Cabinet Containing Minerals, Casts and Numismatics

Numismatics included historic coins and electrotypes of Greek coins in the collection of the British Museum.
Ruskin on Coins

Coin collecting is one of Ruskin’s lesser known interests, and is one that emerged later in life. He was interested in their appearance, history and symbolism, rather than their material value. This meant that he was content to collect casts when the actual coins could not be obtained. The casts also allowed him to see both sides at once, making artistic judgements easier to reach.

Ruskin wrote about ancient Greek coins in his series of lectures Aratra Pentelici (1870). He found that 'metal stamped with precision, as in coins, is to sculpture what engraving is to painting’ (Works, 20, p. 312), meaning that though not unique they had the beauty of something finished by hand. Ruskin adds elsewhere that 'The character of coinages is quite conclusive evidence in national history, and there is no great empire in progress, but tells its story in beautiful coins' (Works, 33, p. 442).

The coin collection Ruskin gave to Sheffield includes over 200 electrotypes of Greek coins cast from the British Museum collection. There are also a smaller number of original Ancient Greek coins.

Ruskin gave a number of silver and gold British coins to the collection, dating from a coin of William the Conqueror, through various Medieval kings, to Henry VIII and Elizabeth I. In addition, there is an diverse mixture of English and European coins, medals and seals from the 1700s and 1800s.

Ruskin started a catalogue about this collection of English Coins at Sheffield, but never finished it. Explaining his gift of the coins, he wrote, ‘I intend that at Sheffield there shall always be struck—the good workmen of Sheffield willing it so—a penny with their King’s or Queen’s head on it, besides that already determined for the St George’s Guild.’ (Works, 30, p. 269). Here, he is referring to a ‘school of metalwork’ that he intended to found at Sheffield. He hoped the workers would be inspired by the Collection in designing a new currency for the Guild members, but also that real currency itself would be produced in Sheffield as a city of great metalworkers.

Ruskin on Minerals

Ruskin used mineral specimens to encourage students to take an interest in the beauty and complexity of the natural world.

His interest in geology began in early childhood. It was encouraged by his father, who returned one day from the Lake District with a large collection of minerals purchased from a Lakeland geologist.

In Deucalion (1875-83), the work that Ruskin devoted to geology, he dwells on the unrivalled influence that his first box of minerals had on the rest of his life.

A biographer of Ruskin, Tim Hilton, records that he 'began a mineralogical dictionary at the age of twelve' (The Early Years, p. 17). Hilton reflects that 'Ruskin valued his stones first of all for their visual particularity', that 'They appealed to that love of detail which was so marked a feature of his visual sense'.

Apart from inspiring a close method of drawing, these geological interests prompted appreciation of the architecture of Venice, amongst whose stones he found an 'incrusted' style of decoration (Works, 9, p. 323).

A colourful description of the Museum's mineral collection is contained in an article from 1879 in the Magazine of Art:

'The contents of the museum may be divided into precious stones, pictures, and books. The minerals are, indeed, a choice collection. Many of them were collected by Mr. Ruskin.

Note, I beg of you, that magnificent specimen of crystal topaz from the Ural Mountains. It is nine or ten inches long, and is one of the biggest pieces of topaz it is the lot of the ordinary Englishman to see. There is a grand group of amethysts, along with a specimen of the same stone cut in two to show the sections. Here is a piece of emerald in quartzite; there fine and large specimens of pure crystal. That is a precious beryl. Notice these specimens of translucent or chalcedonic agate, with defined bands; of opaque or jasperine agate; these agates of various classes; that piece of chalcedony [...] together with examples o quartz, emerald, opal, ruby, silver, and virgin gold. Very beautiful are these minerals. They are an artist's ideal of colour, the process of burnishing having brought out their delicate tints in the richest profusion.' (Magazine of Art, III, December 1879, pp. 57-60).

About the Mineral Cabinet

The same article notes that 'stones are placed upon such silken texture as is best suited to being out their delicate lustre' . The same writer notes 'an attention to minute detail [...] in all the arrangements of the room' (p. 58).

The thinking behind this 'attention to detail' is recorded in Ruskin's letters to Henry Swan from this period. One letter, sent on 6 May 1876, includes a sketch for a proposed mineral cabinet, complete with measurements. He writes that the cabinet will contain four compartments, and that each compartment will contain nine drawers, with inside measurements of 3 ft long by 1.6 wide.

In a letter of Fors Clavigera from the same year, Ruskin reports having used the Guild's money to order 'a mineral cabinet for the Museum at Sheffield, in which the minerals are to rest, each in its own little cell, on purple, or otherwise fittingly coloured, velvet of the best.' (Works, 28, p. 702).

Furniture and Accessibility

Ruskin was keen that the objects stored in the Museum's furniture should be readily accessible. In 1885, he wrote to the curator, Henry Swan, asking him to ensure that catalogues were available for perusal and that drawers were kept open so that students could study the contents (2 July 1875).

Ruskin also indicated that students might need to earn the right to certain kinds of access. In his 1876 report on the purchase of the mineral cabinet, Ruskin explains of the minerals that 'Permission to handle and examine them at ease will be eventually given, as a moral and mineralogical prize, to the men who attain a certain proficiency in the two sciences of Mineralogy and Behaviour' (Works, 28, p. 702.

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