Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Unlucky in Love: John Ruskin's Disasterous Love Life

by Octavia Randolph

John Ruskin, self portrait, age 42
John Ruskin was one of the great figures of the 19th century, one of the truly seminal thinkers on art, architecture, and social justice. In this modest essay we are going to look at one small but fascinating aspect of the man, his disastrous romantic affairs.

The life of John Ruskin exactly mirrored that of Queen Victoria. They were both born in 1819, and died a year apart, he in 1900 and she in 1901. His parents were Scottish, but he was born late in their lives in London; his father John James Ruskin was thirty-four when their only child was born, and his mother Margaret was thirty-eight. John was a bright child; his early ability to see and observe and his fascination with what drawing and painting captured and actually meant drove the early part of his career, which was writing about what painting ought to do. In his first book, Modern Painters, he says “The greatest picture is that which conveys to the mind of the spectator the greatest number of the greatest ideas."

Ruskin always believed that JMW Turner was the greatest of all painters, and in fact the complete title of the first volume of Modern Painters (because it grew to five volumes over almost 20 years) was
Modern Painters: Their Superiority in the Art of Landscape Painting to all the Ancient Masters, proved by the examples of the True, the Beautiful, and the Intellectual from the works of Modern Artists, especially from those of JMW Turner, Esq., R.A., by a Graduate of Oxford.
John was twenty-four when the book was published, and his father did not want him to actually put his name on it in case it was ridiculed. It was not ridiculed; 500 copies were printed and only 150 sold, but the people who bought those copies were among Britain’s intellectual and creative elite, people such as George Eliot, Wordsworth, Charlotte Bronte, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and so on.

Ruskin had a decidedly bifurcated career; the first half of which was largely devoted to thinking and writing and lecturing about art and architecture. He can be considered the godfather of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and he was a great advocate and help to the struggling young Pre-Raphaelite painters. Much of the second half of his career was devoted to issues of social and economic justice. In 1906, six years after Ruskin’s death, the incoming Labour Members of Parliament were polled as to whose books were most influential in their personal development, and Ruskin’s books came in first, besting those of the Bible, Shakespeare, Dickens, Carlyle, and many others.

So Ruskin was a man who was celebrated, respected, even revered for much of his lifetime – later in life as his economic views grew more controversial he was sometimes reviled – but he was a man who was a sought-after dinner guest, who society matrons vied to show off to their other guests – but Ruskin was a man alone. He was a heterosexual man unable to form a healthy romantic attachment with a woman. We are going to look at Ruskin’s three most important romantic attachments and see what kind of patterns we can find.

His first love: Adèle Domecq
London: 1836

The two young people had met first in Paris, but that was two years ago. Now John Ruskin was almost seventeen and Adèle-Clothilde Domecq was fifteen. Her sisters called her Clothilde, but at this second meeting John thought of her, and called her, Adèle. It rhymed with shell, spell, and knell and thus served his poetry, and Clothilde rhymed with nothing. Adèle had blonde hair and light eyes. She and three of her sisters had been staying at Herne Hill, and in four days the heart of young John had been reduced to a heap of ashes.

She had been born in Cadiz, in the shadow of her father’s vast vineyards––Pedro Domecq was the elder Ruskin’s partner in the sherry-trade; the growing partner. But the Domecq daughters had been raised in France; the eldest was soon to marry a count. The four younger now gaily descended upon the Ruskin household and upended it. They had bouncing curls with ribbons at the root, from Adèle on down to the youngest, Caroline.

Adèle’s frocks were from Paris, and her manners as well. She shrugged off her fur trimmed travelling cloak into John’s hands, and he tried not to goggle at her dress, short and with bewildering pantalettes. She turned to smile at him with small, brilliant teeth. She was like a heroine out of a novel or stepped down from a painting. Her face was oval, her nose upturned. Her complexion reminded John of fresh-poured cream. Her eyes glinted blue fire as she laughed, and they met his for one steady moment. He thought he might combust spontaneously.

...“But we cannot eat such things!” Adèle would laugh at breakfast, her little sisters smiling too. The sideboard was laid with oatmeal, black pudding, and stewed fruit. They must have the bread, so, and the fruit fresh and a comfit, and oui, they were allowed coffee, very strong and with much sweet milk,
merci. - Light, Descending, pp 5-6

Something subtle but important happens here: he re-names Adèle to suit his poetic structure. Her parents and sisters called her Clothtilde, but John renames her Adèle to suit his poetic needs. His idealization of Adèle, and her unobtainability, set the stage for a pattern of unfulfilled yearning in all later romantic attachments: The intense idealization and refusal to accept the realities of a real-life personality – then either fruitless longing when deprived of the love-object, or panicked withdrawal when granted the love-object.

