Reflections from a Summer Intern – Stories from Victorian Letters: Drawings in Victorian Letters

By Katie Mackenzie, Museum Studies Summer Intern

During my internship, I have discovered that some of my most favorite things to find in Victorian letters are little drawings or sketches. It is especially fun when they relate to and help illustrate the story that the letter is telling. I am so excited to be able to share some of these drawings with you through the blog!

The first drawing that I will share with you comes from a letter written on December 24, 1869 by an Englishwoman named Rose Georgina Kingsley. She writes her letter to her little brother Grenville Kingsley. Rose was living in Trinidad and most of her letter consists of her excitedly describing the fantastic plants and animals that she has seen there. Rose included a drawing in her letter of one of the animals she had found in her room – a spider, drawn life size to the one she saw. On the letter it is almost 4 inches across. Rose comments that, for Trinidad, this giant spider is actually small! Below is an excerpt from the letter on the spider,

I found [letter torn] spider in my room as big as this. But that is considered quite tiny here!!

Letter from Rose Georgina Kingsley to Grenville Kingsley. 24 December 1869. Drawing of a spider.

You will notice that Rose’s drawing does not depict the correct number of legs for a spider, but I still wonder if the spider could be identified. Do you recognize this spider?

The next letter that I will share with you may be especially interesting to those who love music. This letter was between two musicians, from N. J. Heineken to Miss Hodge. The letter is not dated but believed to have been written in the Victorian era. Unfortunately, I was not able to find any more identifying information about the musicians. Heineken writes Miss Hodge to praise her music as well as to offer her advice. Heineken seems to admire Miss Hodge’s music very much. He writes, “I have been much pleased with your truthful and ingenious song.” When referring to particular parts of Miss Hodge’s song, Heineken draws musical notations. It is amazing to see these musical notations, as it could give us clues as to what Miss Hodge’s song sounded like. An example of Heineken’s drawing can be seen below.

Letter from N.J. Heineken to Miss Hodge. Undated. Musical notations.

The last letter I will share with you contains a sketch by the Scottish artist Sir George Reid. Reid wrote to Mrs. Tom Taylor, nee Laura Wilson Barker, on February 18, 1879. Laura was the wife of the English playwright Tom Taylor. One of his most famous plays is Our American Cousin. In his letter, Sir George Reid, describes to Mrs. Taylor how harsh the winter was in Scotland that year. Reid writes,

We have had a trying and tedious winter here. For weeks the snow lay a foot and a half deep – it vanished at last slowly and led me to think that the winter was over. Yesterday and today it is back to the old story – snow has fallen steadily since morning and now lies 6 or 8 inches deep –

Along with his description of the winter weather, Reid adds a sketch of a man he names as Macdonald, whom Reid is painting a portrait of. Reid could have possibly been referring to the Scottish author, George Macdonald, whom Reid is known to have created portraits of. Macdonald is depicted outside sitting in his carriage, bundled up to protect himself from the cold. His face is barely visible peeking out underneath his hat.

Letter from G.W. Reid to Mrs. Tom Taylor. 18 February 1879. Sketch of Macdonald.

These three drawings provide amazing illustrations of the stories the letters tell. They all help to bring to the past to life. Rose’s letter helps us to see what she saw, by depicting a life sized spider; Heineken’s musical notations give us clues to Miss Hodge’s song; Reid’s sketch helps us imagine the bitterly cold Scottish winter in 1879.

This will be my last blog for my internship at the Armstrong Browning Library. I had so much fun discovering all the amazing stories to be found in the Armstrong Browning Library’s Victorian letters this summer. Thank you for letting me share these stories with you!

Seeing Many Beautiful Things: Ruskin’s Letters About Art

By Melinda Creech
Graduate Assistant, Armstrong Browning Library

John Ruskin was the leading English art critic of the Victorian era, an active art patron, an accomplished draftsman, and a gifted water-colorist and painter. Several of the letters owned by the Armstrong Browning Library mention topics related to art.

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Letter from John Ruskin to Dante Gabriel Rossetti. [1855]

In this brief note to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, [1855], Ruskin says: “I like my picture[s] & mightily—but want you to order the frame and try any experiment you like on it thoroughly.” It is not possible to clearly determine which picture or pictures Ruskin is talking about. He bought several paintings from Rossetti and from Elizabeth Siddal, Rossetti’s wife.

