John Ruskin

John Ruskin (1819–1900)

As published in The Brownings’ Correspondence, 23, 232–242.

John Ruskin, art, cultural, and social critic, was born on 8 February 1819 in London, the only child of first cousins John James Ruskin (1785–1864), a successful sherry importer, and his wife Margaret (née Cock, later Cox, 1781–1871). The young Ruskin was for the most part educated at home, 28 Herne Hill (in the London suburb of Herne Hill, just south of Camberwell), which he characterized in his autobiography as an Eden in which “all the fruit was forbidden” (Præterita, The Complete Works of John Ruskin, ed. E.T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, 39 vols., 1903–12, 35, 36). His strongly evangelical mother taught him the Bible, Latin, and the names of flowers, while his father encouraged a love of art, Shakespeare, and the Romanticism of Scott and Byron. Tutors were employed for Greek and mathematics. From his father, Ruskin inherited his political compass, characterizing himself as a “violent Tory of the old school” (Præterita, Complete Works, 35, 13). Ruskin’s biographers have been much intrigued by the family dynamics, which might be described as triangular co-dependency. Until his parents died when their son was middle-aged, they directed many of his affairs—academic, romantic, professional, and religious.

Ruskin matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford, in 1836 as a “gentleman commoner,” his mother taking up residence nearby to nurse him in case of illness. In Præterita, he claimed that at Oxford he never skipped chapel and had tea at his mother’s apartment every evening (Complete Works, 35, 200). In 1839 he won the Newdigate Prize for poetry. But the following year he withdrew from university after suffering a physical collapse, possibly the result of hearing about the marriage of his first love, Adèle Clotilde Domecq, the eldest daughter of his father’s business partner. After convalescing, he returned to Oxford and graduated with minor distinction in 1842. That same year the family moved to 163 Denmark Hill (a continuation of Herne Hill and a half mile north of their previous residence), where Ruskin would write most of his principal works. Already he had become, like his father, a collector of art and a patron of artists. At age 21, he purchased his first J.M.W. Turner painting.

Ruskin’s major work of art criticism, Modern Painters (5 vols. 1843–60), began as a defense of Turner. In volume one the author claimed that Turner’s landscapes and seascapes were not only aesthetically superior to those of other painters, they were morally superior, because factually truer in regard to light and color. While conducting research in Venice for volume two of Modern Painters (1846), Ruskin became interested in the aesthetic and moral differences in the city’s medieval and renaissance architecture. He worked out his theories in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and, more pronouncedly, in The Stones of Venice (1851–53).

On 10 April 1848 Ruskin married Euphemia (“Effie”) Chalmers Gray (1828–97) at Perth, Scotland. The marriage was not successful and ended six years later on 15 July 1854 with the granting of an annulment to Effie Ruskin on the grounds that her husband was incapable of consummating the marriage “by reason of incurable impotency” (ODNB). Ruskin later denied that he was incapable. Effie told her father, in a letter of 1854, that her husband had been “disgusted with my person the first evening” (ODNB). Speculation has led to various interpretations of that statement, none of which has been substantiated. In any case, the annulment was evidently a relief to Ruskin. In the same month it was granted, he wrote to his friend Henry Ackland, comparing himself to a man who has had a leg amputated but is “glad to get about at all knowing the misfortune to have been in the corruption—not in the amputation” (Sublime & Instructive: Letters from John Ruskin, ed. Virginia Surtees, 1972, p. xi). He declared that he had other “real griefs” to concern him: “I could get another wife, if I wanted one, but I cannot get back the north transept of Rouen Cathedral” (p. xi). About a year after the annulment, Effie married the painter John Everett Millais (1829–96), who had fallen in love with her when he and the Ruskins spent a holiday together in Scotland in the summer of 1853. Her first bridegroom celebrated her second wedding day by inviting the Carlyles to dinner, where he professed himself “happy without her” (Ellen Twisleton to Mary Parkman, 8 February 1856, ms at Harvard).

