When I was at school, I liked writing anything, from poems to tall stories, the latter with me as the hero. One day, a teacher said to me, ’It doesn’t matter how clever you are if nobody can read your writing’. This led to me spending all my holidays at the British Library looking at letters from all the notable scientists, literati, artists, etc. I came to the conclusion that they wrote no clearer than I did, but the spark was ignited and, at the age of fifteen, I started to collect anything written.
In the early 1960s I obtained a third share in the only antiquarian booksellers in the City of London with an arrangement that I could have what I wanted either free or for a very low price. One day, a customer came in with five letters and four small sepia pen and ink drawings by someone called Turner. Anyway, I got them for my collection and began to see who this Turner chap was. Each of the books I read kept on about some collector named Ruskin with photos of a few of his letters. This research led me to join the Turner Society led by Selby Whittingham.
I spent a lot of time in the bookshops down Cecil Court and one day I asked a dealer if he had any written material, just on the off-chance and without much hope. He told me that a gentleman had just dropped off three diaries, some letters and a couple of watercolours. I looked through the diaries and almost immediately a poem jumped out at me entitled ‘Goodnight from Lucerne’ with the initials J.R. I had already recognised the writing and immediately handed over the £40 asking price for the lot. The dealer told me that the seller had other such items which the dealer did not want. Accordingly, I went from shop to shop along Cecil Court and finished up with more letters, some books and photographs. I do not have to tell any of the readers that the Connie was Mary Constance Hilliard, one of Ruskin’s closest women friends throughout his middle and later years. This Cecil Court haul and later lucky finds form the basis of a book I have been writing for some years called ‘Ruskin and the Hilliards’.
Left: This is the page in Connie’s diary that jumped out at me as Ruskin’s writing. Right: The flyleaf of Sir Philip Sydney’s ‘Psalmes of David gifted to Sara Andersen by Ruskin. Both images copyright collection of the author. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
In 1965, I was privileged to have dinner three times with Picasso. Naturally, the conversation turned to our mutual interest, art. I told him of my fascination with Turner and he made some very favourable comments about him, but forcibly denying that he was the ‘first impressionist as said by some Philistines’. I then mentioned Ruskin. Picasso shrugged his shoulders and said that JR wrote a lot, some of which made sense. He then added with a twinkle in his eye, ‘I have heard that he was also surrounded by many young ladies, but he was foolish enough not to know what to do with them!’
Last modified 9 July 2019