Ruskin and the prowfish

The first of a series of blogs presenting wide-ranging perspectives on The Ruskin’s collection from academics and curators nationally and internationally.

In this post, Chris Donaldson, Lecturer in Cultural History at Lancaster University, and James Maclaine, Senior Curator, Fish at the Natural History Museum, discuss their view of a connection between a drawing in The Ruskin Whitehouse Collection and a ‘type specimen’ in the collections of the Natural History Museum.

Studying the past can be a bit like pulling threads. The more you pull, the more you can unravel. In this case, the first thread is one of John Ruskin’s drawings.

Ruskin (1819–1900) was a polymath. He’s often thought of as a writer, artist and critic. He’s known for championing Turner’s paintings, and for writing about medieval architecture. Tourists in Venice still carry abridged copies of his books today.

But Ruskin was more than all that as well. He was also passionate about the natural world. The drawing we’re referring to reflects that. It isn’t a picture of the Rialto, after all. It’s a drawing of a rather extraordinary fish.

An image of a ‘Study of a Stuffed Fish, British Museum’ (1870), by John Ruskin
John Ruskin, ‘Study of a Stuffed Fish, British Museum’ (1870), 5.9 x 25.4 cm, pencil on toned paper © The Ruskin – Library, Museum and Research Centre, 1996P1253

This drawing is part of The Ruskin’s collection. (You can view the catalogue entry for it here.) It has been displayed at Lancaster University around a half dozen times over the past 20 years. But until recently, little has been known about the provenance of the drawing. What little is known about it is based on the inscription in its lower righthand corner: ‘(Brit Museum) J Ruskin’.

Ruskin loved the British Museum. He spent many happy hours there pouring over books and sketching objects. Most of the items Ruskin sketched at the museum were antiquities. But it seems likely that he drew this fish there, too. Britain’s national natural history collection wasn’t moved to its current home (now the Natural History Museum) until the 1880s.

Ruskin didn’t date his drawing, and he didn’t include any notes about the fish. What species was it? Where did it come from? How large was it? The drawing doesn’t tell us, and we’re left wondering what it was about the fish that reeled Ruskin in.

A few years ago, Stephen Wildman suggested that the fish might have reminded Ruskin of ‘the peculiar large-headed fish in the foreground of Turner’s painting The Slave Ship’, now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.[1] That’s a compelling conjecture. Ruskin once owned Turner’s painting, and he studied it extensively. But this insight doesn’t help us narrow in on a likely date.

Riffling through Ruskin’s papers, however, does shine a little light. On Friday, 16 December 1870, Ruskin jotted in his diary that he’d spent the previous day ‘in [the] British museum’, where he ‘drew [a] beetle-browed fish.’[2] Evidently, the fish’s bulging forehead was part of what caught his eye.

That fish has a tale of its own, of course, and that tale is the second thread in this story. The ‘beetle-browed fish’ Ruskin drew was a prowfish that was plucked from the waters of West Australia around 180 years ago. Dried and stuffed, the fish became the first specimen of its species documented by Europeans. George Grey, the governor of South Australia, gave it to the British Museum in the early 1840s.

John Richardson, the naturalist and explorer, first classified the fish in 1844. He dubbed the species Pataecus fronto. The name attests to Richardson’s classical education. Pataeci was the Roman rendering of the name the Phoenicians used to describe the dwarfish figures (or pittuchim) carved on the prows of their ships. Fronto, for its part, means ‘beetle-browed’.

Photograph of the prowfish specimen Ruskin sketched
Australian prowfish (Pataecus fronto) (1844), Natural History Museum, BMNH 1844.9.3.11, photograph by Kevin Webb

The name is apt. Pataecus fronto is a relatively small fish, and it has a protruding forehead. What’s more, its dorsal fin looks a bit like a Native American headdress, and that helps explain the species’ other, more problematic, common name, the ‘Red Indianfish’.

Like Richardson’s description, the name ‘Red Indianfish’ is a reflection of the European gaze. Both names evince a Western view of the fish’s appearance, and they reveal how the natural wonders of the world were translated into colonial knowledge.

Both names treat the fish as an exotic object, not an organism. They don’t account for its habitat or behaviour. Nor for that matter do they account for the way it was perceived by Australia’s indigenous peoples. The species’ Aboriginal name isn’t, to our knowledge, recorded.

Today, the specimen Richardson catalogued is part of the collections of the Natural History Museum (catalogue number BMNH 1844.9.3.11), and it still serves as the definitive example (or ‘type specimen’) of its species. This is clearly the fish Ruskin drew back in 1870.

An image of Ruskin’s drawing and the Pataecus fronto type specimen
Ruskin’s drawing and the Pataecus fronto specimen

Having drawn out the separate threads of their stories, it’s striking to bring images of these two items together. So much else has changed or vanished over the past 150 odd years. Yet, the two of them have survived.

But what does re-uniting them allow us to see? It certainly helps to answer a few factual questions and to flesh out each item’s history. But is that all?

The answer is ‘no’, of course. Bringing the two items together raises questions we wouldn’t have otherwise asked. For starters, looking at the two items side by side prompts critical reflection on Ruskin’s drawing.

Does the drawing repeat or critique the colonial logic inherent in the fish’s classification? Is it significant that Ruskin chose to depict the fish without naming it or noting its size or origin? Does it matter that he decided not to draw the hooks affixed to the fish? Does his drawing reduce the fish to a mere object? Or does the drawing suggest a different kind of curiosity?

It’s worth noting here that Ruskin didn’t consider drawing to be a mere form of amusement. It was a way of training the eye to see. He argued that ‘the excellence of an artist […] depends wholly on refinement of perception’.[3] So, perhaps the way he drew this fish reflects his interest in it as a pure organic form.

Such an interest might be seen to ignore the colonial history embodied in the fish as a specimen. Consequently, the drawing might be dismissed as an example of the Victorian fascination with curiosities and the exotic.

But then, too, the interest expressed through Ruskin’s drawing might be seen in other ways. The drawing might be seen to hold the colonial knowledge accrued about the specimen in abeyance. In doing so, it might be seen to return us to the fish itself, inviting us to behold it with wonder, anew.

These aren’t questions we propose to answer on our own. They’re questions that connecting collections allow us to explore with others, and we would welcome hearing your thoughts.


[1] Stephen Wildman, Life Distilled: Ruskin and Still Life (Lancaster: Lancaster University, 2016), p. 21. 

[2] John Ruskin, MS16, fol. 58, The Ruskin – Library, Museum and Research Centre, Lancaster University; and Joan Evans and John Howard Whitehouse, The Diaries of John Ruskin (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958), vol. 2, p. 708. 

[3] John Ruskin, The Elements of Drawing (London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1857), p. xi (Library Edition, vol. 15, p. 12). 

Biographical note 

Chris Donaldson is Lecturer in Cultural History at Lancaster University and a Research Fellow at The Ruskin – Library, Museum and Research Centre.  

James Maclaine is Senior Curator, Fish, in the Vertebrates Division, Life Sciences Department of the Natural History Museum.  


We’d like to thank Sally Keith and her colleagues in the Lancaster Environment Centre for their input and suggestions.

Tomorrow’s World Today: Ruskin, Art and Science

Welcome to The Ruskin’s blog: the place for articles, stories and views from The Ruskin.

Fractal drawing of a tree
‘Sketch by a Clerk of the Works’, LE 7 (1905) / Plate 56

We are returning to the blog for our new season’s programme, Tomorrow’s World Today: Ruskin, Art and Science. This summer, The Ruskin has partnered with the Royal Society for the 2021 edition of Summer Science, a week-long festival celebrating cutting edge UK science.

From 8th July, explore two digital exhibitions co-curated by The Ruskin’s Director Professor Sandra Kemp and the Royal Society, Head of Library, Keith Moore. Both exhibitions are part of The Ruskin’s combined research and exhibition programmes on Google Arts and Culture and introduced in the post Cloud Perspectives, written by Sandra Kemp, for the Royal Society blog. 

Read the blog post Cloud Perspectives here. 

From the first photographic images of glaciers, to experimental studies of aerial perspective, to Ruskin’s classification system for Alpine geology, Painting with Sunlight: Ruskin and Science highlights drawings, paintings and daguerreotypes from Lancaster University’s Ruskin Whitehouse Collection, alongside works by Victorian scientists from the Royal Society archive.