When the Royal Academy submissions of Pre-Raphaelites Millais and William Holman Hunt were severely criticized in The Times of 3 May 1851 for “ugliness and conceit” (p. 8), Ruskin came to their defense with letters in the issues of 13 and 30 May 1851. Although he himself found much to wish away in their paintings, he concluded in his 30 May letter that the Pre-Raphaelites might, “as they gain experience, lay in our England the foundations of a school of art nobler than the world has seen for 300 years” (p. 8). This was the beginning of Ruskin’s association with several members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. A letter from Hunt and Millais to Ruskin thanking him for his words of support in The Times led to a meeting. Ruskin took Millais under his wing and the two men spent much time together, including the aforementioned sojourn in Scotland. While there, Millais began working on the well-known portrait of Ruskin standing beside a waterfall, though not long after its completion in early 1854 their friendship ended for obvious reasons. Ruskin then became a patron of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal (see the biographical sketch of Rossetti in this volume). Lastly, he cultivated a relationship with Edward Burne-Jones (1833–98), who, while not an original member of the Brotherhood, was certainly a disciple. He greatly admired Ruskin and his works; and the two men formed an intimate friendship. In 1861 Ruskin became godfather to the Burne-Joneses’ son. Both Rossetti and Burne-Jones taught art at the Working Men’s College in London, having been encouraged to do so by Ruskin, who conducted a class in drawing there from 1854 to 1858 and for part of 1860.

With the publication of the last volume of Modern Painters in 1860, Ruskin’s writings became chiefly focused on problems facing society. Although his first work in this regard may be said to have been The Political Economy of Art (1857), it only touched on the social issues that were much more deeply explored in “Unto this Last”: Four Essays on the First Principle of Political Economy (1862). When it ran as four monthly instalments in The Cornhill Magazine (August–November 1860), it was widely denounced for its economics and its socialistic approaches to education and employment, approaches that are now taken for granted in most Western countries. George Murray Smith (1824–1904), publisher of the Cornhill and Ruskin’s publisher as well, recalled bringing the series to a halt: “These articles are valuable for their literary grace, but as to their scientific merit the world has long ago made up its mind. After several of the articles had made their appearance in ‘the Cornhill’, it was thought prudent to publish no more. Mr. Thackeray applied to these articles epithets which my pen refuses to record” (“Recollections,” chap. VIII, ms at Scotland). Throughout the 1860’s Ruskin wrote prolifically on social issues. His “Essays on Political Economy,” published in Fraser’s Magazine (1862–63) was a sequel to Unto this Last (the essays were re-issued as Munera Pulveris in 1872). Sesame and Lilies (1865) compares and contrasts the aptitudes and duties of the sexes. The Crown of Wild Olive (1865–66) emphasizes the rewards of meaningful work. The Queen of the Air (1869) uses the myth of Athena to explain creativity, art, healing, and the natural world.

Ruskin’s change of writing focus from art criticism to social criticism coincided with the crisis of faith that led to his breaking away from the Protestantism of his mother and to a permanent disillusionment with organized religion. He discussed the circumstances of this experience in Fors Clavigera (Letter 76, April 1877): “I was still in the bonds of my old Evangelical faith; and, in 1858, it was with me, Protestantism or nothing: the crisis of the whole turn of my thoughts being one Sunday morning, at Turin, when, from before Paul Veronese’s Queen of Sheba, and under quite overwhelmed sense of his God-given power, I went away to a Waldensian chapel, where a little squeaking idiot was preaching to an audience of seventeen old women and three louts. … I came out of the chapel … a conclusively un-converted man … ‘Here is an end to my “Mother-Law” of Protestantism anyhow!— and now—what is there left?’ You will find what was left, as, in much darkness and sorrow of heart I gathered it, variously taught in my books, written between 1858 and 1874” (Complete Works, 29, 89–90).

In the same year he was “un-converted,” Ruskin met a ten-year-old girl named Rose La Touche (1848–75), youngest daughter of John La Touche and his wife, Maria (née Price). Mrs. La Touche had asked Ruskin to give her two daughters art instruction. Rose fascinated him, and sometime within the next few years he fell in love with her, proposing marriage when she was eighteen and he nearly 47. She asked him to wait three years for her answer, when she would be of legal age and able to decide for herself. Her parents opposed the match, and their resolve was strengthened by advice from Ruskin’s ex-wife, Effie Millais. Her testimony had a dampening effect on Rose as well. Further proposals met with further rejections. Meanwhile, Rose was suffering from some undefined illness, possibly anorexia nervosa. Ruskin saw her for the last time in February 1875, and she died that May. The impact of her death on Ruskin’s mental balance, though not immediately apparent, was deep and long-lasting.

