Seeing Many Beautiful Things: John Ruskin and the Brownings

By Melinda Creech
Graduate Assistant, Armstrong Browning Library

The Armstrong Browning Library holds twelve letters recounting the correspondence between John Ruskin and the Brownings.

The earliest, [16 October 1855], is a letter from Elizabeth Barrett Browning to Ruskin apologizing to him for not being able to see him before they leave for Paris.

In his letter to Ruskin of [1 February 1856], Robert Browning discusses Modern Painters.

In Ruskin’s letter to Robert Browning of 29 August 1856, he apologizes for “mangling” Browning’s  “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed’s Church” in Modern Painters and describes his tired, “vegetative” state.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning writes to John Ruskin’s mother on 18 October 1856, thanking her for her gifts of a netted scarf, flowers, and a box of preserves. Elizabeth also thanks her for her attention to her son Pen and for reading his poems that Elizabeth had sent to Mrs. Ruskin.

John Ruskin replies to Elizabeth on 18 October 1856, saying that he intends to send a gift to Pen. He also talks about his admiration for the poetry of both Brownings.

In a letter of 3 June 1859, Elizabeth recommends an artist, Mr. Page, to Ruskin. She also thanks Ruskin for speaking kindly about Italy, whose political situation is not looked on favorably by many people in England.

Robert informs Ruskin in a letter of [Mid-May 1862] that he will be at the National Gallery under the Portico of the Entrance to the Old Masters on Friday at five and hopes to have tea with him.

John Ruskin to Mrs. Johnson. [31 January 1865].

John Ruskin to Mrs. Johnson. [31 January 1865].

Ruskin mentions to Mrs. Johnson in a letter of [31 January 1865] that he has not written to Browning for a long time. He writes, rather cryptically: “Leave granted at once by Browning. I had not written to him for a long time and had to tell him why, and couldn’t at the time your letter came.”

The Armstrong Browning Library holds an envelope from Ruskin to Browning, 6 February 1865. The letter, which invites Browning to dinner at five on Wednesday, is located at The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.

In this letter, [26 March 1866], Browning regrets he cannot accept Ruskin’s invitation.

Browning invites Ruskin to view Pen’s paintings in this letter of 28 March 1880.

In this letter of 12 August 1884 Browning forwards a letter from Mrs. Bloomfield Moore, author and art collector, to Ruskin.

In addition to these letters The Browning Letters project provides access to twenty Ruskin letters held by the Ransom Center at the University of Texas and three letters from Special Collection at the Margaret Clapp Library at Wellesley College. There are thirty-four references to John Ruskin in The Browning Letters.

Among the items in the John Ruskin Collection at the ABL are Ruskin’s copies of the Brownings’ works. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s The Greek Christian Poets and the English Poets bears Ruskin’s bookplate: “Ex Libris/John Ruskin/Brantwood.” Robert Browning’s translation of The Agamemnon of Aeschylus bears the same bookplate.


John Ruskin’s bookplate in Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The Greek Christian Poets and the English Poets. London: Chapman & Hall, 1863.


Elizabeth Barrett Browning. The Greek Christian Poets and the English Poets. London: Chapman & Hall, 1863.

ruskins-copy-of-ebb1Ruskin’s copy of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Greek Christian Poets contains an annotation regarding the provenance of the book, indicating that Dr. and Mrs. Armstrong secured the book from Ruskin’s Coniston House.

John Ruskin’s bookplate in Aeschylus. The Agamemnon of Aeschylus, Transcribed by Robert Browning. London: Smith Elder & Co., 1877.

John Ruskin’s bookplate in Aeschylus. The Agamemnon of Aeschylus, Transcribed by Robert Browning. London: Smith Elder & Co., 1877.


Aeschylus. The Agamemnon of Aeschylus, Transcribed by Robert Browning. London: Smith Elder & Co., 1877.

In a letter to Miss Carrie, 15 June 1914, Mrs. Lilian Whiting, an American journalist and biographer of the Brownings, relates this story recalled by Pen Browning about his father and John Ruskin.

Some six years before Mr. Barrett Brofning’s [sic] death (in July of 1912) he bought one of the old Medici villas that are scattered about Tuscany, , one called “La Torre All’ Antella”, about five miles out of Florence, and began “restoring” it. (That was his favorite amusement, and contributed largely to his dying a hundred and fifty thousand dollars in debt.) But to the last he had only two rooms that were habitable, and in those he camped out, so to speak, the rest of the house being in the hands of workmen. It was left in a totally unfinished state. In an outhouse he had packed all the furniture. He took me into the storehouse to see it, – the sofa, as high as a catafalque, on which he remembered seeing his father and Ruskin sitting side by side, with their feet dangling.

