That my gardening on the plot is no longer a war against weeds and weather, that I am aware of the bramble roses in full flush and the song of linnets and blackbirds, that I can glory in the gorgeous grass of a thousand species, now waist-high, I owe to John Ruskin, who taught me how to look. He taught me to see the beauty of simple things, to gaze upon moss through a magnifying glass, to stop and stare at a sycamore leaf in a puddle, to draw these things for no reason other than as an exercise in seeing.
It had not occurred to me to wonder when he learnt the lesson of Nature himself, but after a stint planting peas and beans yesterday, I sat down to read in Praeterita, his autobiography, and came to the passage where he describes his own waking up. He was an opinionated, quite possibly insufferable, young man of twenty-two who had toured Italy in his study of art and was about to go up to Oxford. But after a sudden meeting with a piece of ivy, he starts to become John Ruskin. I can’t do it justice. Here are the words of the man himself.
I rejoiced in the sight of the [Turner] sketches, and the hope of the drawings that were to be. … I saw that these sketches were straight impressions from nature — not artificial designs like the Carthages and Romes. And it began to occur to me that perhaps even in the artifice of Turner there might be more truth than I had understood. I was by this time very learned in his principles of composition; but it seemed to me that in these later subjects Nature herself was composing with him.
Considering these matters, one day on the road to Norwood, I noticed a bit of ivy round a thorn stem, which seemed, even to my critical judgement, not ill ‘composed’; and proceeded to make a light and shade pencil study of it in my grey paper pocket-book carefully, as if it had been a bit of sculpture, liking it more and more as I drew. When it was done, I saw that I had virtually lost all my time since I was twelve years old, because no one had ever told me to draw what was really there! All my time, I mean, given to drawing as an art; of course I had the records of places, but had never seen the beauty of anything, not even of a stone – how much less of a leaf!
I was neither so crushed nor so elated by the discovery as I ought to have been, but it ended the chrysalid days. Praeterita iv.73
A couple of days later he went up to Oxford for his degree but fails to mention it in his diary.