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Letter from John Ruskin to Alfred Harris. 6 May [1864]. Page 1.

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Letter from John Ruskin to Alfred Harris. 6 May [1864]. Page 2 and 3.

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Letter from John Ruskin to Alfred Harris. 6 May [1864]. Page 4.

In this letter to Alfred Harris, Ruskin recounts a humorous conversation he had overheard  about himself while riding in a carriage. In the conversation Ruskin was described as “cracked,” and it was conjectured that “All them genius’s have something wrong about them you know.”  Ruskin then tells Harris that he  has “been looking for the pretty Princess portrait I told Miss Ella of” with “the blue eyes.” He said he had purchased it and sent it to Mr. Harris for Ella, possibly, his daughter.

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Letter from John Ruskin to Albert Goodwin. [ca. 1870]. Page 1.

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Letter from John Ruskin to Albert Goodwin. [ca. 1870]. Page 2.

In this letter Ruskin critiques Goodwin’s painting, offers to buy it at a reduced price, and asks for it to be loaned to him for a lecture. Goodwin was a close friend and protégé of Ruskin. Although he describes the painting as beautiful, Ruskin critiques Goodwin’s perspective on his drawing of pots, his “blundered dog,” “slurred arabesques,” and “lost curls of ample hair” in the painting. Although the painting is not named, the descriptive clues suggest a possible identification.

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Letter from John Ruskin to Sidney Colvin. 19 March 1873. Page 1.

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Letter from John Ruskin to Sidney Colvin. 19 March 1873. Page 2.

Sidney Colvin, a scholar of Trinity College, Cambridge, became a fellow of his college in 1868. In 1873, when this letter was written, he was Slade Professor of Fine Art, and was appointed to the directorship of the Fitzwilliam Museum the following year. Ruskin himself was appointed the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford University in August 1869, and continued to teach at Oxford until 1879. He taught there again from 1883-1884. In this letter Ruskin tells Colvin that “that book of drawing will be left for some days yet in Mr. Reid’s charge—and I have asked him to let you look over it at your leisure, whenever you wish.” George William Reid was curator of the Print Room in the British Museum.

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Letter from John Ruskin to Sidney Miles. 24 September 1879.

In this faded letter Ruskin informs Miles that his engagements prevent him from the verification of pictures. However, he submits “this general recommendation—never to buy pictures unless you enjoy them—and if you enjoy them—never to mind whose they are.”

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Letter from John Ruskin to [William] Kingsley. 18 February 1886. Page 1.

Letter from John Ruskin to [William] Kingsley. 18 February 1886. Page 1.

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Letter from John Ruskin to [William] Kingsley. 18 February 1886. Page 2.

Ruskin thanks Kingsley for loaning him the delightful sketchbook belonging to Kingsley’s wife, saying that “the light and colour of some bits [of her landscapes] were exactly true and the character perfect.” William Kingsley, Rector of South Kilvington, near Thirsk, was a close personal friend of both John Ruskin and J. M. W. Turner. An account of their association can be found in  Yorkshire Remembrances, by Marmaduke Charles Frederic Morris (1922). Kingsley lived to be 101; his wife died the following year at the age of ninety. Mrs. Kingsley’s sister was married to Tom Taylor, the dramatist and editor of Punch.

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Letter from John Ruskin to Tom Taylor. [Undated].

Letter from John Ruskin to Tom Taylor. [Undated].

Although the signature of this letter is excised, the heading and the handwriting suggest it to be Ruskin’s. The letter is Ruskin’s refusal to buy the sketches that Taylor has offered. He says:

I had much rather give you ten pounds for any body in distress, than buy what I do not want—I have bought  sketches like them —or better—for fifteen or twenty shillings—in the old times, and would not buy many, then.—at first rate thing is always worth—what one must give for it—a second rate thing—worth only what it is worth however the market may be—

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Letter from John Ruskin to [Unknown]. [Undated].

Letter from John Ruskin to [Unknown]. [Undated].

In this letter to an unknown correspondent, Ruskin gives drawing instructions to a student. He says:

“Begin any other of the pencil subject like that you have just done, which seems easiest to you. … Practice, at home, a quantity of pencil shading thus [six columns of lines drawn back and forth from left to right] And lines, thus, straight and thick and upright lines [eleven diagonal lines that appear to be smudged at the bottom and seven straight lines] thus.”

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