Ruskin was elected first Slade professor of fine art at Oxford in 1869, a position he held until 1878, and then again from 1883 to 1885. He lectured on a wide range of topics, from geology to modern painters, from natural science to Tuscan art. Most of the lectures were eventually published. During his tenure at Oxford, he began issuing the pamphlets entitled Fors Clavigera. Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain. In these “letters,” which ran monthly from January 1871 to March 1878, then sporadically from 1880 to 1884, Ruskin explained his basis of a utopia. In fifteen years of thinking about political economy, he had concluded that the cause of poverty and crime was modern commercialism and that companionable labour was the antidote. Ruskin called his theory “socialism,” but in his utopia a paternalistic government, not a classless society of equal citizens, would control resources. The system would preclude rent and interest, the two means by which wealth produces more wealth without involving human labour. As a means of putting his theories into practice, in 1871 he created the St. George’s Fund (later known as the Guild of St. George), an agricultural-based, hierarchical utopia (that would include the establishment of schools and museums), with himself as a kind of feudal lord (see ODNB).

In 1871, Ruskin purchased a lease on a Lake District property called Brantwood, on the eastern shore of Coniston Water across from the town of Coniston. The next year he sold the Denmark Hill house and made Brantwood his residence, though he lived variously there, at Oxford, and at his boyhood home, 28 Herne Hill, then occupied by his Scottish cousin and his mother’s former nurse, Joan Severn (née Agnew, 1846–1924), and her husband, Arthur Severn (1842–1931), painter and son of Joseph Severn (1793–1879). Ruskin had met the father at Rome in 1840. The Severns would later live with Ruskin at Brantwood.

On 20 February 1878, Ruskin suffered the first of many mental breakdowns, the nature of which has been “characterized as either manic depression or ‘paranoid schizophrenia,’” possibly inherited from his paternal grandfather, John Thomas Ruskin (1761–1817), who died insane—evidently from his own hand (ODNB). During Ruskin’s periods of incapacitation, Mrs. Severn tended him. At long intervals he was lucid, as attested by his re-election as Slade professor in 1883 and by his continuing ability to write and lecture. In The Storm Cloud of the Nineteenth Century (1884) he fulminated against modern pollution, industrial and metaphorical. In 1885 he began the autobiographical Præterita, which was never finished. He frequently quarreled with the Severns, usually over his diminishing wealth, which they attempted to manage. In August 1889 he experienced another severe attack that left him permanently incapacitated. He wrote no more and was essentially silent for the rest of his life. Ruskin died at Brantwood of influenza on 20 January 1900. In accordance with his wishes, he was buried in Coniston churchyard.


The Brownings and John Ruskin were acquainted through their published works well before they met. In an 1841 letter, Ruskin included EBB in a list of “real” poets, whose “finest passages never can be fathomed in a minute, or in ten minutes, or exhausted in as many years” (Complete Works, 1, 443). Ruskin also read and admired some of RB’s poetry. In a letter to EBB in July 1848, Mary Russell Mitford reported that “Mr. Ruskin spoke of some vintage verses of his [RB’s] as singularly true to nature” (letter 2743). Meanwhile, the Brownings had been reading the first volume of Modern Painters. EBB pronounced it “very vivid, very graphic, full of sensibility .. but inconsequent in some of the reasoning,” and RB “could agree with him only by snatches” (letter 2744). The first meeting between RB and Ruskin occurred at the house of Coventry Patmore on 4 September 1852. Since Ruskin had hoped to see both poets, he feverishly studied Casa Guidi Windows in anticipation of talking to EBB. But, as he told his father: “only the husband came—whom, however, I liked.” Ruskin found RB surprisingly rational on the subject of Italian politics, “though on the liberal side.” Regarding EBB’s book: “His wife’s poem takes the same view, and is in most respects very noble” (see SD1604 in vol. 18).

