Decorated initial U

ecause of serious omissions, all of the biographies purporting to tell the story of John Ruskin’s days are incomplete, misleading, or, in some cases, simply wrong. The reasons for and consequences of this lamentable situation are detailed below, but the sine qua non which has generated the problem is this: that, allowing a few exceptions, the authors of these works have invested neither the time nor the effort needed to consult and absorb the implications of an immense body of holographic material relevant to Ruskin’s life preserved in institutions in the United States. Until that gap is closed, it will remain the case that a comprehensive, accurate, and definitive biography of Ruskin has not yet seen the light of day.

By using the word “omissions” above, I neither impugn the dedication of Ruskin’s biographers nor suggest that the majority of what they report is incorrect. But I do contend that the overarching tale these works tell of his life and its principal concerns is flawed because other readings of that life and its interests have been impossible due to the absence of the information to which I have alluded.1 Even more unfortunately, because of this omission, the readings of Ruskin’s life presented in these biographies have fueled, however unintentionally, the current, widespread deprecations of his character and work.2

To understand why this reservoir of biographic material has been all but ignored, we need to begin by considering a conspiratorial decision, a decision which, once it was taken and put into practice in the early months of the last century, has distorted our understanding of his life to the present day.

A Decision to Expurgate

When Ruskin died in January 1900, Brantwood, his home in England’s lovely Lake District contained thousands of his letters, dozens of his manuscripts, and nearly all his diaries. Almost immediately, these became the primary sources used by two executors of his literary estate—his caretaker-cousin Joan Severn and Alexander Wedderburn, his former student and trusted friend—in fashioning The Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin, a 39-volume tribute which, with E. T. Cook working alongside Wedderburn as co-editor, was published by subscription between 1903 and 1912. To contextualize the manuscripts that would comprise the bulk of each volume, the editors decided to create a series of introductory chapters telling the story of his life as it pertained to the works in any given volume.

There was, however, a problem—because, in addition to being a celebration of Ruskin’s genius, The Library Edition was intended as a money-maker, its profits going to Severn and the editors.3 Despite Ruskin’s oft-stated insistence that his story be told straight (he being sure there was nothing to hide), there were, as Severn, Wedderburn—and Harvard Professor Charles Eliot Norton, long Ruskin’s friend and third executor of the literary estate—saw it, aspects of his life which, fully exposed, might sully his reputation as a great, wise, and kindly sage, a diminution that might curtail sales. There were, for examples, his decades long, often rancorous, conflict with his father over the direction his life should take; the intense depressions and psychotic attacks which, once they began in the late 1870s, recurred until his death; there were the unflattering residua of his failed marriage to Effie Gray, a union annulled because of what was thought to be his “incurable impotence”; his later, also decades-long, obsessive love of the thirty-years younger Rose La Touche; not to mention his abiding and unsettling interest in young girls. To rehearse these issues in any detail seemed foolhardy.

And so a decision to bowdlerize was made. Joan, acting as first censor, would review the thousands of Ruskin’s missives at Brantwood, destroying altogether or excising any passages she thought too revealing before sending “cleansed” letter packets to Wedderburn in London. After making transcripts, Wedderburn would edit the letters further before giving them to Cook who was tasked with writing the introductions; after which the originals were returned to Brantwood. Given that the Library Edition was composed in an impeccable scholarly style, and given that each volume’s introduction was presented using the same authoritative voice, and, finally, given that subscribers knew the editors had the vast bulk of Ruskin’s letter holographs to work with, it never occurred to anyone that the life story they were reading had been carefully edited for effect.

The Road to Forgetting

Joan died in 1924. By the decade’s end, her husband, the painter Arthur Severn, always desirous of cash and never a fan of Ruskin’s, decided to auction off the entirety of his artifacts still at Brantwood (furniture, household items, paintings, all letters, manuscripts, and diaries). Starting in 1930, a series of sales were held there and in London, with the result that thousands of Ruskin’s holographs were purchased by a broad spectrum of new owners. Many bought by Britons would eventually be sold or gifted to UK museums and libraries, but many others were secured by American institutions or private individuals who, in due course, would make decisions that would result in their preservation on the western side of the Atlantic.5

In the decades following, Ruskin biographers working in the UK and Europe, although aware that letter caches existed in America, felt little urge to traverse the waters—first because such travel would prove both time-consuming and costly, and second because it was hard to imagine, given that the Library Edition’s introductions had set out all of seeming importance about Ruskin’s life and that a surfeit of missives remained in the UK (principally, at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, The John Rylands University of Manchester Library, and The Ruskin Galleries on the Isle of Wight6) that anything momentous would come of the effort.