Robert Browning's snuff box

Robert Browning’s snuff box.

Robert Browning’s snuff box of Georgian silver is a crescent-shaped, engine turned box made in Birmingham in 1797 with R. B. monogrammed on the lid. It was reputedly given by Browning’s daughter-in-law, Fannie Coddington Browning, to John Ruskin and was still in his possession at his death in 1900.


Seeing Many Beautiful Things: Items from the John Ruskin Collection at The Armstrong Browning Library

By Melinda Creech
Graduate Assistant, Armstrong Browning Library

seeing-many-beautiful-thingsOn Thursday, November 10, from 3:30-4:30 pm, in the Cox Lecture Hall, Jerry Eisley, Director of the Washington Arts Group will present a lecture, “Lost in Translation: The Challenge of John Ruskin and Lilias Trotter to Art & Culture in the 21st Century,” examining how John Ruskin and Lilias Trotter sought beauty and truth in their own time. Each generation seeks to translate transcendence and define sacred space for itself.  The Washington Arts Group does the same today. Eisley will discuss the intersection of art and culture with belief, from the perspective of the displaced artist.  He will address the question, what would modern art have been like without the influence of Ruskin and Trotter?

The next afternoon, Friday, November 11, from 3:30-5:00 pm, Many Beautiful Things, a documentary about the lives of Lilias Trotter and John Ruskin, will be screened in the Cox Lecture Hall. The film was produced by Hisao Kurosawa, directed by award-winning filmmaker Laura Waters Hinson, and features the voices of Michelle Dockery (Downton Abbey) and John Rhys-Davies (Lord of the Rings, Indiana Jones). Eisley portrays John Ruskin in the documentary film Many Beautiful Things. The film focuses on the life of Victorian social reformer, artist, and missionary, Lilias Trotter. Lilias was a favored art student of John Ruskin. Despite Ruskin’s claim that “she would be the greatest living painter and do things that would be immortal,” at the age of 35, Lilias chose to leave her career as an artist and become a missionary to the people of Algeria. She lived in Algeria for the next forty years of her life.

many-beautiful-things A physical exhibit, “Seeing Many Beautiful Things: from the John Ruskin Collection at the Armstrong Browning Library,” presented in the Cox Reception Hall, will focus on a few items from the John Ruskin Collection at the Armstrong Browning Library: some letters, books, and memorabilia connecting the Brownings and John Ruskin, books and letters connecting author and illustrator Francesca Alexander and John Ruskin, and a book and a letter connecting Lilias Trotter and John Ruskin.

An accompanying blog will extend the physical exhibit and address more completely:

—Ruskin’s correspondence with the Brownings
—Images and descriptions of wood blocks used in Ruskin’s books
—Ruskin’s correspondence with French art critic Joseph Milsand
—Ruskin’s correspondence with other artists
—Ruskin’s correspondence regarding St. George’s Guild
—Ruskin’s letters to family
—Ruskin’s letters to friends
—Ruskin’s letters describing his travels
—John Ruskin and Francesca Alexander
—John Ruskin and Lilias Trotter


Trotter, I. Lilias. Facsimile Edition: Lilias Trotter’s 1889 Sketchbook: Scenes from North Africa, Italy & Switzerland. Oxvision Books, 2015.

The flower reproduced on the exhibit poster is from Lilias Trotter’s 1889 Sketchbook, a tiny sketchbook Lilias carried in her pocket as she traveled around North Africa, Italy, and Switzerland. Although here she portrays a lovely purple flower, she did not always paint in purple. Once when she was visiting John Ruskin at Brantwood she admitted that she had a dislike for the color purple. She was sternly rebuked by Ruskin who opened cupboards full of beautiful minerals, rock crystals and amethysts of every shade, picked purple flowers; brought out watercolors of birds by Hunt, and displayed mountain scenes by Turner to persuade her of the greatness of her heresy (Blanche A. F. Pigott, I. Lilias Trotter. London: Marshall, 1929, 13). Ruskin taught her to “see” purple.