Not long after the meeting at Patmore’s, Ruskin and his wife called on the Brownings at 58 Welbeck Street; the Brownings reciprocated by paying a visit to Denmark Hill on 13 September. Ruskin had invited them to see his and his father’s collection of watercolour drawings by Turner. In a letter to Miss Mitford the next day, EBB called the Turners “divine” and added: “I like Mr. Ruskin much, & so does Robert. Very gentle, yet earnest,—refined & truthful. … We count him one among the valuable acquaintances made this year in England” (letter 3110). Two days later, EBB wrote of the Denmark Hill excursion to Sarah Jane Cust, remarking that Ruskin “has a very gentle voice .. & I wont agree with certain of my friends who choose to call him a ‘coxcomb’. Oh—Robert does’nt– Robert likes him just as well as I do” (letter 3115).

RB’s reaction to the demise of the Ruskins’ marriage is unknown; EBB clearly took the husband’s side. She seemed lukewarm about the wife after the aforementioned meetings in 1852, calling her “pretty, natural, sprightly,” and going on to say that she was “exquisitely dressed ..that struck me .. but extraordinary beauty she has none at all, neither of feature or expression. … She loves Art, she says” (letter 3110). It would be difficult to read the last comment as anything but ironic. When the Brownings began hearing rumors of the impending breakup, EBB wrote: “As to the Ruskin mystery, if I understand at all (and it was only an awful whisper which came to us at Rome) “the woman must be .. what shall I say? ..a beast.. to speak mildly. This, at least, according to my own views of what human nature & bestial nature are severally” (letter 3428). The Brownings had evidently heard about the grounds for annulment. But other gossip reached them, some from Robert Bulwer Lytton, who, writing to RB, indicated that the marriage would have gone on in its Platonic way if the husband had refrained from “throwing her [Effie] in the way of temptation, & laying man-traps for her” (letter 3451). For a finishing touch, Lytton added: “You may fancy all the jokes on this at the London dinner tables—the stones of Venice not being spared.” Several months later, EBB still referred to Effie as a “beast” but conceded that it had been unwise of Ruskin “to select for a position of the kind [i.e., a wife in a sexless marriage] a merely pretty woman, like that” (letter 3499). EBB felt “deeply sorry” for the husband but expressed no sympathy for the wife.

Although Ruskin was impressed by some of RB’s poems, particularly those dealing with the Italian Renaissance such as “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church” (see below), he was much more drawn to EBB’s poetry. In April 1854 he wrote to Miss Mitford that his eyes were wet from reading “A Valediction,” “A Year’s Spinning,” “A Reed,” “The Dead Pan,” “A Child’s Grave at Florence,” and “Caterina to Camoëns”: “I had no conception of her power before. I can’t tell you how wonderful I think them” (see SD1730 in vol. 20). A little less than a year later Ruskin directed his compliments to EBB herself. He thanked her for “the hallowing and purifying influence” of her poems, which he said he would “bind … in a golden binding” and give to his “class of working men—as the purest & most exalting poetry in our language” (letter 3529). On 17 March 1855, EBB wrote to him of the “pleasure” his letter had given her and her husband (letter 3536). At the same time she recalled “a word dropped” by Ruskin in The Stones of Venice (a reference to EBB’s spirituality) that she “picked up & wore for a crown” (see letter 3536, note 4). The following month he wrote, “Your poems make me feel fresh again” (letter 3544). In the same letter he singled out “Caterina to Camoëns” as his favorite (it was RB’s too) and told her that he hoped to publish it as an illuminated text. A Drama of Exile, however, was second on Ruskin’s list: “I don’t say it is finer than Milton—but I like it better,” in part because Milton did not really believe in his angels, whereas EBB did believe in hers. Never hesitant to speak his mind, he advised her that she should change the opening four lines in future editions of A Drama of Exile (advice not followed). He also offered to mark her phrases that were “heavy impediments,” took issue with her use of the word “nympholeptic” in “The Lost Bower,” and admitted that at one time he had considered her poems “sickly in the tone” (letter 3544). She responded in letter 3554 that her works may have been sickly, for she herself had been, and that any recommendation from him would be “received … in all reverence.”

Ruskin was one of the first friends the Brownings saw on their return to London in the summer of 1855 (see letter 3580). However, except for two or three other occasions, they failed to meet as much as they had hoped to. The poets evidently visited Denmark Hill on 24 July (see letter 3584), and Ruskin spent an evening at the Brownings’ apartment on 6 September in the company of Adelaide Sartoris and Frederic Leighton. The month before, RB had introduced Leighton to Ruskin at Denmark Hill. After the Brownings took up residence in Paris for the winter of 1855–56, Ruskin wrote EBB to explain why he had not made more of an effort to see them during their stay in London: “Between very little—and nothing, in the way of friend-seeing—I hold that there is no difference; and unless we had had—among us, time for complete talk and daily intercourse—the one—two—or three calls or visits were really of no use whatever– I knew that you could not give me much of you—and I did not strive for the little” (letter 3667).