Explore Painting with Sunlight: Ruskin and Science here. 

Ruskin attended the Royal Society Soirée in 1862 for astronomer Warren de la Rue’s lecture on the total eclipse of the sun. The Royal Society Soirées: Highlights from the Summer Science Exhibition looks back to the origins of the Summer Science festival in the interplay of the arts and sciences at these spectacular displays, from the 1840s to-date.

Explore The Royal Society Soirées: Highlights from the Summer Science Exhibition here. 

Watercolour. Blue ground, shaded to paler blue mid-section. Swirling clouds above.
Arthur Severn, Thunderclouds, Val d’Aosta 1884

These exhibitions open our year-round programme of digital exhibitions and events. Join us in October for the Library and COP26 Festivals at Lancaster Unviersity. Encompassing exhibitions, events, research and learning, Tomorrow’s World Today will explore Ruskin’s farsighted contribution to scientific innovation, and his contemporary relevance to pressing social, cultural and environmental concerns. Ruskin was a polymath and his works capture the explosion of knowledge resulting from the 19th century voyages of discovery, which shaped our scientific understanding of the natural world today. Two years in the making, the programme builds on the 2019 exhibition Ruskin: Museum of the Near Future, which you can revisit via virtual tour.

This blog is the place where we’ll share perspectives on Ruskin and science: with articles and ‘think-pieces’ from our speakers and workshop participants, views from contemporary artists responding to Ruskin’s art and ideas, and in-depth explorations of individual pieces in the collection, from new readings of iconic works, to new research into parts of the collection that have not been widely studied or displayed to-date. Our next blog is on a work that has remained unidentified until now, in partnership with the Natural History Museum. 

Keep in touch by subscribing to our newsletter, and following us on Twitter and Instagram. You can explore the collection in our Google Arts and Culture exhibits; Recover and Reimagine: Lancaster’s Future Heritage, an online exhibition co-produced with Lancaster’s museums for International Museum Day; and through the collection pages on our website. We invite you to browse the catalogue, and tell us what you’d like to know about Ruskin and scientific innovation: you may find it featured in Tomorrow’s World Today.

Found in Translation: A French Perspective on Ruskin

Our latest blog post comes from Professor Laurence Roussillon-Constanty (Université de Pau et des pays de l’Adour). The post, which follows Laurence’s paper given as part of the Ruskin Beyond Britain series, will be extended for publication in the next issue of The Ruskin Review. 

A photograph of the Jura
The Jura, image courtesy of Sophie Berthod

From Ruskin’s first visit to France with his parents in 1825 to his final continental tour of 1888, one gets a sense that he always went through France on his way to somewhere else, somewhere beyond: beyond to Switzerland, where he thought about settling down for a while or beyond to Italy and Venice, his second home. And yet reconsidering Ruskin’s mention of French topography and natural sites reveals how much its contrasting reliefs came to symbolize and embody Ruskin’s artistic and poetic vision of landscape – a vision grounded in the visible (an insight) but later transformed into an inscape (through hindsight). Beyond the historical monuments of Northern part of France and Notre Dame-de Paris that certainly were for Ruskin a well-known source of inspiration, other and perhaps less prestigious parts of France thus gradually became significant sites whose presence can be traced in filigree in his multiple writings from his diaries to his art criticism.

Among those places, in my seminar paper, I chose to focus on two particular sites that I argued were foundational not only in Ruskin’s perception of France but also on his conception of the relation between nature and art: The Grande Chartreuse, in the French Alps, and the Jura mountains – two focal points that purposefully offered a contrastive view of Ruskin’s French experience.

The first part of my investigation was devoted to the Romantic lens through which Ruskin viewed parts of the French landscape and architecture and demonstrated the parallel features between his representation of the country and the popular illustrated travel guides published in France throughout the nineteenth century and whose visual impact would have been great not just on Ruskin but on all the English travellers at the time.

Among them, the most important one was the monumental edition of Baron Taylor’s Voyages pittoresques et romantiques dans l’Ancienne France, a hallmark of romanticism comprising a volume dedicated to the Dauphiné (published between 1843 and 1854) and another one dedicated to the Jura (published between 1828 and 1829).

The title page of Voyages pittoresques et romantiques dans l’Ancienne France

In my understanding, looking at those earlier Romantic descriptions of the Chartreuse and the Jura in relation to Ruskin’s travel through the Continent first helps us situate his experience within a European context by showing his aesthetic alignment with earlier British poet-travellers such as Lord Byron, Shelley and Wordsworth and French “poètes-promeneurs” such as Rousseau. it also invites us to think about landscape as a transformative experience that may resurface many years on in later work, influencing both content and form.

In my contention, Ruskin’s early visual impressions of the Grande Chartreuse and the “mont cachés du Jura” can thus be said to have mapped out “en creux” Ruskin’s visual imagination and contributed to his singular appreciation and later rendering of landscape in drawing, writing and even teaching. While hidden from immediate view compared to the more salient lines of the Montblanc, embedded in memory and probably tied in with early romance, those early souvenirs of picturesque France could ultimately be interpreted as a marker of Ruskin’s deeply-rooted attachment to France as Scotland’s age-old ally and companion land.

Professor Laurence Roussillon-Constanty is Professor in English Literature, Art and Epistemology at the Université de Pau et des Pays de l’Adour (France) and a Member of the Research Group ALTER. She is President of the French Victorian Society (SFEVE) and a Companion of the Guild of Saint George. She is the author of Méduse au miroir: Esthétique romantique de Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Grenoble: ELLUG, 2007) and co-editor (with David Clifford) of The Rossettis then and Now: Cosmopolitans in Victorian London (London: Anthem Press, 2003). She also co-authored a translation into French of a selection of texts from John Ruskin’s Modern Painters (Pau: PUP, 2006).

Transcultural Utopian Imagination and the Future

In this post, Dr Barnita Bagchi discusses her British Academy Visiting Fellowship at The Ruskin, ‘Transcultural Utopian Imagination’.

My British Academy Visiting Fellowship, held for two months at The Ruskin – Library, Museum and Research Centre, Lancaster University, from late August to late October 2018, researched transcultural utopian imagination in early 20th-century South Asia.  At the centre of my research were the South Asian, Indian, and transcultural poet, educator, and community-builder Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), his friend and associate, anti-colonial politician and social experimenter M. K. Gandhi (1869–1948), and their mutual friend, British Christian anti-colonial and social activist, pacifist, and missionary C. F. Andrews (1871–1940). John Ruskin, whose Unto this Last influenced Gandhi, also figured prominently. I argue that the visits of Tagore and Gandhi to England in 1930 and 1931 respectively manifest and illuminate Indo-British entanglements in social dreaming or utopian imagination and experimentation.

The Ruskin, the Institute for Social Futures, and the Centre for Mobilities Research at Lancaster University all supported my application, and I was hosted by the Ruskin, in an institutional environment which was supportive and stimulating.My hosts and I were delighted that during this fellowship, we could co-organise a conference on Transcultural Utopian Imagination and the Future: South Asia, Britain, and Beyond, on 11 October 2018, at The Ruskin. Speakers at the symposium included Sandra Kemp, Carlos Lopez-Galviz, Lynne Pearce, Rebecca Braun, Sangeeta Datta (filmmaker, curator, director, academic, singer, who gave a keynote speech), Monika Buscher, Nicola Spurling, and northern England-based creative writers Shamshad Khan and Qaisra Shahraz. I am guest editing a special issue of Utopian Studies, a leading journal in the field, entitled ‘The Prospective Memory of the Future’ as the key output of my Fellowship.