He does not marry Adèle. When he learns, at Oxford, that she has wed a French Count, he despairs and goes into a physical decline so acute that he must leave the university. His mother by the way, had gone to Oxford with him – taken lodgings on the High Street, in an early and extreme example of helicopter parenting. When he is well enough his parents take him to Europe where he throws himself into the writing of what will become Modern Painters. Work was always a great refuge for Ruskin, as it is for many disappointed in love, and for Ruskin the connection between work and love was just that – a connection, not a contrast. John pleased his parents most when he was working, whether churning out childish poetry that his parents actually paid him to produce, or toiling ceaselessly and in a state of intellectual exhaustion to complete Volume V of Modern Painters before his father’s death. Working hard and being dutiful to his parents, even when they irked him or caused him immense pain, was ingrained at an early age.

Euphemia Chalmers Gray

This brings us to Euphemia Gray, or "Effie", the woman Ruskin did marry. Euphemia was the daughter of family friends, the daughter of an attorney from Perth, Scotland, where John James and Margaret Ruskin had lived before moving to London. Ruskin had met Euphemia several times in London, first when she was twelve, next year when she was thirteen, and he writes in his diary that he finds her beautiful, then again at age fifteen, when he finds her less attractive, and then at eighteen, when she comes and spends several weeks with the Ruskins in London. John was then twenty-seven. She was a very talented pianist.
The next morning he was writing up in his study, comparing actual cloud formation to the way in which artists depicted storm-clouds on canvas. The section was long and both subtle and technical, and he stood after a while and paced the floor, stretching his arms behind him. From below his feet he heard the faint strains of music. He paused for a moment, then thought he might go downstairs and see what Phemy was up to.
She was practicing Mendelssohn, alone. Her back was to him, and he stood motionless on the crimson patterned rug as she played. He approached silently and obliquely. She saw him when she turned the page of her score, and then heard his voice, quite near.
“It’s very cold in here, Phemy,” he said. John thought she played well, played strongly; didn’t plink away like most young ladies. He didn’t like to think of her fingers hurting from striking the cold keys. She turned her head to look at him. It was cold, and her fingerless gloves afforded no warmth. But she laughed.
“No more than in Scotland, rather warmer, I should say,” she answered, without stopping in her piece.
“Let me have a fire made up,” he offered.
“A fire, for one person?” He watched her lift her eyes to the length of the drawing room.
The purple draperies and ruby flocked wall-paper made the room no warmer.
“Two then, if you grudge the coal. I shall be your audience.” He reached for a chair and drew it close to her instrument.
She went on with her playing as he sat watching her. She did play beautifully, and he thought the Mendelssohn she had chosen maudlin and unworthy of her ability. He enjoyed music very much but had no facility himself to produce it. Several times at parties he had seen young men and women play four-handed pieces at the keyboard, and he wished of a sudden that he could do so with her. Her concentration on her task fascinated and somehow in that cold room warmed him, and he sat next her and watched her still profile and swift hands.
“Phemy doesn’t suit,” John told her when she ended, rather than the customary compliment on her skill. Her name too was unworthy, maudlin and silly.
She looked at him and laughed. “I have been Phemy all my life. What else can one do with ‘Euphemia’?”
“I shall call you Effie,” he announced. “’Phemy’ sounds nearly like Feeny, which is a kitten’s name. Or a puppy’s. Effie you are,” he ended, to her continuing laughter. Then he left her, back to his work.
She went on with more Mendelssohn after he’d gone. Effie, she said aloud. Effie. She repeated it silently as she went over a difficult left hand passage. She thought it did suit her. Effie. She liked it. John had named her. - Light, Descending, pp 38-40
What happens here? He re-names her – begins to re-make her, in name at least, closer to his ideal. Soon John decided he was in love with her. This occasioned the first serious falling out he had ever had with his parents. He wanted to marry Effie. At this point John was beginning to be well-regarded in intellectual circles – Modern Painters Volumes I and II were out, and he was already being asked to dinner parties in the upper echelons of society, including the aristocracy, which delighted his parents. For John James, who had laboured long in trade to make certain his son could be a “gentleman” – one who does not need to work for a living – and Ruskin’s books and lectures never provided him with that amount – John James felt it was perfectly possible and desirable that John marry into the aristocracy. After all it was the rich who collected pictures – that’s where paintings went when the left the easels of artists, with sometimes a brief stop at temporary exhibitions such as the Royal Academy Summer exhibitions. Most pictures were destined for the great manor or town homes of the rich. And at this point John wrote mostly about paintings, although he felt strongly that one could not appreciate a well-painted sky without understanding how actual clouds formed or enjoy a painting of an Alpine landscape without knowing the fundamentals of glacial movement – so his books had those things in them as well. His mind, his vision, was so large; he saw everything as interconnected and wanted and needed to share that.