John Ruskin, 1863

In the third volume of Modern Painters, a book primarily written as a defense of J. M. W. Turner, Ruskin argues that art should devote itself to the accurate documentation of nature. He says:

“The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, — all in one.” Modern Painters, vol. III, part IV, chapter XVI, 1856


Lilias Trotter

On 27 August 1928, members of the band of missionaries who had labored together in Algeria gathered around Lilias Trotter’s death bed and sang her favorite hymn, “Jesus Lover of My Soul. ” She looked out the window that framed her garden view and exclaimed, ‘A chariot and six horses!’ ‘You are seeing beautiful things?’ asked Helen Freeman. Lilias looked up and spoke her last words: ‘Yes, many, many beautiful things.’” (Miriam Huffman Rockness, A Passion for the Impossible: The Life of Lilias Trotter. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Discovery House Publishers, 1999).



Beyond the Brownings–Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-1882)

NPG P56; The Rossetti Family by Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson)© National Portrait Gallery, London

Written by Melinda Creech, Graduate Assistant, Armstrong Browning Library

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the second born child in the Rossetti family. Dante Gabriel was a poet, illustrator, painter, translator, and founder of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. Sensuality and Medieval revivalism characterized his art. According to John Ruskin and Walter Pater, Dante Gabriel Rossetti was the most important and original artistic force in the second half of the nineteenth century in Great Britain.

 The Armstrong Browning Library holds six of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s letters and over forty of his books, some of them rare.


Letter from Dante Gabriel Rossetti to [Frances Mary Lavinia Polidori Rossetti]. [ca. 4 February 1864].

Dante Gabriel invites his mother, Maria, Christina, and William to tea on Saturday. He says in a postscript that he is also asking Browning. He also lets her know that

 I have a little picture just finished which will be leaving me for Gambait on Monday morning.

Early-ItalEarly-Ital.-2Early-Ital-3Early-Ital.-4Early-Ital-5Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Dante Alighieri, eds. The Early Italian Poets from Ciullo d’Alcamo to Dante Alighieri (1100-1200-1300): In the Original Metres, Together with Dante’s Vita Nuova. London: Smith, Elder and Co, 1861.

This volume is Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s first regularly published book, said to have been financed by John Ruskin.  This volume is the same edition that was given by Dante Gabriel Rossetti to Robert Browning as a Christmas gift in 1861.

 DCR-poemsDGR-Poems-2DGR-Poems-3DGR-Poems4Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Poems. London: F. S. Ellis, 1870.

This volume is one of twenty-five copies printed on large paper for private circulation only. This is John Ruskin’s copy with his bookplate.


Beyond the Brownings–John Ruskin (1819-1900)


NPG x13293; John Ruskin by Elliott & FryCourtesy of the Armstrong Browning Library

Written by Melinda Creech, Graduate Assistant, Armstrong Browning Library

John Ruskin, the leading art critic of the nineteenth century, was also an art patron,  a draughtsman, a watercolorist, a prominent social thinker, and a philanthropist. Modern Painters (1843), an extended essay that argued for “truth to nature,” won him widespread appeal. He supported the Pre-Raphaelites and championed social and political causes. Ruskin’s influence has become global, influencing artists, architects, writers, social planners, educators, politicians, and economists.

The Armstrong Browning Library holds seventeen letters written by John Ruskin and over one hundred books, some of them rare.

Ruskin-to-W.-M.-RossettiLetter from John Ruskin to Dante Gabriel Rossetti. [1855].

Ruskin tells Rossetti that he likes his picture and wants him to order the frame and

 Try any experiment you like on it thoroughly.

Ruskin-to-FudgeLetter from [John Ruskin] to [Fudge]. [1871].

David Fudge was the Ruskins’ coachman for nearly fifty years, often taking Mr. Ruskin to out of the way places and waiting while Ruskin went for walks or sketched scenes. In this heavily worn, fragment of a letter, Ruskin  assures his driver, Mr. David Fudge, that he should receive orders from Mrs. Severn just as he would from Mr. Ruskin and assures him that

 Neither she nor I will ever treat you with injustice….You can always appeal to me.

to-David-Rudge-1to-David-Rudge-2Letter from Joan R. Severn to David [Fudge]. [ca. 1898].

Mrs. Severn acknowledges the “pretty Christmas card” sent to her and to Mr. Ruskin and informs David that she has sent a “little Xmas box” to him.

