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Cabinet of Curio-stories – the Lost Ruskin Daguerrotypes

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Venice. The Ducal Palace South Façade. ‘Eastern Windows’ Tracery Looking Out Towards the Lagoon, c.1849–1852. Quarter-plate daguerreotype. By John Ruskin and John Hobbs (Ruskin’s valet)

I have just visited Brantwood, the Lakeland bolt-hole of Victorian giant of arts and literature, John Ruskin. Whilst I was there, I came upon this fascinating story. When Ruskin died in 1900, he was largely-forgotten figure, having suffered from bouts of mental illnesss, brought on, it’s said by a sense of powerlessness to change the industrial world and bring better conditions for the poor and the working classes. So his library, paintings, and personal effects were sold off in what amounts to a car boot sale in 1936.

Everything was laid out on the lawn at his family home, Brantwood, near Coniston, and locals were invited to make offers. All his possessions were sold that day, and have only gradually made their way back to Brantwood, which is now a museum to Ruskin’s life. Ever since then, his wonderful drawings, manuscripts, books and items of furniture have been gradually reappearing as Cumbrian people finally realise what they are, and their significance. The daguerreotypes had been owned by an elderly man who had inherited them, and who wanted to sell, having no idea they were of much value.

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John Ruskin

The Penrith auctioneers did not help much either, because they misread the label on the box as ‘Vienna’, instead of ‘Venice’, and put in a conservative estimate of £80. Imagine their surprise when two separate bidders – having spotted the possibility they could be Ruskin’s lost photographs – started to bid against each other, each desperate to have them, until the price reached a whopping £75,000. And even better, imagine the face of the elderly gentleman when he heard how much they had made!

So what is a daguerreotype?

A daguerreotype photograph is one where, because of the process, each photograph is unique. The daguerreotype was the first commercially successful process in the history of photography. It uses an iodine-sensitized silvered plate, or even a real silver plate, and mercury vapour to produce the image. It was named after the inventor, Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre. Nowadays, daguerreotypes are scarce, though some contemporary artists have re-embraced the medium today. Daguerrotypes can give very sharp and luminous images.

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The Casa d’Oro, Venice by Ruskin

Sources:

BBC News  The Telegraph Brantwood, Coniston

Quotations by Ruskin:

‘Fit yourself for the best society, and then, never enter it.’

‘Quality is never an accident. It is always the result of intelligent effort.’

‘There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey.’

Pictures from Wikipedia and The Telegraph.