In that same letter, Ruskin recalled the evening of 6 September and RB’s “lightningy conversation”: “I never heard anything to approach your husband[’]s brilliancy of illustration and swiftness of fancy. But he wants more scolding about his poetry even than you do.” Ruskin went on to compare RB’s work to Rossetti’s: “Brilliant in colour—boundless in imagination—intense in sensation and sentiment” but flawed with “odd or idle little cramps & blots.” Ruskin was on RB’s list of friends and relatives who were to be sent copies of Men and Women upon its publication in November 1855 (see letter 3673), but when the book arrived at Denmark Hill, he was bothered by more than “cramps & blots.” In his letter to RB of 2 December, he declared: “When I take up these poems in the evening I find them absolutely and literally a set of the most amazing Conundrums that ever were proposed to me” (letter 3685). He further complained that it took him twenty minutes to understand twenty lines, and those lines were not consecutive. Focusing on the poem “Popularity,” Ruskin peppered RB with questions and criticisms regarding accent, stress, figurative versus literal meaning, diction, references without clear referents, and “Ellipses … quite Unconscionable: before one can get through ten lines, one has to patch you up in twenty places.” Nevertheless, he admitted “There is a stuff & fancy in your work which assuredly is in no other living writer’s. … There are truths & depths in it, far beyond anything I have read except Shakespeare.” Ruskin's letter drew from RB a serious response: “We don’t read poetry the same way, by the same law, it is too clear. I cannot begin writing poetry, till my imag<inary> reader has conceded licences to me which you demur at altogether. … You would have me paint it all plain out, which can’t be. … In asking for more ultimates you must accept less mediates, nor expect that a Druid stone-circle will be traced for you with <as> few <breaks> to the eye, as the north crescent & south crescent … in many a suburb” (letter 3690).

Shortly after the publication of Modern Painters, Vol III, Ruskin sent a presentation copy to RB with “affectionate and respectful regards” (Reconstruction, A1983). RB responded on 1 February 1856 by likening the book to “an arrangement of rockets of various sorts & sizes … some explode, some catch at the rim … and if some few hang fire, seemingly—they may no less go off of themselves when one least expects it” (letter 3726). But he took issue with Ruskin’s preference for color over form in Scott’s Marmion, demonstrating with numerous examples why he preferred form over color. Further, RB quoted from his own Sordello, which he was then in the middle of revising, to prove that he was an exception to Ruskin’s statement that God was only a presence or animation in the minds of modern men rather than a belief.

In letter 3685 Ruskin mentioned an earlier poem of RB’s that D.G. Rossetti had recommended: “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church.” Ruskin thought it was “very glorious” and told RB in a January 1856 letter that in the next volume of Modern Painters he would refer to the poem and its author’s “wonderful understanding of painting & mediaevalism, unique among poets” (letter 3721). In Modern Painters, Vol. IV (1856), Ruskin quotes 44 lines from the poem and writes: “I know of no other piece of modern English, prose or poetry, in which there is so much told … of the Renaissance spirit,—its worldliness, inconsistency, pride, hypocrisy, ignorance of itself, love of art, of luxury, and of good Latin. It is nearly all that I said of the central Renaissance in thirty pages of the ‘Stones of Venice’ put into as many lines” (pp. 378–379). Unfortunately, the quotation contained some glaring omissions and numerous errors in punctuation (not to mention an incorrect title), for which Ruskin later apologized (see letter 3851, note 1). The faulty transcription was noticed by Rossetti, who remarked to William Allingham: “Really, the omissions in Browning’s passage are awful” (see SD1924 in vol. 22). Rossetti also criticized Ruskin for linking RB with Longfellow, whose “Wishiwasha” (i.e., The Song of Hiawatha, 1855), the painter happily loathed. People with the ability to discern good poetry from bad were well aware of Ruskin’s shortcomings as a judge of poetry. Commenting on Ruskin’s praise, RB told Rossetti: “I value a word from him at its worth … I know at least how I should regard any Brown or Jones with a ‘passed muster, J. Ruskin’—stuck on the front of his cap” (letter 3769).