Photo of Mahatma Gandhi's visit to Darwen, 1931
Mahatma Gandhi’s visit to Greenfield Mill, Spring Vale, Darwen, Lancashire in 1931, Keystone Press Agency Ltd bromide press print, 26 September 1931 NPG x137614 © National Portrait Gallery, London. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0

I went to Darwen, Lancashire, during the period of my fellowship. Darwen prospered due to the spinning and weaving of cotton. Yet cotton did not grow in Lancashire. The American Civil War increased Britain’s dependence on cotton from India and Egypt, and this cotton was processed industrially into cloth in Darwen and other cotton towns of Lancashire. During my stay in Lancashire, I also went to Edgworth, near Darwen, where I found myself standing outside Brandwood Fold. Edgworth used to be industrial, a hub of cotton manufacture. Lancashire cotton manufacturer James Barlow was born in this rustic fold, the son of a weaver, Thomas Barlow. James (1821–1887) later lived at Greenthorne, Edgworth, which Gandhi would visit in 1931. The Barlow family became wealthy and well-known philanthropists. They financially supported charities connected with the Methodist church, most notably including the National Children’s Home and Orphanage at Crowthorn, the Barlow Institute, which they founded in 1909.

Photo of India Mill, Bolton Road, Darwen
India Mill, Bolton Road, Darwen, 2018 © Barnita Bagchi

Edgworth, now in the borough of Blackburn with Darwen, Lancashire, looks similar, to an outsider’s eyes, to the villages idealised by Romantics in their critique of industrialism. James Barlow was born in a family that wove and spun cotton in the pre-industrial handloom manner. Brandwood Fold was one among a number of folds, formed in the seventeenth century through the enclosure of a farmstead and associated cottages. James’s daughter Annie Barlow (1863–1941), whom the family trade in Egyptian cotton led to a passion for Egyptology, and who was also a great philanthropist, hosted Gandhi in 1931.

Gandhi worried representatives of the Lancashire cotton industry, which was in decline then for many reasons. They were concerned that an Indian boycott of manufactured Lancashire cotton was contributing to the decline of the UK industry. (In fact, other factors, not least the ascendancy established by Japanese-manufactured cotton by the early 1930s, were far more important for that decline.) Gandhi, of course, did not love machine-spun cotton: he campaigned for the widespread crafting and use of village handloom cotton, and the spinning-wheel or charkha with which he himself and millions of his followers spun coarse cotton, khadi, was an object that was a concrete image of the commitment to village India, to the artisanal, to the manual, to craft, and to the beauty of the handmade product. At Greenthorne, as in nearly every place he visited, Gandhi used the charkha.

Photo of Coniston Water
Coniston Water, from Brantwood, 2018 © Barnita Bagchi

I also visited the estate of Brantwood, on the shores of Coniston Water, in Cumbria, where John Ruskin lived in the latter part of his life, a sublime landscape of mountains and water, redolent of Romantic expressive aesthetics and the pastoral. My time in northern England illustrated to me how in Lancashire and in Cumbria, places are often fulcrums both for the industrial-urban and the pastoral-rural. Both Tagore and Gandhi were acutely aware of the deindustrialization of India under British colonialism, which took place through squeezing out handwoven cloth produced locally in India in favour of influxes of British-manufactured cotton that were exempt from or had very low tariffs. Tagore and Gandhi had somewhat different views about the presents and futures they wanted for India. Tagore was more positive about industrial society. They both however remained committed to micro-utopian experimentation, with handicrafts and labour being particularly key to Gandhi’s ideals. In this regard, John Ruskin’s Unto This Last (1860), as Gandhi famously articulated in his autobiography, was a major influence:

It was Ruskin’s Unto This Last. The book was impossible to lay aside, once I had begun it. It gripped me. Johannesburg to Durban was a twenty-four hours’ journey. The train reached there in the evening. I could not get any sleep that night. I determined to change my life in accordance with the ideals of the book.

This was the first book of Ruskin I had ever read. During the days of my education I had read practically nothing outside text-books, and after I launched into active life I had very little time for reading. I cannot therefore claim much book knowledge. However, I believe I have not lost much because of this enforced restraint. On the contrary, the limited reading may be said to have enabled me thoroughly to digest what I did read. Of these books, the one that brought about an instantaneous and practical transformation in my life was Unto This Last. I translated it later into Gujarati, entitling it Sarvodaya (the welfare of all).

I believe that I discovered some of my deepest convictions reflected in this great book of Ruskin, and that is why it so captured me and made me transform my life. A poet is one who can call forth the good latent in the human breast. Poets do not influence all alike, for everyone is not evolved in an equal measure.

The teaching of Unto This Last I understood to be:

        1. That the good of the individual is contained in the good of all.
        2. That a lawyer’s work has the same value as the barber’s, inasmuch as all have the same right of earning their livelihood from their work.
        3. That a life of labour, i.e., the life of the tiller of the soil and the handicraftsman, is the life worth living.

The first of these I knew. The second I had dimly realized. The third had never occurred to me. Unto This Last made it as clear as daylight for me that the second and the third were contained in the first. I arose with the dawn, ready to reduce these principles to practice.1

I’d like us first to focus on the medium of the book, studied on that very modern medium of mobility, the train.  Gandhi was in South Africa in 1904, and Unto This Last was gifted to him by Henry Polak (1882–1959), his British-Jewish friend, and later editor of the Indian Opinion. The transnational and transcultural dimensions are evident. It is also notable that Gandhi learns from a ‘poet’, from the domain of aesthetics, ‘through the magic spell of a book’, that all work is or should be viewed with equal value and dignity. Gandhi also saw Tagore, like Ruskin, as above all a poet: the imagination remained very important to Gandhi, who saw himself, in contrast, as the experimenter in and seeker after Truth. The Beauty-Truth relationship is re-parsed again and again in the social dreaming of Tagore and Gandhi. In learning that a life of labour, of the tiller and the handicraftsman, is the life worth living, the recoil from machinic, urban, industrial life is implicit.

Yet Gandhi worked in his political career with urban working classes, too, not least in his native province of Gujarat, which was home to leading Indian cotton mills: in March 1918, he led a non-violent strike based on the principle of Satyagraha or civil disobedience in the cotton mills of Ahmedabad, one in which he went on hunger strike, with a resolution in which workers’ demands for higher pay were largely conceded by mill-owners. So, it is perhaps not surprising that Gandhi’s visit to the Lancashire cotton workers and mill owners was so cordial. In late September 1931, he visited Lancashire, first meeting with representatives of cotton industry at Edgeworth and Darwen. On 26 September 1931, he received a deputation of unemployed workers at Spring Vale Garden village, Darwen. Having spoken on Lancashire’s unemployment problem, having received deputations from weavers’ associations and unemployed workers, and having spoken to journalists, Gandhi left Lancashire.

Readers will find out more about the resonances between British and Indian utopianists that I uncovered in the published output from my British Academy-funded project, but the larger point that I want to make here is that the Indo-British utopian entanglements I studied complicate reductive binaries between urban and rural, industry and handicraft, ‘West’ and ‘East’, Britain and India, with the aesthetic and the ethical continuously entangled, in visions of social futures in which cooperation, solidarity, and fellowship were interwoven, to use an image from handicrafts and from the imaginative domain. The Ruskinian resonances echo through to our times, rippling across to the futures we attempt to build today in our larger social crisis unleashed by a pandemic. Andrews, Tagore and Gandhi would, I believe, remind us again today of the truth of John Ruskin’s words: ‘There is no wealth but life.’

1M.K. Gandhi, An Autobiography: The Story of My Experiments With Truth, trans. by Mahadev Desai, 2nd edition (Ahmedabad: Navajivan Press, 1940), pp. 364–65.


Dr Barnita Bagchi is a faculty member in Comparative Literature at the Department of Languages, Literature, and Communication at Utrecht University. Her research investigates transcultural utopian imagination in early 20th century India and Britain. Her British Academy Visiting Fellowship was hosted at The Ruskin during the summer and autumn of 2018.

Ruskin and AI

In this post, Dr Rob Smail (our recent AHRC Creative Economy Engagement Fellow) reflects on his research in using Machine Learning to explore Ruskin’s manuscripts.

What can computer Machine Learning reveal about Ruskin?  During my time at The Ruskin as an AHRC Creative Economy Engagement Fellow, I’ve been exploring how the digitisation of The Ruskin Whitehouse Collection can create opportunities for new kinds of research.

The Ruskin Whitehouse Collection is the largest assemblage of Ruskin material in the world, and the most representative of Ruskin’s working practices across a diverse range of media. In addition to 7,400 letters and 29 volumes of manuscript diaries, it includes thousands of drawings, paintings and photographs – digitising all this material will take years. However, supported by the North West Consortium Doctoral Training Partnership (NWCDTP) and the Friends of the National Libraries (FNL), I’ve been able to work with the team at The Ruskin on a study to guide this work.

