Ruskin visited Bellinzona from 12 June to the 8 July 1858, when the present drawing was executed. From Bellinzona Ruskin drove to the head of the lake, and took the steamer for Baveno and the Isola Bella, from where on the 8 July Ruskin wrote to his father about the execution of the present drawing '... I went every evening to draw his [the priest's] garden; and where, by the steps cut in its rock, and the winding paths round it, and the vines hanging over it, and the little patch of golden corn at the bottom of it, and the white lily growing on a rock in the midst of it, and the white church tower holding the dark bells over it, and the deep purple mountains encompassing it, I got so frightfully and hopelessly beaten. It was partly the priest's fault too, for he cut down the lily to present to the Madonna one festa day-not knowing that it was just at the heart of my subject-and a day or two afterwards he cut his corn ... which took away all my gold as before he had taken all my silver, and so discouraged me.' (Cook and Wedderburn op.cit., vol. VII, p. xxxvi).
After crossing the Alps in 1845 Ruskin was unimpressed with Bellinzona, but he was subsequently won over by the charm of the place and in his first selection of a hundred watercolours from the Turner Bequest, he selected, with a view to demonstrating the value of exhibiting unfinished sketches, eight views of Bellinzona, chosen from the sample studies of 1842-3. In the accompanying catalogue he described Bellinzona as 'on the whole the most picturesque in Switzerland, being crowned by three fortesses, standing on isolated rocks of noble form, while the buildings are full of beautiful Italian character'. Arriving on 12 June 1858 Ruskin now found Bellinzona 'quite like a wonderful dream'.
However Ruskin was beset with doubts and the problem of trying to capture the whole experience of the place and for ever comparing his work in disatisfied failure with Turner's. In a letter to the painter John Frederick Lewis on 6 August 1858 he calculated that 'it would take to finish the drawing ... Fifteen years, six months & some days'. This was humorous reiteration of a genuine dilemma explained to his father '... my standard is now too high to admit of my drawing with any comfort, as least unless I gave up everything else for it'. Ruskin is still reiterating the same thought eight years later when he writes to the Reverend Moore 'I have had great difficulty in finding one that seemed fit for presentation to you. Nor can I ever conceive in anyone taking any pleasure in my imperfect work'. Such doubts can hardly be further from the modern perception of Ruskin's work. To our eyes Ruskin captures not only the beauty and grandeur of the Swiss mountains, but combines this with the charm of the specific place in the details he chooses to highlight.
The Ruskins attended the Camden Chapel where Moore was minister, and Ruskin thought highly of him. J.J. Ruskin and his wife travelled to Venice in 1851 and meeting Moore in Paris, he travelled through Switzerland with them, Ruskin thought he was a 'most agreeable companion'.
Other studies of Bellinzona are in the Abbot Hall Art Gallery, Kendal and the Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster.
We are grateful to Dr James S. Dearden for his help in preparing this catalogue entry.