Back to Effie. His parents made things rather uncomfortable for Effie during that last visit. They noticed John paying more and more attention to her. Effie thought that given the tenuous financial situation of her family – her father had recently invested the larger portion of the family’s wealth in shares in a new French railway, and France happened to be in political uproar – the elder Ruskins were considering her a fortune hunter. She left and went back to Perth. Her leaving upset John considerably. He knew his father was unhappy about the idea of his marrying “down”– but when his parents saw John pining away they became truly frightened, remembering his break-down over Adèle, and relented. He eventually proposed marriage via letter, and Effie accepted. But I think that John never got over the fact that he had more or less forced his parents to capitulate out of love and fear for him. He was so much under their thumb, dependent on them financially, emotionally, and even editorially, as his father insisted on reading and editing everything John wrote, that defying them was truly painful. All his life he had been both over-indulged and bullied by them. Here he is about to write a letter to his father, years later, followed by some of the actual contents of the letter.
He realised now he had been baulked by them at every turn. His morning letter to his father began in an intentionally contentious manner, denying that his friendship with Thomas Carlyle had ever affected his revised thoughts about religion, and then went on to fever pitch in personal accusation.
"Men ought to be severely disciplined and exercised in the sternest way in daily life," he told him; "they should learn to lie on stone beds and eat black soup, but they should never have their hearts broken––a noble heart once broken never mends––the best you can do is rivet it with iron and plaster the cracks over––the blood never flows rightly again. The two terrific mistakes which Mama and you involuntarily fell into were the exact reverse in both ways––you fed me effeminately and luxuriously to that extent that I actually now could not travel in rough countries without taking a cook with me! ––but you thwarted me in all the earnest fire and passion of life. - Light, Descending, pp 227-228
And in fact neither senior Ruskin came to John’s wedding in Perth. It was a small wedding held in the parlour of the Gray house, and afterwards John and Effie climbed in a carriage to go to the Highlands for their first night, finally arriving at the inn at 10 pm. John had a head-cold, never a pleasant experience, and as the world was later to learn, the marriage was not celebrated that night. Or ever.

Again he had chosen someone singularly unsuitable for him. Not only was he aware that Effie’s ideal role in life would have been as an ambassador’s wife – she loved society and parties – he disdained all that and only wanted to work. I truly think Ruskin was panicked by the thought of how his work might be curtailed. Was he, as he told her, concerned about Effie’s dying in child-bed, as did so many young women, including his cousin Mary Richardson who had been raised with him? - of course. He also simply didn’t like babies, on aesthetic grounds. But the real problem as I see it was his inability to fully defy his parents in actually making Effie his wife initially; and then coming to the quick and unpleasant realization that Effie was in fact an intelligent, vital, opinionated and adult human being, and not the pliant adolescent he had first met and found attractive. Marriage makes all manner of demands, which Ruskin was unwilling and I think unable to meet.

I also believe he was one of those true unfortunates who ceases longing for the beloved the moment he has her. You see it almost immediately in his letters to Effie. After she accepts him, he opens his letters with extravagant fantasies – highly charged and only thinly veiled sexual imagery – before then abruptly beginning to boss her around. In his letters he tries to micro-manage everything, dictate all she should be doing to prepare for their marriage – mostly things which would aid him in his work – such as read a 16 volume work, in French, about Italian history – and he wants her to perfect her considerable foreign language skills, improve her drawing so she can sketch little things for him, etc. He begins even before their marriage to bully her. Why? Because that is what he knew of love. His parents bullied him, and so all he knew was to bully her. When bullying didn’t work he just ignored her. It was very difficult and very sad for both of them. But Ruskin just wasn’t emotionally equipped to enter into a marriage with probably anyone, let alone a high-spirited, outgoing girl like Effie.

