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).