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Drawn From Life: The Ruskin Diaries, 1949-53

by Steve Hurst

Drawn From Life was published in 2022. Read more about the book.

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“Drawing is a means of seeing,” wrote John Ruskin, and in 1871 this most eminent of Victorians established his School of Drawing at the University of Oxford and housed it in the world’s oldest university museum, the Ashmolean. In October 1949, the young Steve Hurst first pushed his way through its grand entrance doors and began his formal education as an artist.

Based on his diaries, Drawn From Life is Hurst’s account of his time studying at the Ruskin and illustrates how much the world – and not only of art – has changed since the days immediately after the Second World War. As he began learning the rudiments of drawing in the dark, wintry cast galleries of the Ashmolean in the days before the museum was open to the general public, he was also working against the backdrop of a soot-blackened Oxford in an austerity Britain which could be forgiven for wondering if it had truly won the war. Rationing was still in place, the physical scars of conflict were still evident in all the cities, and in many people, and, further afield, the empire was crumbling. Glimmers of approaching social change were evident under a socialist government after the ‘khaki election’ of 1945, but optimism was in short supply.

At a university still containing many older students who had served in (and in some cases been damaged by) the war, Hurst was also straddling different worlds as he attempted to balance life as a village lad from Sandford on Thames on the edge of Oxford with that of a fledgling artist at the Ruskin, at that time an eccentric atelier-style art school, both part of and discrete from its own university, Hurst’s arrival also coincided with that of a new Master, Percy Horton, who was attempting to shed the School’s reputation as a haven for dilettantes.

As Hurst found himself on the literal margins of both Town and Gown, the young man also had to cope with a splintered home life. With his father based in Cairo and his mother suffering a breakdown and spending time in the local Warneford Hospital, he was left to manage as best he could. Also, looming ahead of him was national service at a time when British troops were still actively engaged in Korea, Malaya and the Middle East.

At this time an art education was not notably formal, but during this period Hurst encountered many guest lecturers who included some of the most notable British artists of the period, including John Piper, Laura Knight, Enid Marx, the tragic John Minton, and Evelyn Dunbar. Hurst was combining art lessons in the Life Room with life lessons working on local building sites, rubbing shoulders with both the jeuness d’oree of the University and the working folk of Oxford.

Drawn From Life captures the fascination and frustration of craft and creation, and the will to achieve the capacity to grasp the elements that enable a young artist to forge a life in art. The book is both a personal and social history; a pen portrait of a world in flux, which aims to “glue a few missing pages into the immense book of art history.” In essence, this book tracks the development of a young artist learning to make sense of a the bruised world around him, and, literally, learning to see.

HB, 354pp, 2022

Click here to find out more about the author Steve Hurst.