At any rate, until 1857 it took an Act of Parliament to get a divorce, and soon both John and Effie wanted out. Because the marriage had not been consummated they could go through the courts – in a very public fashion, with plenty of reporters there – and Effie needed to undergo an examination by a physician, who was none other than Queen Victoria’s gynecologist, and be confirmed “virgo intacta” – it was very disagreeable. But both parties behaved well, and as discretely as possible. The grounds for annulment were “incurable impotence” and Ruskin did not refute it, even though he was perfectly capable of arousal, as we know from his letters to Georgiana Cowper-Temple, a good friend. An annulment was granted, and a year later Effie wed the young painter John Millais, who had holidayed with them in Scotland, and painted both their portraits.

The Order of Release, by John Everett Millais, 1853
He depicts Effie as a Scotswoman redeeming her husband
from prison following the Battle of Culledon 1746

On to Rose LaTouche.

Adèle and Effie belong to the youthful part of Ruskin’s life, when his chief concerns were paintings, architecture, geology, and the expression of the natural world in art. Rose LaTouche belongs to the mature period, when Ruskin’s concerns were increasingly turning to economic and social justice and educational and even religious reform. Rose came into Ruskin’s life during a period of disillusionment, struggle, and even despair. Instead of the youthful confidence, even arrogance that he possessed during his pursuits of Adèle and Effie – here I mean confidence in his intellectual gifts and his ability to influence others with them – Ruskin was frustrated and impatient with the rising levels of pollution and exploitation caused by the machine age – and frustrated and impatient with his earlier self, and earlier writings.

He had undergone an immense spiritual awakening in finally rejecting his parents’ narrow evangelical religious views – this happened in Turin, and part of it was brought on by studying a Veronese painting which he had earlier dismissed as decadent; he had experienced the labour of sifting through the 19,000 drawings and paintings Turner had left the State – and that meant his hero Turner had died, as had his own father John James, two great losses; and he was coming into the company of Thomas Carlyle, a rigorous, upright, and revolutionary thinker, to put it mildly.

When he met Rose she was ten years old. He was thirty-nine. She was one of three children of an extraordinarily wealthy Irish banker of French extraction. They had an estate of 11,000 acres outside of Dublin, where they entertained the Prince of Wales himself, and an elegant town house in London. Her mother Maria LaTouche was a strong minded, cultured, intelligent woman, more intelligent and more cultured than her husband.
London: Spring 1861 
"Dearest St Crumpet––You can’t think how fusty the carriage was from Prato to Florence––but of course you can, you can think of EVERYTHING, including fusty carriages should you like, but Mama says you’re too fine a gentleman to bother with such ––but we are here now and tomorrow we go and see Mr Giotto’s Campanile at the Duomo and I shall look at it with care just as you told me, and make Emily and Percy look too. And I am trying to draw what I see in the sketchbook you gave me and hold my pencil that way you showed me. And trying not to get scolded, I wanted to give my hat the blue one to a little dusty girl that was in the garden of the hotel but Bun––Miss Bunnett stopped me. She is Bun to me and so you are delicious Crumpet, but I think I should add the St for respect. I wish St Crumpet you were with me too. And that it were not so hot, it is too hot for Irish roses. Love––your Rosie-posie." 
Ruskin felt a sudden flush spring upon his cheek; his ears burned. “I am not alone,” he said aloud. “I shall not be alone.”
He read the letter again. She had never called him “Dearest” before, nor ended as she had–– “Love––your Rosie-posie.” His Rosie. His love. Rosie posie, Rosie fair, Rosie light and sweet as air. He thought of her oval face and more-slightly pointed chin; the tiny white-gold curls at the nape of the slender neck; eyes neither blue nor grey but some un-named alloyage possessing the smokiness of dusk; the lips perfect in profile but a little too full, almost petulant when she turned to you––a glistening rosebud, offering itself. The gravity of her gaze, like that, he imagined, of St. Ursula as a child. The face he had first loved when she was ten and he, nearing forty, had called at her mother’s request to meet the children and perhaps consent to give them a drawing lesson or two. - Light, Descending, pp 173-174
Notice: He does not re-name Rose. She already has the perfect name. She re-names him. And in fact she called him “St Crumpet” or “St C” all her short life.

Rose represented the ideal of purity and beauty to Ruskin – she was well-named.

Young Rose LaTouche, as drawn by John Ruskin

He was friends with the entire family but especially Mrs LaTouche and Rose – it was Rose who kept him coming back. He was invited for extended stays at their manor house in Ireland, and when the LaTouches were in London Maria LaTouche and Rose often came to Denmark Hill, the Ruskin home, to see Ruskin’s fabled collection of paintings, especially the Turner watercolours and oils.