Our aims in this study were twofold.  We wanted to set some basic digitisation standards and we wanted to experiment with using Machine Learning to trace connections across the full range of Ruskin’s works.

The Source Set

Our first task was to select a source set, with a manageable number of items to develop and refine our approach.  Building on my previous work at the Lancaster Environment Centre, which focused on the historic flora of the Lake District, I decided to choose a source set that revealed Ruskin’s thoughts about the region.

Ruskin first visited the Lakes when he was 5, and he returned throughout his life before deciding to settle there in 1871, when he bought Brantwood, near Coniston. The last tour he made before buying Brantwood took place between late June and August 1867.  On that occasion, Ruskin had come to the Lakes to recover from fatigue.  His stay that summer helped him recoup, which is part of the reason he later made the region his home.

Surprisingly, Ruskin’s 1867 visit has received less attention than his other Lake District holidays. Therefore, we decided to centre our study in the letters he wrote during his tour, which had the added benefit of potentially enabling us to determine what it was about the Lakes that helped lift Ruskin’s spirits.

In all, we identified 53 letters.  These included letters sent by the writer, Thomas Carlyle; the philologist, Fredrick Furnivall (of OED fame); the engraver, George Allen (who would later become Ruskin’s publisher) and the painter, Thomas Richmond.  But the majority of the letters – 39 of the 53 – were sent to Ruskin’s cousin, Joan Severn, and his mother, Margaret.

Image of Ruskin’s letter to Joan Severn, 2 July 1867
Ruskin’s letter to Joan Severn, 2 July 1867

Digitising the Letters

Digitising these letters was a two-part process, which was supported by the contributions of two digitisation assistants: Claire McGann and Ben Wills-Eve.  Working together, we created an accurate and faithful transcription of the contents of each letter, and then we encoded information about each letter’s structure and layout into each transcription.

After consulting current standards, we decided to adapt the ‘modest approach’ to XML (eXtensible Markup Language) encoding recommended by our colleague Andrew Hardie. Andrew’s approach provides a flexible way of using XML tag elements to encode extra information about the plain text transcriptions, whilst keeping the amount of tags added to a minimum.  These elements, which appear inside chevrons, help capture different levels of semantic meaning, and they can help us ensure that information regarding each letter’s structure and layout is retained during the process of digitisation. In order to ensure that our approach was in keeping with best practices in the field, we built on Andrew’s model by selecting tag elements based on the standards of the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI).

Image of a sample XML transcription of Ruskin’s letter to Joan, 2 July 1867
XML transcription of Ruskin’s letter to Joan, 2 July 1867

Using Machine Learning

Once we finished digitising all 53 letters in the source set, we were able to run a series of tests using Machine Learning approaches to examine them.  One aspect of the letters we were keen to examine was whether we could use ‘classifiers’ to detect differences in the way Ruskin wrote to different correspondents.

Classifiers are algorithms that assist with predicative modelling.  They’re often used in supervised Machine Learning research, where raw input data needs to be sorted on the basis of specific characteristics.

In this case, we used a classifier known as Naïve Bayes, which is based on Bayes’s Theorem and which has been shown to be reliable in the classification of texts.  This theorem, formulated by the 18th-century minister and statistician, Thomas Bayes, helps calculate the likelihood of an event on the basis of characteristics that might relate to that event.

We were curious to see whether we could use Naïve Bayes to group the letters in the source set by recipient based on each letter’s stylistic characteristics.

Naïve Bayes works best when the algorithm can cross-reference several examples of the characteristics related to each classification.  This process, which is sometimes called ‘training’, allows the classifier to learn which characteristics to associate with each group.  So, we decided to restrict our experiment to the 39 letters in the source set to Ruskin’s mother, Margaret, and his cousin, Joan.

This gave us a small but sufficient sample with two clearly defined classifications: letters to Margaret and letters to Joan. Our aim was to determine if Naïve Bayes could correctly identify which letters were written to whom based on the words Ruskin used.

We split the letters in to two sets: a training set of 38 letters to which the recipient was known and a testing set of 1 letter, from which we’d removed the recipient’s name.  Whereas the former was used to train Naïve Bayes; we used the latter to test whether the trained classifier was able to determine to whom the anonymised letter was sent.

We repeated the test 39 times, splitting the letters in every possible combination and then taking an average of all 39 predictions.  We were pleased to find that Naïve Bayes was able to predict the recipient of the testing set correctly 87.2 percent of the time.

Our Findings

Our study confirms that there’s a discernible difference between the way Ruskin wrote to his mother and his cousin.  Now, on the face of it, that might not seem all that surprising. Most of us adjust our style to suit our addressee.

What matters though, is that our findings demonstrate that – even with a modest source set – we can begin to train software to detect these differences and this can help us identify patterns in Ruskin’s writings across the whole collection.

Identifying these sorts of patterns gives us a new way of assessing Ruskin’s writing in different contexts over the course of his life, and an approach to determining when undated material was written and the identity of un-named correspondents. In future, it will be possible to train the software we’ve used with increasing accuracy and to extend it to different types of textual material, including Ruskin’s diaries.

These possibilities are exciting.  They will allow us to reveal new links across the collection, providing researchers and visitors with deeper insights into both Ruskin’s works and his world.


Dr Rob Smail received his PhD in History from the University of Manchester in 2012, and he completed his AHRC CEEF Fellowship at The Ruskin in 2019. His exploratory research with the Whitehouse Collection helped pave the way for further projects, including Digitising the Manuscript Letters of John Ruskin and Enriching understanding of natural-cultural heritage in the English Lake District.

LICA Fine Art students learn ‘to see clearly’ at The Ruskin

Dr. Sarah Casey, Senior Lecturer in Drawing and Installation at Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts, writes,

In his Elements of Drawing (1857), Ruskin wrote ‘I believe that the sight is a more important thing than the drawing; and I would rather teach drawing that my pupils learn to love Nature, than teach the looking at nature that they may learn to draw’ (John Ruskin, The Elements of Drawing, 1970 edition , p.13).


In other words, he advocated drawing as a means for seeing and understanding the world around us.  This ethos   of using drawing to better know the world also underpins the learning objectives of Lancaster University’s undergraduate module ‘Documentary Drawing’ taught by Gerry Davies and Sarah Casey to students in Lancaster Institute for the Contemporary Arts. The module is structured around a series of weekly challenges each requiring students to adapt their graphic approach to best capture the specificities of the environment and subject matter presented to them. What better way to introduce this approach to drawing than visit the current exhibition The Ruskin Museum of the Near Future?

So, last week, a group of 20 students came to The Ruskin armed with notebook and pencil.  Students were introduced to Ruskin’s approach to drawing and saw first hand examples of the way he and other artists examined a range of subjects – from environment to architecture – using graphic means. Their task was to explore the exhibition and identify drawings of particular interest from which to make a transcription. In keeping with the module aims, no cameras are allowed. The challenge was to identify point of interest and work out how to make a record of these using only their notebook and pencil.

In addition to viewing the exhibition, the students also had the opportunity to work from collection items in the study room. A number of notebooks and drawings from the archive had been brought out specifically for this purpose. For many students, this was their first archival experience. The opportunity to learn how an archive works, the protocol around studying archival material, such as restrictions on drawing materials, touching and liquids all formed part of their training as investigative drawers.

So, after two hours of almost hallowed silence and deep concentration, we were exhausted. But we had at least six of drawings each to take away as a reminder of this wonderful opportunity and of our capacity to see the world more clearly, when we slow down and take the time to draw it.

Ruskin & Steampunk

John Ruskin, ‘Archivolt in the Duomo of Murano’, The Stones of Venice (1851–53), II, op. 58. 1996P1027 © The Ruskin – Library, Museum and Research Centre, Lancaster University

In this post, Dr Claire Nally (Northumbria University) reflects on the connections between Ruskin’s thought and Steampunk culture, a subject she explored as part of our recent research seminar series, Ruskin & Steampunk: Recovering Radicalism.