The Brownings saw little of Ruskin during their visit to England in the summer of 1856. He spent the summer months in Switzerland, returning in time to call on them in early October. Before or soon after they left for Italy on 23 October, he sent their son Pen a recent edition of Sir Walter Scott’s The Lay of the Last Minstrel (see letter 3897, note 4). EBB instructed her publishers, Chapman and Hall, to send Ruskin a copy of her fourth edition of Poems, which was issued on 1 November 1856 (see Reconstruction, C102). Two weeks later, EBB’s long novel-poem, Aurora Leigh, was released, and by the end of the month, Ruskin communicated his delirious enthusiasm for it to RB: “I think Aurora Leigh the greatest poem in the English language: unsurpassed by anything but Shakespeare—not surpassed by Shakespeare[’]s sonnets—& therefore the greatest poem in the language”; he also called it “the first perfect poetical expression of the Age” (letter 3927). Although he disliked a few choices of diction (such as “phalanstery”), he declared himself EBB’s “very humble votary & servant.” EBB was delighted with his approval, and there probably could have been no more effective way to assure RB’s friendship.

In January 1858 Ruskin sent the Brownings his recently published The Political Economy of Art (see Reconstruction, A1984), and the following month EBB told Sophia Eckley that the book was “full of new & beautiful things” (ms at Berg). Later that year, when Ruskin began to question his religious beliefs and the purpose of his life, he confided his doubts to EBB. In a letter of 24 October 1858, not long after being “un-converted” at Turin (see above), he wrote: “Something has been the matter with me. … I have had [a] cloud upon me this year. … I suppose the real gist of it is that next year I shall be 40” (ms at Berg). He thought that one of the possible reasons for his present depressed state was the “violent reaction” he experienced “after the excitement of the arrangement of Turner’s sketches.” From February 1857 to May 1858, Ruskin had been cataloguing and preparing for the National Gallery the voluminous collection of Turner’s drawings and sketches that had been stored in the painter’s London house since his death. In the course of the work, Ruskin came across a large number of graphic erotic drawings. These may have been on his mind when he told EBB that Turner’s “soul had been gradually crushed within him—leaving him at the close of his life—weak—sinful—desolate.” He added that in Turin he had reached the conclusion that “nobody can be a great painter who is’nt rather wicked.” This was clearly a departure from his earlier view that great art required great morality. In further letters to EBB, he complained of melancholy, alienation, and the pointlessness of studying art. On 5 November 1860 he wrote that he had “come to see the great fact that great Art is of no real use to anybody but the next great Artist” (ms at Berg). Three weeks later, he wrote despondingly again: “The things I most regret in all my past life are great pieces of virtuous and quite heroical self-denial; which have issued in all kinds of catastrophe & disappointment, instead of victory. Everything that has turned out well, I’ve done merely to please myself—and it upsets all one’s moral principles so. Mine are going I don’t know where” (ms at Berg). EBB responded to Ruskin’s discouraging letters with sympathy and support. To his letter of 24 October 1858 she answered: “The sadness of that letter struck me like the languor after victory. … After treading the world down in various senses, you are tired. It is natural perhaps—but this evil will pass like other evils” (1 [–2] January 1859, ms at Camellia).

Amid the doubts and anxieties expressed in Ruskin’s correspondence with the Brownings during this period, there were at least two certainties: his love of Italy and his belief in the cause of Italian independence, both of which he had in common with his friends, but especially with EBB. In a letter of 15 January 1859, he wrote: “There was another thing in your letters comforting to me—your delightful want of patriotism—loving Italy so much” (ms at Berg). When the second war of Italian independence began in April 1859, the Brownings and Ruskin were equally appalled at England’s lack of support for Italy. EBB wrote on 3 June 1859: “We thank you & love you more than ever for your good word about our Italy. Oh, if you knew how hard it is, & has been to receive the low, selfish, ignoble words with which this great cause has been pelted from England” (ms at ABL). Ruskin replied: “I am nearly as wild as you are, about England’s aspect in this matter. … One might as well live in a nation of fungi, everyone standing on his one leg and holding his own round umbrella over the rottenness he lives in” (22 June [1859], ms at Boston PL). Ruskin presented these sentiments publicly, in a much modified form, as two letters on “The Italian Question” in The Scotsman on 20 and 23 July 1859, though the letters are dated 6 and 15 June, respectively. He later informed EBB that he had written a third letter but that it was “declared by the able editor unprintable—‘it would lose him a hundred subscribers next morning.’ You may judge by this it was what wise people do not consider a Temperate or Chaste Production” (11 December [1859], ms at Texas).