Ruskins-Mornings-in-Florence-1Ruskins-Mornings-in-Florence-2Ruskins-Mornings-in-Florence-3 John Ruskin. Mornings in Florence: Being Simple Studies of Christian Art for English Travellers. Copyright ed. Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz, 1907.

This volume was intended to be used as a travel guide for persons viewing the art in Florence. The text gives Ruskin’s notes relating to Santa Croce, The Golden Gate, Before the Soldan, The Vaulted Book, The Straight Gate, and the Shepherd’s Tower.

Beyond the Brownings: The Victorian Letter and Manuscript Collection

By Melinda Creech, Graduate Assistant, Armstrong Browning Library

Beyond-the-BrowningsScholars know the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University as a world-class research library devoted to the lives and works of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In addition to housing the world’s largest collection of books, letters, manuscripts, and memorabilia related to the Brownings, the library houses a substantial collection of primary and secondary materials related to nineteenth-century literature and culture. The Victorian Letter and Manuscript Collection includes almost 2,500 items from literary, political, ecclesiastical, scientific, and cultural figures in the nineteenth century. Letters, manuscripts, and books from Prince Albert, Queen Victoria, Matthew Arnold, Charles Babbage, J. M. Barrie, William Cullen Bryant, Thomas Carlyle, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Dickens, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Michael Faraday, W. E. Gladstone, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Victor Hugo, Thomas Henry Huxley, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, James Russell Lowell, George MacDonald, John-Henry Newman, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Christina Rossetti, William Michael Rossetti, John Ruskin, Alfred Lord Tennyson, William Makepeace Thackeray, John Greenleaf Whittier, and William Wordsworth will be featured in the exhibit. In future blogs about the exhibit you can find out how Elizabeth Barrett Browning was related to Charles Babbage, where Victor Hugo spent his summer vacation, who was b__k b__ll__ed, and what happened to Miss Brodie’s cow.

Giving Nineteenth Century Women Writers a Voice and a Face — Julia Margaret Cameron (1815-1879)

Julia Margaret Cameron
and Her Children Charles and Henry (1859)
Photograph taken by Lewis Carroll

Therefore it is with effort I restrain the overflow of my heart and simply state that my first [camera and] lens was given to me by my cherished departed daughter and her husband, with the word, “It may amuse you, Mother, to try to photograph during your solitude at Freshwater.”

The gift from those I loved so tenderly added more and more impulse to my deeply seated love of the beautiful and from the first moment I handled my lens with a tender ardour, and it has become to me as a living thing, with voice and memory and creative vigour…. I longed to arrest all beauty that came before me….

I turned my coal-house into my dark room, and a glazed fowl house I had given to my children became my glass house! The hens were liberated, I hope and believe not eaten. The profit of my boys upon new laid eggs was stopped, and all hands and hearts sympathised in my new labour, since the society of hens and chickens was soon changed for that of poets, prophets, painters and lovely maidens, who all in turn have immortalized the humble little farm erection.

When I have had such men before my camera my whole soul has endeavored to do its duty towards them in recording faithfully the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man. The photograph thus taken has been almost the embodiment of a prayer.

Julia Margaret Cameron
Annals of my Glass House (1874)

Julia Margaret Cameron was born in Calcutta, India. She met her husband, Charles Cameron, on a trip to southern Africa. After her husband’s retirement in 1848, the family moved from India back to England. She took up photography in 1863, at the age of 48, when she was living next door to Alfred Tennyson on the Isle of Wight. She produced photographs for only ten years, but her photographic subjects included Robert Browning, Tennyson, William Makepeace Thackeray, John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, James Abbott McNeil Whistler, and G. F. Watts. Most of her photographs have a soft, ethereal quality to them.

For the exhibition poster for Giving Nineteenth Century Women Writers a Voice and a Face, I chose a quotation from an untitled, unfinished poem found in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s pocket notebook, dated 1842-1844,  and a photograph taken by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1864. The contemporaneity of the poem and the photo echo the timelessness of the nineteenth century women’s voices featured in the exhibit.

The subject of the photograph was sixteen-year-old Ellen Terry, a young Shakespearean actress and close friend of Cameron. Ellen had become acquainted with George Frederick Watts, a famous Victorian painter, forty years her senior, when she sat for him for a painting. At the urging of friends, they were married in February 1864. The photo was probably taken during their honeymoon on the Isle of Wight. The couple separated within a year and were formally divorced in 1877.  At some later date Cameron titled the photo “Sadness.”