In The Steampunk Bible, Jake von Slatt’s article ‘A Steampunk Manifesto’ suggests that steampunk practice is a contestation of contemporary mainstream, mass–produced culture:

The only future we are promised is the one in development in the corporate R&D labs of the world. We are shown glimpses of the next generation of cell phones, laptops, or MP3 players. Magazines that used to attempt to show us how we would be living in fifty or one hundred years, now only speculate over the new surround-sound standard for your home theater, or whether next year’s luxury sedan will have Bluetooth as standard equipment.

This statement of steampunk’s rebellion against the mass-produced, sleek lines of contemporary commodity culture provides a useful comparison to the ways in which the nineteenth-century arts and crafts movement can be used to read the steampunk subculture. Steampunk artists often take something from our modern-day culture, such as the computer, and retro-fit it, or imagine its aesthetic value when invested with nineteenth century images. So one famous example, a steampunk computer, may be fitted with an old typewriter keyboard for an antiquated look. Perhaps the most important example of this work is Datamancer (Richard Nagy), whose website explains:

The idea was to build a full computer station from every significant artistic decade in history. From Art Deco, to Victorian, and even back to Gothic design. It started with a Victorian style brass keyboard […] which pioneered the idea of typewriter key caps on a modern keyboard.

This combination of modern utility with historical style is a hallmark of steampunk design. These are practical everyday objects converted to a steampunk aesthetic: wood, brass, cogs, the inner working of machines.

Computer hardware and equipment designed by Datamancer

Interestingly, many steampunked items are custom-made and marketed through the possibilities allowed by Web 2.0 sites such as Etsy’s craft community, promoting as it does an international network of small businesses and collective engagement. As David Gauntlett argues in Making is Connecting (2013):

Web 2.0, as an approach to the web, is about harnessing the collective abilities of the members of an online network, to make an especially powerful resource or service. But, thinking beyond the Web, it may also be valuable to consider Web 2.0 as a metaphor, for any collective activity which is enabled by people’s passions and becomes something greater than the sum of its parts.

So part of the idea of collectivity and subculture in steampunk is communicated via very modern technology, whereas prior subcultures, such as punk or goth, originally had to rely on analogue methods.

Datamancer’s Sojourner Combo 3

Other steampunk manifestos seem quite emphatically embedded in presenting a steampunk which maps an awareness of the inequalities of the past onto the present, proposing social and aesthetic reform. The Steampunk Magazine is a foundational publication in this respect. The opening article of the first issue, ‘What then, is steampunk?’ articulates this most forcefully:

We seek inspiration in the smog-choked alleys of Victoria’s duskless Empire. We find solidarity and inspiration in the mad bombers with ink-stained cuffs, in whip-wielding women that yield to none, in coughing chimney sweeps who have escaped the rooftops and joined the circus, and in mutineers who have gone native and have handed the tools of their masters to those most ready to use them.

This argument puts the injustices of Victoria’s reign – women’s rights, Empire, class distinctions, working children and poverty – at the forefront of steampunk practice, and aligns steampunk radicalism with the outsider in the nineteenth century. The ‘whip-wielding women’ (whilst being suggestively sexual), possibly refers to suffragette figures like Emily Wilding Davison, who famously attacked a vicar with a dog whip in 1913, mistaking him for the Prime Minister, Lloyd George.  Sympathy with ‘mad bombers’ is likely a gesture towards anarchist agitation in the period, and perhaps specifically references the Greenwich Observatory bombing of 1894 (immortalised in Joseph Conrad’s 1907 novel, The Secret Agent). So in many ways, the magazine presents itself as an activist publication in this opening issue, and this version of steampunk is aided by its publication context, its status as an online zine, and its political content. And in addressing the production of the magazine as well as its content, we can uncover the radicalism which steampunk can represent.

So how does steampunk correlate with the work of Ruskin? Martin Danahay’s discussion of steampunk and Arts and Crafts, as influenced by Ruskin, highlights how both ‘rejected industrialised manufacturing and emphasized a return to small-scale production of handcrafted objects.’ Much of the DIY ethics of steampunk has a similar trajectory, even if it celebrates the industrial machinery which the Arts and Crafts movement rejected. Ruskin’s comment in The Stones of Venice (1851–53), that industrial production renders the worker akin to a machine, plainly espouses artistic freedom instead of mass-produced monotony:

Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them. (10.192)

There is a tension here between such dehumanization, and the celebration of the prosthetic in steampunk performances. Steampunk arms, hands, and mechanical attachments to the body all suggest an uneasy negotiation of our relationship with machinery. But in each instance, the hallmark of the steampunk aesthetic is the imperfect, as the Catastrophone Orchestra article in The Steampunk Magazine makes clear: ‘Imperfection, chaos, chance, and obsolescence are not to be seen as faults, but as ways of allowing spontaneous liberation from the predictability of perfection.’

John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, 3 vols (London: Smith, Elder & Co. 1851–53), vol. I, title page. 1996B1112 © The Ruskin – Library, Museum and Research Centre, Lancaster University

Danahay describes this correlation between steampunk and Ruskin’s work as the ‘as both the rejection of industrialized mass production and the promotion of humane conditions of labour’ (p. 42). These discussions of labour and exploitation, the role of technology, DIY and resistance, find a focal point in The Steampunk Magazine, which lasted for nine issues, and delivered interviews with writers, such as Michael Moorcock and Alan Moore, as well as musicians and bands. The magazine also published original fiction and poetry on steampunk themes, but a large part of the publication was comprised of non-fiction articles, including descriptions of the subculture, lifestyle advice, and hints and tips for makers and DIY practitioners (for instance, ‘It Can’t All Be Brass, Dear: Paper Maché in the Modern Home’, ‘Sew an Aviator’s Cap’, ‘Sew Yourself a Lady’s Artisan Apron’). At the heart of many articles is an incendiary plan to revolutionise society (‘The Courage to Kill a King: Anarchists in a Time of Regicide’, ‘Nevermind the Morlocks: Here’s Occupy Wall Street’, ‘On Race and Steampunk: A Quick Primer’, ‘Riot Grrls, 19th Century Style’).

John Ruskin, Stones of Venice: Cornice Decoration (c. 1851), 24 x 16.2 cm; pencil, ink and ink wash. 1996P1036 © The Ruskin – Library, Museum and Research Centre, Lancaster University

One of the most compelling facts about steampunk is that despite its emphasis on material, tactile culture, its visibility online (through maker websites like Etsy, community forums such as ‘Brass Goggles’, online publications such as The Steampunk Journal, and designated groups on Facebook, among many other sites and forums) mean that steampunk’s digital footprint is extensive, as is now common to many subcultures. Indeed, in many ways, The Steampunk Magazine participates in constructing and maintaining the imagined subcultural community of steampunk. In his definitive statement on nationalism, Imagined Communities (1983), Benedict Anderson maintained that ‘[the nation] is an imagined political community […] because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or ever hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.’ These subcultural communities function in a similar way. As Danahay again remarks:

There are no steampunk communities in the sense envisioned by […] the Arts and Crafts movement. Rather, there are steampunk websites, discussion groups, and Facebook groups, as well as frequent temporary gatherings at conventions and other social events. People involved often refer to the “steampunk community,” but this term refers to purely virtual and abstract social grouping. Thanks to the Internet, those involved in steampunk can believe that they are members of a group, even if their connection remains entirely virtual. (p. 42)

In many ways, this is a navigation of Ruskin’s theorisation of guilds and workers’ collectives. In part, there is a strong sense of community in steampunk practice, but there is also the valorisation of the cult of the individual: the name of the maker, akin to a brand, also acquires visibility, as with post-romantic art and literature generally.

This context is especially important for The Steampunk Magazine, which was initially published in 2007 online and in print, and remains one of the best examples of resistant steampunk practice. The Catastrophone Orchestra and Arts Collective, publishing in Issue 1 of The Steampunk Magazine, suggests that ‘Steampunk rejects the myopic, nostalgia-drenched politics so common among “alternative” cultures […] Too much of what passes as steampunk denies the punk, in all its guises.’ This also summarises the ethos of the magazine very effectively. As a manifesto to steampunk practice, this perspective neatly situates itself against an uncritical nostalgia which replicates the Victorian age without any political critique. Relatedly, in some ways, steampunk more generally also carries the implicit burden of Ruskin’s critique of the nineteenth century. Steampunk has much to say about aesthetics in the contemporary moment: how we relate to machinery, the status of the individual in contemporary culture, and the ways in which subcultures engage with these key cultural themes. We might also say that in dialogue with historical figures like Ruskin, steampunk acquires a new level of depth and complexity.


