One of Ruskin's major works was a multi-volume tome called Modern Painters, a book which has oddly enough received a bit of attention in the art and science blogosphere recently (see here and here). Ruskin is one of those figures I find particularly challenging to deal with: on one hand, he had a major influence and is still studied today. On the other, he was one of those 19th Century intellects who held firm against Darwin's revolution of thought, agonizing over humanity's demotion to the realm of "lesser animals."
Modern Painters is largely a defense of the painter J.M.W. Turner, and here is where we come to Ruskin's writing on the saurian beasts that so captured the imagination of England in the Victorian era. In a paper published by Prose Studies in 2008, Ruskin's Rewriting of Darwin, Andrew Leng proposes that Modern Painters V, published in 1860, is in fact the very first serious response to The Origin of Species, mirroring its "tree of life" motif. In the book's conclusion, which Leng calls "a paleontological apocalypse which dramatizes the triumph of the protean dragon," Ruskin brings all of his verbal weapons to bear as he bemoans the further defilement of the human spirit (and, by extention, the arts): first by the dehumanizing industrial revolution, now by Darwinian evolution. "Ruskin’s remorseless campaign against Darwin’s presiding emblem," Leng writes, "indicates his realization that The Origin had appropriated the almost universal symbol of the sacred tree of life, thereby investing the theory of natural selection with talismanic authority."
The dinosaurs whose existence was just now being revealed by the infant science of paleontology were seen by many as symbols of British power. Ruskin, however, saw this as a terrible irony; these dinosaurs were the great dragons of ancient times, symbols of avarice. In Turner's 1806 painting "The Goddess of Discord Choosing the Apple of Contention in the Garden of the Hesperides," the artist depicts the dragon guarding the titular garden in a way that, to Ruskin's eye, is nothing less than a premonition of Hawkins' Crystal Palace Iguanodon.
Here's Turner's original, from Wikipedia. You can hardly make out the beast at the pinnacle in the center of the image.
Luckily, Ruskin commissioned a detail engraving for his book.
"There is something very wonderful, it seems to me, in this anticipation, by Turner, of the grandest reaches of recent inquiry into the form of the dragons of the old earth. I do not know at what period the first hints were given of the existence of their remains; but certainly no definite statements of their probable forms were given either by Buckland, Owen, or Conybeare before 1815; yet this saurian of Turner's is very nearly an exact counterpart of the model of the Iguanodon, now the guardian of the Hesperian Gardens of the Crystal Palace, wings only excepted, which are, here, almost accurately, those of a pterodactyle. The instinctive grasp which the healthy imagination takes of possible truth, even in its wildest flights, was never more marvellously demonstrated."Having established Turner has a modern master; Ruskin was now imbuing him with the power of prophecy. I'm not sure that "healthy" human imagination has an "instinctive grasp" on any truths. If it does, however, Ruskin would be better served by another example. The Crystal Palace Iguanodon was doomed for obsolence less than thirty years after it was unveiled, when Louis Dollo's studies of the bounty of new fossils discovered atBernissart overturned scientific understanding of the animal.