had got half way, during which the surface of the then existent crystal was covered with mossy chlorite; all the planes in this specimen are genuine, none polished, and the example is extremely rare and good. It is most singular that no mineralogist of any country on earth has ever brought up a school of miners, to take care of a good crystal when they had got it ! This example has originally been as perfect as anything could be and has been only spoiled, as single crystals always are, by the miner’s throwing it into his bag with other stones, and hanging them about at his leisure.
46. Acicular passing into jasper. What I mean by acicular agate, you will see by looking at it with a lens, but I don’t in the least know how it came to be like that. I was always afraid of breaking the specimen, but think that a thin slice might be taken off the flat surface, which though broken, would be very marvelous under the microscope.
18. Flint chalcedony, perfectly pure, enclosing sponge changed into yellow jasper: frequent on the south coast, but this is a very beautiful specimen. It is part of a rolled pebble; see next number.
13. Fawn coloured flint, becoming chalcedonic on inner surface. The outer surface, to me, is inscrutable: the smaller and porous parts showing every state of incipient chalcedony.
60. Pure scarlet jasper, with lateral yellow zones, entirely representative of the stone in is finest condition, and ordinary flammeate structure. Its scarlet colour under these conditions has through many ages maintained its position as the real representative of that colour among gems, connected always in the minds of the ancients with more translucent types of the same colour in the chalcedony, which we now call carnelian, but they, ‘Sardius’: whence in Apocalypse, with the intention of describing the most beautiful colour of the immortal body, “He that sat was to look upon like a jasper and a sardine stone.”
30. Chrysoprase. A condition of silica, intermediate between flint and chalcedony, but varying in colour from white to green; dull in fracture, as the broken piece will show, better than the old surface; and never throwing itself into globular of stalactitic forms. It is found, I believe, only at one place in Europe, Frankenstein in Silesia, and is extremely respected by me because it is found nowhere in America. It is the most valuable form of silica except opal; but it is properly connected with flint and chalcedony, opal forming an entirely distinct family of minerals.
63. Fine white quartz, partly forming a vein, partly disseminated through a black rock, I believe an indurated slate,–the quartz forming find sugary crystals at its surface, and set with small crystals of sulphuret of iron and calcite. One of these calcite crystals (all of which are excellent examples of the most characteristic form of calcite, an hexagonal prism terminated by trigonal pyramids, which are set the opposite way at each end), is farther interesting from having got hold of crystal iron, and swallowed it all up, all to itself; while another at the edge of the specimen seems to have taken three or four, like pills.

From The Stones of John Ruskin as performed by Nicholas Olsberg from a script by Karen Eve Johnson.

The formation of stones is indeed a curious business. A stone can be seen a mountain in miniature; and the surface of any stone is more interesting, richer in colour, more splendid in form than any ordinary hill. Nature in this way finds in a piece of stone merely two feet in diameter the chance to express all of her majestic varieties of form, and shape, and colour, and ornament, and fracture that she needs to build her great mountains.

Nature also draws herself on a rock… using moss for a forest or crystal edges to show crags. Here I sought to draw nature in a rock. To draw landscapes truly one needs to see the surface and what lies beneath the surface. Here in this rather wonderful drawing, which has been much admired, I sought to draw the shape, the surface, and the soul of the rock.

John Ruskin (1819–1900), study of Gneiss Rock, Glenfinlas, c.1853–1854. Lampblack, bodycolour and pen and ink over graphite on wover paper, with some scratching out. Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.