Dr Claire Nally is an Associate Professor of Modern and Contemporary Literature at Northumbria University, UK. She researches Irish Studies, Neo-Victorianism, Gender and Subcultures. She has published widely on goth and steampunk subcultures, and her most recent monograph is Steampunk: Gender, Subculture and the Neo-Victorian (Bloomsbury, 2019).

‘Counting the holes in his carpet’: Northcote and Ruskin, portraiture and memory

In 1822, at the age of three and a half, Ruskin was taken to the London studio of James Northcote to sit for his portrait. We know about the making of this picture because more than half a century afterwards Ruskin wrote about it, in an instalment of Fors Clavigera (1871–84) which he later incorporated into his autobiography Praeterita (1885–9). Northcote was seventy-six when the portrait was painted: as Ruskin describes him in retrospect he is emphatically old, ‘old Mr Northcote’, ‘the old painter’. Ruskin himself was fifty-six when he recalled this episode in Fors, and ten years older when the opening chapters of Praeterita were published. In various ways this memory of the portrait offers a tiny emblem of the work of autobiography: staging, and restaging, the continuing encounter between youth and age, self and others, that culminates in the autobiographer’s encounter with his own child-self, and locating the origins of adult qualities and accomplishments, the well-springs of character (often, for Ruskin, associated with real remembered wells and springs).

The immediate context for the portrait sitting in the first chapter of Praeterita is Ruskin’s consideration of his very early upbringing. He was generally left to his own devices by his mother, so long as he was ‘neither fretful nor troublesome’: he recalls being ‘always summarily whipped if I cried, did not do as I was bid, or tumbled on the stairs’. He was allowed only the simplest toys (a ball, a bunch of keys, some wooden bricks), and was strictly required to occupy himself: ‘the law was, that I should find my own amusement’. As a consequence, by his fourth year he was content to pass a day at home in Brunswick Square, Bloomsbury by ‘tracing the squares and comparing the colours of my carpet;—examining the knots in the wood of the floor, or counting the bricks in the opposite houses’. Without quite saying so, Ruskin is describing an education in looking, patiently and closely and accurately. And he tells us that his eye for visual detail was so acute that when he was brought for the first time to Northcote’s studio in Argyll Street, Soho ‘I had not been ten minutes alone with him before I asked him why there were holes in his carpet’.

John Ruskin by James Northcote
John Ruskin
by James Northcote
oil on linen, 1822
NPG 5973
© National Portrait Gallery, London

The intensity of the child’s gaze is funny but also disconcerting: he is there to be looked at, after all. As the passage continues, too, Ruskin brings to bear the grown-up version of that faculty, turning the practised gaze of an art-critic and teacher on Northcote’s work in the past, and good-naturedly picking holes in it. Looking at the portrait now he sees ‘a very pretty child with yellow hair, dressed in a white frock like a girl, with a broad light-blue sash and blue shoes to match; the feet of the child wholesomely large in proportion to its body; and the shoes still more wholesomely large in proportion to the feet’. Those sound like faults of proportion, noted with amusement; but more striking in the picture than the relative size of body, feet, and shoes is the perfect stillness of the child’s head atop a rushing body. As Ruskin notes, ‘I am represented as running in a field at the edge of a wood with the trunks of its trees striped across in the manner of Sir Joshua Reynolds; while two rounded hills, as blue as my shoes, appear in the distance’. Surely he means he was misrepresented as doing so: the romping pose is no more faithful to sitter or occasion than is Northcote’s reproduction of the mannerisms of the artist who had been his own teacher a generation before. And indeed Ruskin notes that Northcote found him a convenient sitter exactly because of his stillness, his ability to remain ‘contentedly motionless, counting the holes in his carpet’; a quality visible in the finished portrait only in the placid immobility of the child’s expression, unmoved even by the little dog in the foreground who so clearly wants to play with him, and about whom the grown-up Ruskin, oddly, says nothing at all.

He does tell us that the hills in the background ‘were put in by the painter at my own request’, and that he had asked specifically for blue hills, not so that they should match his shoes but because ‘I had already been once, if not twice, taken to Scotland; and my Scottish nurse having always sung to me as we approached the Tweed or Esk,—

“For Scotland, my darling, lies full in thy view,
With her barefooted lassies, and mountains so blue,”

the idea of distant hills was connected in my mind with approach to the extreme felicities of life, in my Scottish aunt’s garden of gooseberry bushes, sloping to the Tay.’ The river at the bottom of that garden, Ruskin has already told us in this chapter, ran ‘clear-brown over the pebbles three or four feet deep; swift-eddying,—an infinite thing for a child to look down into’. It is one of many streams that flow through the early pages of Praeterita, affording the young Ruskin ‘occasional glimpses of the rivers of Paradise’: ‘the delicious dripping’ after the water-carts were filled from a stand-pipe in Brunswick Square; ‘the spring of crystal water at the back door’ of another aunt’s house at Croydon; ‘the cress-set rivulets in which the sand danced and minnows darted above the Springs of Wandel’. The couplet endearingly repeated by Ruskin’s nurse comes from Robert Bloomfield’s ‘Song, For a Highland Drover returning from England’ (1801), a cattle-drover’s joyful apostrophe to the River Tweed on a homeward journey through the Scottish Borders. Yet when the Ruskins visited Scotland they both were and were not returning from England, and his aunt’s house at Perth was not home for Ruskin: home, rather, already, seems to have been no place in particular but just the visible, whatever lay full in his view, the infinite felicity of moving water, the mountains rising before him.


Oliver Herford is Birmingham Fellow in Literature of the Long Nineteenth Century at the University of Birmingham, where he co-directs the Centre for Literary Editing and the Materiality of the Text. He is the author of Henry James’s Style of Retrospect: Late Personal Writings, 1890–1915 (OUP, 2016) and a number of articles on related aspects of James’s non-fictional style, and is currently editing the Prefaces to the New York Edition for the Cambridge Edition of The Complete Fiction of Henry James (CUP, forthcoming). He was President of the Henry James Society for 2018. Oliver has also published on the links between portraiture, letter-writing and life-writing in the circle of John Keats, and his next research project will be a study of nineteenth-century literary correspondence.

Ruskin’s Ecology

In this post, Kelly Freeman (UCL) and Thomas Hughes (The Courtauld Institute of Art) discuss ‘Ruskin’s Ecology’, the interdisciplinary seminar series and workshop delivered in collaboration with The Ruskin in the Spring.  These events have paved the way for a forthcoming book, Ruskin’s Ecologies, and reflect The Ruskin’s commitment to supporting the development and publication of new research.

Can Ruskin’s ideas inspire new thinking in art history, material culture and environmental studies?  Our recent seminar series and workshop, ‘Ruskin’s Ecology’, certainly suggests that it can.

This series was a collaborative undertaking. Working in partnership with The Ruskin, we brought together scholars and Ruskin enthusiasts from across the UK and from the US for an extended consideration of Ruskin’s thinking about the relation between nature, society, art and architecture.

Over the course of three seminars and a workshop, we discussed and debated topics ranging from Ruskin’s garden to pollution and climate change, and from organicism in art and architecture to interrelations between surface and depth.

Thomas brought both of these latter subjects to the fore in the paper he delivered at our first seminar, ‘Surface, Depth and Form in Ruskin’s Gothic Naturalism’. This paper placed a familiar subject in a new light by formulating an interpretation of Ruskin’s ideas about the gothic through fleshy metaphor and organic analogy. Building on the work of Anuradha Chatterjee, Thomas explored the ecological relationship between architectural surface and depth by considering Ruskin’s presentation of the ‘wall veil’ in The Stones of Venice as a kind of ‘interpenetrative skin’.

Taking up Ruskin’s notion of ‘surface gothic’, Thomas proceeded to consider how, for Ruskin, architectural surfaces become ‘layers that thicken’ and that, in thickening, interpenetrate within and beyond architecture itself. Such surfaces, as Thomas concluded, not only shape their environment, but also become an active part of the ecology of human existence.