The inertia of his countrymen in regard to Italy only added to his doubt that he had done or could do anything good for them. In early May 1861, in response to a letter (not extant) in which he evidently spoke of hopelessness, EBB wrote: “Sad you may well be sometimes, but hopeless, my dear Friend, you have no need to be … you must not be. God over all is Hope over all– He holds the worlds in the hollow of His hand” (copy at Morgan). In the last letter Ruskin wrote to her, he replied that hers was “a great comfort” to him. He then recurred to his crisis of faith: “I am stunned—palsied—utterly helpless—under the weight of the finding out the myriad errors that I have been taught about these things: every reed that I have leant on shattering itself joint from joint– … I am not hopeless— but I don’t know what to hope for. … All my old religious friends are casting me off—or if they speak, their words are as the brass & the cymbal” (13 May [1861], ms at Berg).

EBB’s death on 29 June 1861 hit Ruskin especially hard. In the throes of a re-examination of his life’s work, he lost a great confidante—the woman he considered the “only entirely perfect example of womanhood,” he had once told the social reformer Octavia Hill (Life of Octavia Hill as Told in Her Letters, ed. C. Edmund Maurice, 1913, p. 147). He wrote to Edward Burne-Jones that EBB’s death was “all the Earth’s loss” (Georgiana Burne-Jones, Memorials of Edward Burne-Jones, 1904, I, 232) but told his father on 8 July that “the loss is mine most” (Sublime & Instructive, p. 234). He found it difficult to write RB. He explained in a letter of 13 October 1861 to Ellen Heaton: “I have never written to Mr Browning—I cannot: the thing is too deep and terrible … I cannot dwell upon it” (Sublime & Instructive, p. 233). He finally managed a letter of condolence to RB on 17 November: “I do not know what others of your friends may have ventured to write or to say to you. I could say nothing—can say nothing: but that I love you, and there are few people whom I do” (ms at Texas). He went on to write of himself that no other friend “regards her loss with a more grave, enduring, bitterness and completeness of regret.”

Other than their interest in and love of Italy, the common ground shared by Ruskin and EBB might be characterized as spiritual or moral (in his condolence letter he declared that no other friend “more entirely and reverently shared in aim & hope with her”). The common ground he shared with RB, on the other hand, was more tangible. As David DeLaura points out, “both sets of parents … were cultivated, affluent, middle-class evangelicals” who raised their sons in the suburb of Camberwell (DeLaura, p. 354). Taking this a step further, one might say that both fathers fostered a love of literature and art; both mothers, a love of God and the garden. DeLaura also notes that although “both men moved away from sectarianism … the two careers are everywhere marked by Nonconformist moralism and individualism” (De Laura, p. 354). To this one could add their mutual love of Italy, their extensive knowledge of art, and their wide range of aesthetic interests.

Several months after RB had resettled in London, he and Ruskin began corresponding with frequency and seeing each other more than occasionally. RB presented him with a copy of EBB’s Last Poems on 8 April 1862 (see Reconstruction, C57). The two friends probably had dinner together at Tom Taylor’s house in Clapham Junction on 15 July 1863, but after that they did not meet for some time, and Ruskin lamented to William Allingham: “I have not seen Browning for a year!” (13 July 1864, Letters to William Allingham, ed. H. Allingham and E. Baumer Williams, London, 1911, p. 262). The correspondence declined as well until January 1865 when Ruskin wrote to scold RB for “Mr. Sludge, ‘The Medium’” (1864), his thinly-disguised send-up of the famous medium, Daniel Dunglas Home (1833–86). Ruskin thought the work beneath RB: “I was provoked by that poem of yours on table rapping—for this reason– If it be jugglery—one does not write poems against jugglers. … But if it be not jugglery—there is no use in raving about it—and you only hinder the proper investigation of facts. … I am violently grieved and angered by the abuse of a talent like yours on such a matter” (ms at Texas). One wonders whether RB was aware that Ruskin had, the previous year, attended séances conducted by Home and had become rather friendly with him. RB replied good-naturedly to the criticism, explaining “I don’t expose jugglery, but anatomize the mood of the juggler,—all morbidness of the soul is worth the soul’s study” (transcript at Bodleian).