There were indications that this disinterest in travel was a mistake. In 1956, Helen Gill Viljoen published Ruskin’s Scottish Heritage, the first of an anticipated four-volume biography. Based almost entirely on unpublished materials in America, it told the Ruskin family history in much greater depth than before. Fifteen years later, her Brantwood Diary of John Ruskin was another major event, making available a long-lost Ruskin diary documenting, often heart-wrenchingly, his periodic descents into madness; at the back, she printed 200 letters composed by Ruskin’s friends and associates which afforded important new insights into his life. The holographs of both the diary and the letters were at New York’s Morgan Library.

[Picture of Helen Viljoen about here.] In 1968, Van Aikin Burd published the first of three works based on other Morgan holographs. The first, The Winnington Letters of John Ruskin, contextualized by his extensive commentaries, made available nearly 400 letters written by or to Ruskin in the 1860s, a time when he was reassessing his life in the wake of what he regarded as the failure of his art and architecture books to transform the world for the better. After Viljoen’s death in 1974, Burd found, among other holographs she left to the Library, two diaries written by the love of Ruskin’s life, Rose La Touche. In 1979, framed by his assiduously researched essay, these were the foundation for John Ruskin and Rose La Touche, a work still definitive because of its documentation of how significant the star-crossed lovers’ drama had been in both lives, a story all but entirely suppressed in the Library Edition. In 1990, his Christmas Story appeared. Based on three long missives Ruskin, then living in Venice, sent Joan in late 1876, it revealed his agonizing attempts to contact Rose after her death (from insanity and anorexia nervosa) the year before.

Van Akin Burd on the Occasion of his 100th Birthday. Click on image to enlarge it.

Not long before, in 1987, John Bradley and Ian Ousby published The Correspondence of John Ruskin and Charles Eliot Norton, a large, confessional exchange which spanned the last four decades of Ruskin’s life, a cache long been preserved at Harvard’s Houghton Library.

All these works were duly lauded on publication. All remain classics of Ruskin biography. In their introductions to their books, Viljoen and Burd made it clear that they were only exposing the tip of an immense iceberg of biographic material vital for telling Ruskin’s story accurately, which was housed in America. Notwithstanding, in the ensuing decades, few who worked on Ruskin’s life elsewhere came to the United States, and, of the ones who did, few stayed long.

There is a second, more calamitous, consequence attached to this forgetting of the American Ruskiniana, another unanticipated outgrowth of the Brantwood sales. For, in one of the strangest cases of literary fate imaginable, it so happened that a vast proportion of the letters which found their permanent homes in the US were those most essential for exposing the Library Edition’s suppressions and telling Ruskin’s story fully. Hence when, in the last decades of the twentieth century, Ruskin began to be assailed by some as a mental defective and by others as a reprehensible sexual predator7 — those studying his life in the UK or Europe had no new stores of evidence to call upon which might counter the castigations, a state of affairs that facilitated the ascent of these derogatory views to the positions of dominance which, sadly, they continue to hold today.

The Forgotten Legacy in America

Using the above for context, in what follows my intent will be to list, with notations, the major collections of Ruskin’s letters held in America, collections which, properly mined and interpreted, would add immeasurably to our understanding of his life.

The Huntington Library. Near Los Angeles, The Huntington houses the vast majority (536) of the letters Ruskin sent to one of his dearest friends, his Coniston neighbor, Susanna (“Susie”) Beever. Composed in the 1870s and 80s, they are among his most confessional, shedding much light on the “problems” Severn, Wedderburn, Cook, and Norton were so intent on hiding. Bought from Charles Goodspeed, they have resided there since 1923. Only a fraction are published, and exception being both sides of the correspondence between Ruskin and William Holman Hunt.

Yale University (Beinecke Library): One of the two richest repositories. Of foremost interest are the nearly 1400 Ruskin Family Letters Yale bought during the Brantwood Sales. In 1974, Burd published the “first" nearly three hundred, forced to end his two volume set in 1843 because of the immensity of the task. The remainder, save for The Library Edition’s heavily edited versions, stretch into the early 1870s, constitute the most significant reserve of Ruskin biographic material still unpublished. Interestingly, in another bizarre twist of this “letters in America” story, Wedderburn bequeathed the typescripts of this collection to Yale, likely to complement the holographs it owned, the irony being that no record of these critical holographs remained in the UK. Also at Yale are weighty collections of Ruskin’s letters to Sir John and Lady Naesmyth and George MacDonald posted during years when Ruskin was in misery over his fraught relationship with Rose. Here too are dozens of his letters to Dr. John Brown of Edinburgh (a handful published), who, with Norton, was the most intimate male friend of his life. Finally, the Beinecke preserves the majority of the research materials collected by Derrick Leon for Ruskin: The Great Victorian, a biography which, despite its age (1949), remains, in my view, the best.