John Ruskin, The Walls of Lucerne, c. 1866, Graphite pencil, watercolour and body colour on grey-green paper, 34.0 x 48.0 cm. The Ruskin, Lancaster University, 1996P1376.

Our second event was a workshop that featured talks by five invited speakers from Manchester, Cardiff, London and the US. Dr Pandora Syperek introduced many of the key themes of the session with her consideration of Ruskin’s pedagogical aims at Oxford’s Natural History Museum.

In a marvellous excavation of what could be called Ruskin’s crystalline ecology, Pandora highlighted Ruskin’s ideas about the bodily nature of stones (the smell and taste of crystals, with their ‘shimmering, tactile and potential deliciousness’) and she explored how, for Ruskin, such qualities presented a breaking down of the hierarchy of things.

Bringing us back above ground, Caroline Ikin (Manchester Metropolitan University) approached Ruskin’s relationship with nature from the perspective of little-known archival material, including personal correspondence. Drawing on her doctoral research, Caroline put new spins on old questions with striking effect. Many of us were particularly intrigued to learn of a letter in which Ruskin discussed the practice of kissing flowers.

Caroline also considered Brantwood (Ruskin’s Lake District home) as a site of ecological thinking and as the location for many of Ruskin’s more profound environmental judgements.  She showed how Brantwood provided Ruskin with a home in which to ‘nest’ and ‘rest’ as well as a ‘pasture’ in which to lie down and ‘become earth’.

Dr Rachel Dickinson (Manchester Metropolitan University) extended this line of thought in her paper, which proffered the significant observation that Ruskin was at the cutting edge of developing the concept of ‘pollution’. Rachel drew particular attention to how Ruskin’s reflections on pollution convey some of his deepest moral and environmental concerns.

From here, Professor Stephen Kite (Cardiff University) led us on a fascinating journey through some of the afterlives of Ruskin’s ecological thinking about surface. Combining considerations of the works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris, Professor Kite reminded us that the aesthetic – and indeed the architectural – are integral to Ruskin’s legacy.

John Ruskin, Trees and Rocks, c. 1845. Pencil, ink, ink wash and body colour on paper, 33.5 x 27.5 cm. The Ruskin, Lancaster University, 1996P1566.

Midway through the workshop, all attendees were invited to participate in a group discussion of Ruskin’s ‘The Law of Help’ (from Modern Painters).  This text is a crucial point of reference for any discussion of Ruskin’s ideas about the interconnectedness of the environment, aesthetics and politics, and our discussion raised challenging questions that cut to the quick of Ruskin’s concerns. Throughout our discussion, the Ruskinian ecological adage that in all things cooperation is life rang true, and there was plenty of progress made, new light shed and fresh perspectives shared.

Taking the time-honoured Ruskin Seminar slot, Dr Jeremy Melius (Tufts University) concluded our workshop with a keynote, ‘Ruskin and the Art of Relations’, which focused on Ruskin’s reading of Veronese’s Adoration of the Virgin by the Coccina Family (c. 1571).

Jeremy offered an eloquent exploration of Ruskin’s practice of decoding political, aesthetic and indeed ecological meanings from pictorial composition. More than just providing insights into this crucial dimension of Ruskin’s methods, Jeremy also helped us to appreciate the warmth of heart and cast of mind that informed so much of Ruskin’s finest criticism.

A particular highlight of the evening was Jeremy’s exposition of Ruskin’s reading of the dog portrayed in Veronese’s painting. Jeremy’s commentary on this seemingly minor detail provoked laughter all the more for its profundity.

The series concluded with our third seminar at which Kelly delivered a paper entitled ‘The Mountain’s Anatomy: Articulating Skeletons in Ruskin’s Ecological Imagination’.  This paper took us to the heart of Ruskin’s ideas about the interconnectedness of nature, architecture and the human body by exploring the use of bone and skeleton metaphors in his works.

Ruskin’s use of such metaphors, as Kelly showed, resonates in all sorts of interesting ways with wider conventions in architectural theory and practice – from Alberti to the Eiffell Tower. At the same time, however, Kelly revealed how Ruskin’s osseous metaphors also depart from these conventions, spin wonderful, elaborate contradictions and seem to be doing a whole lot more.

It’s been pointed out that ecology is not a word that Ruskin is known to have used.  Collectively, though, the participants in ‘Ruskin’s Ecology’ have proven that Ruskin’s ideas about the vital relations between art, architecture, society and nature are very much in keeping with the broader meaning that the word ‘ecology’ possesses today.

We are grateful to our speakers and to our attendees.  We were really pleased to have such a great turn-out at all of our events (despite the at times inclement weather), and it was terrific to have so many Ruskin devotees engage in the discussion.  Above all, we would like to thank Professor Sandra Kemp and Dr Chris Donaldson for allowing us to organise these events.

Below we include a list of suggested reading, though it omits one important publication: Ruskin’s Ecologies, a collection of essays we are editing, which, when it comes out later this year, will stand as a monument to a memorable term of new thinking about the significance of Ruskin’s ideas for some of the biggest questions now facing art and society.

Mark Frost, ‘Reading Nature: John Ruskin, Environment and the Ecological Impulse’ in Victorian Writers and the Environment: Ecocritical Perspectives, eds L. W. Mazzeno and R. D. Morrison (New York: Routledge-Cavendish, 2017), 13–28.

Lars Spuybroek, The Sympathy of Things: John Ruskin and the Ecology of Design (London: Bloomsbury, 2016).

Jesse Oak Taylor, ‘Storm-Clouds on the Horizon: John Ruskin and the Emergence of Anthropogenic Climate Change’, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, 26 (2018) [doi:].

Michael Wheeler ed., Ruskin and Environment: The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1995).

Author biographies
Dr Kelly Freeman completed her doctoral thesis ‘Skeletons of Iron & Bone: Architecture and Display in the Nineteenth-century Museum of Natural History’ at UCL in 2018. This project examined the dynamic relationship between the materials and metaphors of iron and bone in nineteenth-century Britain and France, as presented in the iron ‘skeleton’ architecture of certain museums of natural history and the skeletal specimens housed within them.

Dr Thomas Hughes is Associate Lecturer at The Courtauld Institute of Art. He is an art historian specialising in nineteenth-century British art and art writing. He completed his PhD at The Courtauld in 2018 on John Ruskin, Walter Pater and the art of the Aesthetic Movement, and he is currently transforming his thesis into a book called Curious Beauty.

John Ruskin, the Wildes, and Imagination’s Reign

This blog, by Rebecca Mitchell, University of Birmingham, draws on new research to reveal a previously undocumented link between John Ruskin and Constance and Oscar Wilde.

Oscar Wilde’s connection with Ruskin is well known but surprisingly under-explored.[1] One famous episode from their shared past, a story on which Wilde dined out for decades, was the young man’s participation, while an undergraduate at Oxford, in Ruskin’s Hinksey road effort. But the Slade Professor’s influence was by no means confined to Wilde’s Oxford years, and scholars including John Unrau have called for more attention to be paid to the role that Ruskin played throughout Wilde’s adult life, a role that extended to friendship with Wilde’s wife Constance.[2] As Unrau has detailed, in April 1888 Ruskin suggested that Constance present an award on his behalf at the Whitelands Training College. In a letter to the Reverend J. P. Faunthorpe, principal of the college, Ruskin wrote, “I think perhaps Mrs Oscar Wilde might like to do it  Oscar has always been a most true friend to me, and she, more than I knew.”[3] Ruskin’s enduring friendship with Constance was built in part on mutual acquaintances from beyond Oscar’s circle: in February 1895, to give one example, Constance and Georgina Mount-Temple—confidante of Ruskin as well as Constance—hosted a party for Ruskin’s 76th birthday.[4]

Constance Wilde
Constance Wilde, c. 1887. Public domain image via Creative Commons

Another instantiation of their friendship has escaped scholarly scrutiny. In the months before his letter to Faunthorpe, Constance apparently saw Ruskin in Sandgate, where he moved in August 1887 and lived through the following spring. The visit is documented by an inscription in Constance Wilde’s visitor’s book, now held in the Eccles Bequest at the British Library.[5] In her biography of Constance, Franny Moyle writes that Wilde’s wife, “ever the collector, and impressed by fame and success…made sure that she captured the signatures of some of her visitors” in the book.[6] It must be noted that in 1888, Constance and Oscar were still a united couple, well on the way to fame and socializing in rarefied literary and artistic circles. Indeed, signatories of the book comprise a who’s who of Oscar’s friends, colleagues, mentors, and idols, including Walter Pater, Robert Browning, George Meredith, James McNeill Whistler, and Charles Shannon and Charles Ricketts. Constance’s acquaintances, cultural luminaries, and passers-through also make appearances: George Grossmith, G. F. Watts, John Bright, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Mark Twain, Marie Corelli, and Vernon Lee all signed the book, among many others. Even Pablo de Sarasate penned the first few bars of his “Zigeunerweisen” above his signature.