In November 1866 RB’s great friend, the French critic Joseph Milsand, made his annual visit to 19 Warwick Crescent and was invited by Ruskin to Denmark Hill. In Revue des Deux Mondes (1 July 1860 and 15 August 1861), Milsand had published two articles on Ruskin, expanded and issued as L’Esthétique anglaise (1864). On 12 February 1865 Ruskin thanked Milsand for the articles and expressed a wish to meet him: “If you come to England at any time—will you permit me to have the pleasure of seeing you?” (ms at ABL/JMA). Milsand visited Denmark Hill twice; the second time was for dinner on 19 November 1866 in the company of RB. After the letters relating to this event, there is no further recorded correspondence between RB and Ruskin for the next thirteen years, and they apparently seldom met during that same period. There were certainly fewer opportunities for doing so. Beginning in 1870, Ruskin spent a great deal of time fulfilling his duties as Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, and in 1872 he began spending large parts of the year at Brantwood. In a 15 December 1879 letter to Ruskin, RB gave his sources for the title character in “Fra Lippo Lippi” (1855), which Ruskin had evidently asked for in person. RB concluded the letter by saying: “How happy I was to see you again, the other day, after an absence too prolonged by far” (ms at Ruskin Library). The following year, as he had with many other friends, RB asked Ruskin to look in at an exhibition of his son’s paintings (letter of 28 March 1880, ms at ABL). After 1878, Ruskin’s mental health became extremely variable, and communication in the 1880’s proved to be only slightly more frequent than it had been in the preceding decade. In the last extant letter between the two friends, Ruskin wrote: “I only wish you were just a little nearer my side of London—or my end of Coniston Water” (13 August 1884, ms at Texas). Towards the end of 1885, when RB was negotiating the purchase of a Venice palazzo, he wrote about it to his friends the Skirrows, quoting Ruskin as an authority: “Well then, the Palazzo Manzoni is situate on the Grand Canal, and is described by Ruskin … as ‘a perfect and very rich example of Byzantine Renaissance: its warm yellow marbles are magnificent’ … so testify the ‘Stones of Venice [II, 391]’” (15 November 1885, ms at ABL). Not long afterwards, RB wrote to James Dykes Campbell (1838–95) regarding a memorial for Ruskin: “I signed and sent off the paper … as soon as I found it on my return. … I feel exactly about Ruskin as yourself beside having a particularly affectionate feeling for him personally (The Browning Society by Robert Browning: Being Letters from Robert Browning to James Dykes Campbell, ed. Clement Shorter, 1917, p. 12). This memorial, presented to Ruskin on Christmas 1885, begins: “Thankfully rejoicing at your recovery from recent illness, we ask you to accept the expression of our earnest hope that you may long be enabled to continue the work of your life” (Complete Works, 34, 733). Among other notable signatories were the Duchess of Albany, Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Holman Hunt, and James Russell Lowell.

Correspondence indicates that over the next four years Ruskin and RB met at least two more times before the latter’s death. The first meeting occurred at the exhibition of the Royal Society of Painters in Water Colours on 21 April 1888. Both men commented on the meeting in letters at that time. To Joan Severn, Ruskin wrote: “If you had seen how glad everybody was to see me at the Water-colour. Not the least kindly glad, Browning, who is really now one of my oldest friends” (Complete Works, 37, 603). In a letter to his son, Pen, RB wrote of an “affectionate greeting” from Ruskin, who planned “to call” (24 April 1888, ms at Balliol). Probably the last time the friends saw each other was at Venice in the autumn of 1888. As recorded by Daniel Sargent Curtis in a diary entry of 8 October 1888, “Mr Browning said ‘I have just seen Ruskin. We embraced on both cheeks, in foreign fashion. He is very ill, but delighted with Venice and the restoration of the Ducal Palace’” (ms at Marciana). Presumably, word of RB’s death on 12 December 1889 was communicated to Ruskin at Brantwood. Whether the news drew a reaction, or even reached his enfeebled consciousness, is unknown.


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