As Rose was growing older Ruskin was, as noted earlier, experiencing increasingly difficult times – the death of Turner, the death of his father, and other personal losses. Ruskin was raised as an evangelical Christian; his mother in particular was narrow minded and bigoted, and ran the house like a tyrant. John had to cover all his paintings every Sabbath, so that he could not see or enjoy them, because nothing was to distract one from prayer and meditation. The first time John actually took a walk for pleasure on a Sunday – it happened in Switzerland, and he was quaking in his boots – he was in his 30’s. He never told his parents about it, and was ashamed to think they might have seen him from the window of their inn.

Finally John could no longer accept the tenet that everyone in the world was damned to eternal hellfire if they were not a particular type of Protestant. This was freeing for him, but also another sort of loss, that loss of certainty that his mother clung to.

One of the real challenges with the LaTouches is that Mr LaTouche was coming more and more under the influence of a charismatic Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, a man who was a great orator and had a sort of portable mega-church form around him in London. John LaTouche forsook the Church of Ireland – the Irish version of the Church of England, was baptized personally by Spurgeon, and became convinced his entire family except him was destined for damnation unless they did the same. There began a battle for the soul of the children, with the more moderate Maria LaTouche insisting they continue to be part of the Church of Ireland, and her husband insisting they to endorse his version of evangelical Christianity.

Rose, who was both thoughtful and impressionable, was caught in the middle – and it was tragic. One can imagine Ruskin, on the outside, finally free of the fear of a vengeful God and fiery damnation, seeing this beautiful young creature Rose embrace what he had finally been able to reject.

For long and miserable periods he was forbidden to see or even write to Rose – she had had a serious physical and mental breakdown the day after she, against her mother’s wishes, received Communion before being confirmed – and it was only very gradually that Ruskin was able to see her again. And candidly, at times he didn’t want to see her, as seeing her was so disruptive to his work and thought processes. But at last he was invited to Rose’s 18th birthday party – he was 47 at this point – and a few days later he invited her to Denmark Hill, his home, and proposed to her.

She asked him to wait another three years for her answer, which was crushing, But every night in his diary he began counting down the days until her 21st birthday, when she would make her decision.

Her parents were much against the union, and again forbade him to see or write to Rose. Sometimes she would find a way to write, or send a few rose petals to him – things he clung to. He even had a special wallet made, of thin sheets of gold, and within this he kept her most precious letters, and wore this wallet in his breast pocket against his heart.

He tried to address her in lectures, so to speak, because they were re-printed, and he hoped she would read them. Especially when he lectured about religious extremism he hoped she would learn of it, and he wrote the little book Sesame and Lilies for her – it’s a book of instruction for young people, and it became one of his best-selling titles, as slight as it is.

Rose was more and more debilitated, in and out of nursing homes, and finally in hopes of ending it definitively, Maria LaTouche wrote to Effie, who wrote back, incorrectly, that if Ruskin wed and ever had a child, it would mean Effie’s marriage to Millais would be invalid and their eight children illegitimate.

It was heartbreaking, and Rose was so frail and oftentimes deranged that anything further was out of the question. Rose died when she was twenty-seven from the accumulated deleterious effects of anorexia nervosa. Her father, ever since he got religion, was always urging her to “fast and pray” and so she did, right into an early grave.

Rose’s death devastated Ruskin. He had been struggling with mental illness, and this was an irrecoverable blow. He had, during her lifetime, begun to associate her with St Ursula as depicted in the Life and Martyrdom of St Ursula by Carpaccio in Venice, and the two figures, the virgin Rose and the virgin Ursula, merged in his mind.

The Dream of St Ursula, by Vittore Carpaccio, Gallerie dell'Accademia, Venice

There were other women later in his life who were interested in Ruskin, some of whom were mere opportunists, others who shared his social justice aims and would have been well suited to taking care of him and loving him, but he was one of those unfortunates who only wanted what he could not have, or in the case of Effie, when he got what he wanted, withdrew.


Octavia Randolph’s new novel is Light, Descending, the story of the great and tormented John Ruskin. Available in paperback at selected book stores, and as paperback and Kindle at Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk; and as paperback and Nook at Barnes&Noble.com


  1. Thank you ... I always wondered why someone as wonderful as Ruskin was a bachelor. How sad. And he loved Turner ... who knew???

  2. Light Descending is out! Fabulous blog post, Octavia. I have just purchased my copy of what I know will be a wonderful read. Kathryn


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