Ruskin’s contribution is comfortably situated among such starry company. It appears a few pages after A. C. Swinburne’s contribution—a holograph copy of “Of such is the kingdom of heaven,” here titled “Children”—and a page featuring the signatures of William and Jane Morris. [7] Morris’s inscription seems wholly representative of his longstanding ethos: “The secret of happiness | To take pleasure in all the details of Life and not to live vicariously.”[8]

Constance Wilde's autograph book
John Ruskin’s entry in Constance Wilde’s Autograph Book, Eccles Bequest. Vol. CXXXVII A; British Library Add MS 81755, p. 22. Used with permission.

Written in a clear hand, and occupying its own page, Ruskin’s entry is in many ways similarly typical:

It is thought that Imagination reigns in a
world lovelier than we have known.
But no imagination is clear or bright enough
to conceive the glory of the world we see,
yet know not.

                    John Ruskin

Sandgate 28th Jany

Ruskin engages (albeit briefly) with the analyses of the imagination that extended throughout his long career.[10] An 1849 diary entry captures an early iteration of this theme. Considering the impact of ignorance and knowledge on the imagination—in particular, the impact of his geological knowledge on his ability to experience the sublimity of the Alps—he muses on ‘two things’ that determine the relationship:  “firstly whether this knowledge, carried out or accompanied by further knowledge of God’s works (astronomy, &c.) would not, in the end, open still nobler fields to the imagination; and secondly, supposing it would not, how much the ignorant Imagination is really worth.”[11] Nearly fifty years later, writing in Constance’s book, Ruskin seems still to conclude that imagination alone is insufficient to know the “glory” of the world around us.

Ruskin’s line might cast into relief Oscar’s own relationship to the imagination, the complexity of which far exceeds the limits of this blogpost. Perhaps the most Ruskin-appropriate touchstone from this period is Wilde’s children’s story “The Remarkable Rocket” (1888), in which he skewers James McNeill Whistler—represented by an insufferably pompous firework rocket—whose famous altercation with Ruskin over his painting Nocturne in Black and Gold—the Falling Rocket was still a familiar memory. The self-deluded rocket insists, “Why, anybody can have common sense, provided they have no imagination. But I have imagination, for I never think of things as they really are; I always think of them as being quite different.”[12] For the rocket, complete disregard of fact (namely his arrogance and uselessness) leads to his ruin. Elsewhere in Wilde’s writing, his full-throated embrace of “beautiful, untrue things,” and his insistence that truth was not necessarily allied to fact, suggest that his notion of the imagination and its role in artistic vision was not the same as Ruskin’s.[13]

What Constance might have made of Ruskin’s entry is even less clear. Her limited published writing of this period—primarily children’s stories and a few articles for periodicals—does not address imagination; Moyle’s biography has precious little to say about Ruskin. There is an unfortunate tendency of among some of Oscar’s biographers to regard all moments of his life as leading inevitably to his trial and imprisonment, and in this vein, it might be tempting to read Ruskin’s inscription as an ominous foreshadow: Constance would likely have been unable, even with a clear and bright imagination, to conceive of the realities of the devastation awaiting her family just a few years later.  But it was clearly the overlooked glories of one’s time that concerned Ruskin, not its potential miseries, and his inscription is better understood as an artefact of what was still a promising time in the Wildes’ lives.


Rebecca N. Mitchell is Reader of Victorian Literature and Culture and Director of the Nineteenth-Century Centre at the University of Birmingham. She has published widely on Oscar Wilde, Victorian realism, print culture, and fashion. Her recent books include Fashioning the Victorians: A Critical Sourcebook (Bloomsbury Academic, 2018), Drawing on the Victorians: The Palimpsest of Victorian and Neo-Victorian Graphic Texts (co-edited with Anna Maria Jones, Ohio UP 2017) and Oscar Wilde’s Chatterton: Literary History, Romanticism, and the Art of Forgery (co-authored with Joseph Bristow, Yale UP 2015). She is currently co-editing Wilde’s Unpublished, Incomplete, and Miscellaneous Works for the Oxford English Text edition of the Complete Works of Oscar Wilde.


The author wishes to thank Merlin Holland and the British Library for permission to quote from and use the image from Constance Wilde’s autograph book, and to Lucy Evans and Hannah Francis for research assistance.

[1] e.g. John Unrau, “Ruskin and the Wildes: The Whitelands Connection,” Notes and Queries 29, no. 4 (1982): 316-317.

[2] Lot “98 Ruskin’s Modern Painters, vol. 2, and other books, Juvenal with plates, &c.” and Lot “102 Five vols. of Ruskin’s Works, blue calf, Ruskin’s Elements of Drawings, and other vols. Ruskin, etc.” Bullock Auction House, Catalogue of the Library of Valuable Books…Wednesday April 24th, 1895, reprinted in A. N. L. Munby, Sale Catalogues of Libraries of Eminent Persons, vol. 1, Poets and Men of Letter (London: Mansell, 1971), p. 381, 382.

[3] Quoted in Unrau, p. 316. Punctuation and italics as in Unrau. At the time of the article’s writing, the then-unpublished letter was held in the Wellesley College Library.

[4] Franny Moyle, Constance: The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs. Oscar Wilde (London: John Murray, 2011), p. 253. Later that month, Oscar received the accusatory calling card from the Marquess of Queensbury that ultimately led to Wilde’s arrest.

[5] Unrau mentions the autograph book (p. 317), citing Hesketh Pearson’s biography of Wilde (Life of Oscar Wilde [London: Metheun, 1952] p. 262). Ian Small also records its existence in Oscar Wilde Revalued: An Essay on New Materials & Methods of Research (ELH Press, 1993), p. 110.

[6] Moyle, Constance, p. 126-127.

[7] Swinburne’s poem first appeared in Tristram of Lyonesse and Other Poems (London: Chatto & Windus, 1882) as poem XXII of “A Dark Month”, p. 341. It appears as “Children” in the 1887 collection Select Poems (London: Chatto & Windus), p. 97. Though undated, context suggests the page was written in April 1887, when Wilde’s sons Cyril and Vyvyan would have been nearly two and six months old, respectively.  Constance Wilde, Autograph book, Eccles Bequest. Vol. CXXXVII A; British Library Add MS 81755, p. 16. Used with permission.

[8] Jane offered lines from FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát: “My tomb shall be in a spot where the | north wind may scatter roses over it.” The entry is dated 23 March, 1888. C. Wilde, Autograph book, p. 23.

[9] C. Wilde, Autograph book, p. 22. As far as I know, the lines are published here for the first time.

[10] W. G. Collingwood, The Life of John Ruskin (London: Methuen, 1893), vol. II, p. 316. Neither Collingwood’s nor John Dixon Hunt’s biography of Ruskin mentions a visit from Constance at or around this time. Oscar Wilde’s published correspondence from the period shows him based in their family home on Tite Street in London, but letters from January 1888 are sparse and there certainly could have been time for travel. Constance’s biographers also do not detail a visit around this time, though there are records that the couple did respond to Ruskin’s invitations in March of the same year. Again, Unrau is the lonely source who recounts the episode.

[11] The Diaries of John Ruskin 1848-1873, Joan Evans and John Howard Whitehouse, eds., (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1958) p. 416.

[12] Oscar Wilde, “The Remarkable Rocket,” in The Happy Prince and Other Tales (London: David Nutt, 1888), p. 100.

[13] Oscar Wilde, “The Decay of Lying” Nineteenth Century 25 (January 1889), p. 55-56.