Helen Gill Viljoen. Click on image to enlarge it.

The Pierpont Morgan Library: The other great repository. This collection’s significance was signaled in the earlier summaries of Viljoen’s and Burd’s works. The jewels in its Ruskin crown are the 52 oversize boxes known as the “Helen Gill Viljoen Papers,” an invaluable legacy she gave to Burd on her death; having too much to do at an advanced age, he donated them to The Morgan. Compiled over the course of 45 years of exacting research in every library mentioned here (and many others), these boxes contain thousands of letter transcripts, tens of thousands of notes on every major theme or event in Ruskin’s life, and nearly three dozen draft chapters of Viljoen’s never published biography.8 No comprehensive Ruskin biography is imaginable without serious study of these materials. Also at The Morgan are (1) all but a fraction of the 600 letters Ruskin sent Kate Greenaway, critical for understanding his life in the 1880s (only a few published); (2) the invaluable Bowerswell Trunk containing long-sequestered letters pertinent to Ruskin’s failed marriage; (3) the entirety of the F. J. Sharp Collection (mentioned above; most never published); (4) Ruskin’s letters to many of the young girls he admired, including Lucy Drewitt, Mary Spence, and Katie Goring, (5) and, as at Yale, much more.

Finally, there are the critical holographs preserved in the Boston area. Specifically at:

The Boston Public Library: Viljoen missed little in her tireless efforts to sleuth out everything of significance in Ruskin’s life, but she missed this, The John Ruskin-Lucia and Francesca Alexander Correspondence—nearly 300 letters (a few dozen published, many bowdlerized) spanning the years between 1882 (when Ruskin met the Alexanders) to 1889 (when his sanity collapsed while visiting them in Bassano near Venice). The exchange documents another of the most confessional friendships of his life and, like the Greenaway and Beever collections, is indispensable for creating an accurate picture of his life during this unsteady time.

Harvard University (Houghton Library): Mention has been made of the importance of the now available Ruskin-Norton correspondence. Not included in Bradley and Ousby’s volume, however, is a major exchange between Norton and Joan Severn, approximately 180 letters sent between 1871 and 1907, including, after 1900, many which document their attempts to censor Ruskin’s story (almost none published). Finally, now residing at Houghton is the R. Dyke Benjamin Collection, a collation which, among its other invaluable Ruskin artefacts, makes available for the first time the originals of the Ruskin-Lily Armstrong correspondence, only a part of which was published in Burd’s Winnington Letters.9


The above outline of the Ruskin holographs housed in North America has had two goals: to make it palpable why these “forgotten” materials are essential to access if ever we are to have a definitive Ruskin biography, and indicate why all the earlier renderings of his life story have been, to a greater or lesser degree, deficient. Having said so much, it should also be said that, if the oversight described here can be removed, the promise for future Ruskin biography is bright.

Recently, Robert Brownell published A Marriage of Inconvenience, the first attempt in a generation intent on re-assessing the story of Ruskin and Effie Gray’s disastrous marriage. What made his argument compelling and convincing was the fact that he had taken the time needed to cross an ocean to peruse the plethora of holographs germane to his topic at The Morgan Library. Doing so allowed him to reject the usual, mistaken interpretation (the marriage collapsed because of Ruskin’s sexual inadequacies) for a new, and extensively documented, thesis (the marriage failed because, once he learned that his wife was in league with her father to gain access to the Ruskin family fortune, Ruskin’s desire for Effie as a sexual partner who also would be mother to his children vanished). It was an interpretation that could only have been arrived at after careful consultation of some of the vital Ruskiniana housed in America. A harbinger.

Historically there have been barriers to accessing the Ruskin holographs in the United States: time, money, the vastness of the country itself. Today, however, in a digital era when many libraries and museums are scanning their holdings and putting them on the internet, such obstacles have been eliminated or greatly reduced. Today, all the collections mentioned can be easily located, and, in not a few cases, downloaded or studied on-line.10 Today, in short, there no longer is any reason the physical division of the holographs needed to tell Ruskin’s story in full, a division that has bedeviled biographies in his name for a century, needs to endure. Today, anyone can access the hundreds of still unpublished Ruskin Family letters, or read the critical missives he sent Susie Beever, Francesca Alexander, Kate Greenaway, or Dr. John Brown. These, when combined with the holographs preserved in the UK, would, in its due course, make possible a consummation long and devoutly wished, the writing of a Ruskin biography which, as he always wished, would tell his story accurately, fully, and without censor, for the first time.

Last modified 2 May 2019