The ABL owns eight original photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron, many with inscriptions. A letter from Robert Browning to Julia Margaret Cameron (24 July 1866) thanking her for her generous gift of photographs is also a part of the collection. Sarianna Browning, sister of Robert Browning in a letter to Joseph Milsand (27 December 1866), records another generous Christmas gift of twelve photographs from Mrs. Cameron.

Although Mrs. Cameron turned, quite successfully, to photography later in life, her first love was literature. She wrote an autobiography, translated German, and published poems and fiction. This poem was written shortly before she and her husband left England for Ceylon.

Julia Margaret Cameron
“On a Portrait”
Macmillan Magazine  (February 1876)

Melinda Creech


Notes and Queries: There is an engraving of Joseph Milsand by F. Johnson in Records of Tennyson, Ruskin, and Browning by Anne Thackeray Ritchie. The caption under the engraving reads: “Mr. Milsand / from a copyrighted photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron.” The Armstrong Browning Library has a large Joseph Milsand Collection. A letter from Joseph Milsand to Philbert Milsand (23 May [1874]) indicates that Joseph Milsand was to spend a day on Isle of Wight where Miss Thackeray would introduce him to Tennyson. Another letter from Joseph Milsand to Claire Milsand (11 Feb 1884) talks about Cameron’s beautiful photo of the tall, angel-like white lady which is displayed in his house. Does anyone know the whereabouts of either of the photographs, Milsand’s photographic portrait or the “angel-like white lady” photograph that he owned?

Giving Nineteenth Century Women Writers a Voice and a Face — Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell [née Stevenson] (1810–1865)

Although the ladies of Cranford know all each other’s proceedings, they are exceedingly indifferent to each other’s opinions. Indeed, as each has her own individuality, not to say eccentricity, pretty strongly developed, nothing is so easy as verbal retaliation; but, somehow, good-will reigns among them to a considerable degree.

The Cranford ladies have only an occasional little quarrel, spirited out in a few peppery words and angry jerks of the head; just enough to prevent the even tenor of their lives from becoming too flat.

Elizabeth Gaskell
Cranford (1851)

The above quotation from Cranford, suggested by Dr. Elizabeth Ludlow, crystallizes Gaskell’s desire to show the union of the new England with old Victorian values. Dr. Ludlow is Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the Anglia Ruskin University and author of several articles in the Gaskell Journal.

Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell was greatly influenced by her Unitarian family, later marrying a Unitarian minister. Her faith combined with a firm belief in social duty and reform constituted the central force in her life. She wrote novels and short stories depicting the lives of many strata of society, including the very poor, often incorporating the use of dialect into her writing. Her first novel, Mary Barton, published anonymously in 1848, was an immediate success, winning the praise of Charles Dickens and Thomas Carlyle. She went on to write Cranford and North and South. Cranford, a series of episodes in the lives of three women in the fictional town of the same name, was first serialized in the magazine Household Words, edited by Charles Dickens, beginning on December 13, 1851. The 1900 volume, featured in our exhibit, includes an introduction by Anne Thackeray Ritchie, another nineteenth-century writer.

Charlotte Brontë, yet another nineteenth-century writer and author of the well-known Victorian novel Jane Eyre, was a friend of Mrs. Gaskell, and when Charlotte died in 1855, her father, Patrick Brontë, asked Mrs. Gaskell to write her biography. The biography, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857), made use of a huge quantity of firsthand material and was skillfully written.

 In addition to editions of the two books, Cranford (1900) and The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857) authored by Mrs. Gaskell, the ABL owns two letters addressed to Elizabeth Gaskell. One letter is from John Ruskin, a famous English author and art critic, assuring her regarding the selection of an architect for the London Law Courts. The other letter points to Mrs. Gaskell’s influence even in America. It is a letter from Maria Weston Chapman of Boston, thanking Mrs. Gaskell for “her beautiful contributions” and presenting her with a copy of the 1856 The Liberty Bell, an abolitionist annual. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem “A Curse for a Nation” was published in that edition.

The ABL also owns Poems and Translations by Elizabeth Gaskell Holland, Elizabeth Gaskell’s sister-in-law. Her book of poetry is available online at the 19th Century Women Poets page of the Baylor University Libraries Digital Collections site. Holland’s book includes a poem celebrating Elizabeth Gaskell’s marriage.

Melinda Creech