Fesole Papers, 3

Further below is another short excerpt from the article, “The Fesole Club Papers,” transcribed from the Vol. II, No. 1 edition of the Parents Review, published in 1891. Before we get to that we need to introduce a man who was enormously influential in the Victorian era, elevated to almost iconic, cult-like status. His views on art, Charlotte Mason seems to have adopted for her schools and educational programmes.

There is a bit of a biography here, from whence this is an excerpt:

With a passion for geology and nature, Ruskin often engaged in minutely detailed artistic studies of feathers, shells, gems, etc., viewing his drawing as a scientific record of personally examined objects. For Ruskin, who was vigorously opposed to the English cult of art for arts sake, painting and drawing had nothing to do with ‘picture-making.’ Under Ruskin’s theoretical principles, the purpose of art was to either ‘state a true thing’ or ‘adorn a serviceable one,’ always existing as the means of knowledge. As a professor and proficient lecturer, Ruskin proffered his views on art, first as drawing teacher at the London Working Men’s College and later at Oxford, where he taught classes in drawing, painting and perspective. Ruskin, noting the importance of a practical artistic education, stated, “I think the facts which an elementary knowledge of drawing enables a man to observe and note are often as much importance to him as those which he can describe in words or calculate in numbers.”[iii] As a proponent of drawing from what one sees, Ruskin felt dubious about the benefits of teaching art history, a practice he believed enslaved the intelligence. Ruskin publicly clashed with fellow artist and professor William Dyce over the content of the art examinations at Oxford. Dyce wanted less emphasis placed on practical drawing accomplishments and more on the knowledge of art history, a view to which Ruskin obviously objected.

For Charlotte Mason, as for John Ruskin (probably because of John Ruskin), teaching art and drawing had much more to do with teaching students the skill of learning to look than it did with learning to draw well, as Ruskin explained, “whether you are drawing a piece of Greek armour, or a hawk’s beak, or a lion’s paw, you will find that the mere necessity of using the hand compels attention to circumstances which would otherwise have escaped notice, and fastens them in the memory without farther effort.”

In his lectures he sometimes places a layer of glass over works of art used to illustrate his lectures and he would draw on the glass to demonstrate his points. You could do the same with tracing paper or plastic page protectors and a china marker. Using illustrations to demonstrate points in a lecture on a visual medium such as art seems like an obvious choice to us, but in Ruskin’s day it was controversial, and, thanks to the development of cameras and picture-taking, something of a technological innovation.

And so we will continue now with the next section from The Fesole Club Papers:

I say no more now of the claim of Art as a great God-given factor in life- as when rightly used, the crown and consummation of it. There are not many who seriously deny its influence, if they do not give it the place it deserves- chiefly because it ha not always been true to its own nobility. It has allowed itself to be misunderstood and misdirected, to serve the pride and the passions of men, just like any other good gift and great institution. And even as a means of education it has not always used its privileges and fulfilled its mission. It has been too often employed in the service of vanity, to teach a mere “accomplishment,” an idle trick, by which the amusement of an odd half-hour shall be passed off as a colourable imitation of the work of genius and labour. There is no education in that, any more than in teaching dogs to dance and parrots to talk. And yet Art, when rightly directed, is educational, for it trains not only one faculty, but all the faculties together; it trains the hand and the eye, and it trains the head and the heart; it teaches us to see, and to see truly; it teaches us to think- that, science can do; but it teaches us also to admire and to love.

This kind of educational purpose- observation of what is true, and appreciation of what is admirable in Nature and in the great works of bygone times- we can now attribute to Art more surely than in former years., when, even by its best friends, it was thought to be only an ornament of life, and a pastime. For this we have to thank many earnest workers and thinkers, but above all, the great writer to whom allusion has been made, Mr. Ruskin, who, more than anyone, has taught us to know the value of ARt, its strong influence and capacity for good. In order to bring out its educational powers to the full, to put the amateur student in a way to observe with accuracy and to record legibly the appearances of Nature, and in so doing to exemplify the simple and direct aims of the great early artists of Italy, and to enter into the spirit of their work, he began, in his later years, to rewrite his teaching, and to re-arrange it in accordance with those methods with a long experience and study had shown him to be the best and truest. And because the laws he attempted to lay down were the natural and simple canons of practice, like that earliest Etruscan building, developing the powers which we all have in our possession, in solid and straightforward progress; and because his method was learnt from those Italian masters whose art centred in Fiesole, he called his book “The Laws of Fesole.”

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