William Hall Burnett’s visit to John Ruskin at Brantwood, 1893

In 1887 William Hall Burnett moved with his family from Middlesbrough to Blackburn to take up the post of Editor of the Blackburn Standard.  He instigated a regular feature on the back page (page 8) of The Weekly Standard and Express Newspaper which initially was entitled ‘Passing notes and Gossip’ – as it developed he added the column heading art work which incorporated ‘BY ARIEL’ and part of a quotation from Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, ‘Happy the poet who with ease can steer,  from grave to gay, from lively to severe’, perhaps with the intention of giving himself ‘poetic licence’ to write about a wide range of topics – which he certainly did.

In 2013, I discovered amongst papers left to me by my father, a notebook that belonged to my great grandfather, William Hall Burnett. Inside the front cover is pasted a photograph of Brantwood and inside the back cover a photograph of John Ruskin. A lengthy handwritten note, dated February 17th 1899, describes the origin of the photographs[1].  They were taken by John McClelland of Withenfield House, Liskard, Cheshire and postdate the visit by my great grandfather being registered for copyright in 1895. I am indebted to Professor Stephen Wildman until recently Director and Curator of the Ruskin Library and Research Centre at Lancaster University for his generous support and help in deciphering the handwritten notes.

Frontispiece of William’s notebook

The frontispiece page is entitled ‘Ariel’s visit to Ruskin-Land’. And pasted inside are 67 column inches of newsprint describing a visit he made to John Ruskin’s home, Brantwood on Lake Coniston which can be identified as originating from six editions of the Blackburn Standard, starting Saturday the 30th September 1893 and ending on the 4th November 1893.

It has always been a family story that William was the last person to interview Ruskin – to what extent the visit could claim to include an interview is doubtful – but it is nevertheless it an interesting contemporary account of the Ruskin household at Brantwood.

It is most likely that the visit took place in August/September 1893.  “Ariel” in characteristically flamboyant style gave notice in the Blackburn Standard, Saturday, 9th September 1893 of his intention to relate the visit to readers of ‘Passing Notes and Gossip’.

‘My last note for this week will be my last for a fortnight. Ariel is going to take a holiday rest for two weeks. He much needs it. On his return he hopes to resume his usual weekly discourses in the spirit of “the giant refreshed”. One of his first essays will be a description of a recent visit to Coniston, when he had the pleasure, through the kindness of Mrs Joan Ruskin Severn, of an invitation to that shrine of literature and art, Brantwood, the residence of Mr Ruskin; and he had the rare distinction of making Mr Ruskin’s personal acquaintance and inspecting the whole of his invaluable art treasures, of going through his library, his study, and his bedroom and of seeing the last painting to which the great master has put his hand. It is a distinction quite unique in journalism, and the readers of “Ariel” will share it with the writer, inasmuch as they will be presented with his observations and reflections in a vivid manner as his pen can deflect depict them’

A transcript of the newsprint columns is given below. William was fond of including quotes from many sources and identification of these sources is provided among the endnotes.

Blackburn Standard, Saturday 30th September 1893

When you come to a full stop and stick there for a time, the puzzle is how and on what subject to commence again. Introductions, prefaces, are all unnaturally formal, and if you make them unconventional, sensational and informal, you stand in danger of being spoken of as “rude” and “overfamiliar”. Luckily for me my subject has been announced for me some days in the advertising columns of the Lancashire Evening Express so that I do not return to my audience and to my duties as a “surprise packet” in my possession which may either contain lollipops or dynamite. That subject is a visit I recently paid to the lakeside home of Mr. Ruskin

From William’s notebook – Blackburn Standard (1893)

“Mr.” RUSKIN! How odd it seems, that personal prefix, meant to convey distinction and honour.  “Call no man Master,” says the greatest of all authorities and the Quakers pretend keep in line with the precept. But to call a great man “Mr” is it not too absurd? No one calls Shakespeare, Milton, Tennyson, or Longfellow “Mr.,” and, beside the greatness and grandeur of the man, Newman’s Cardinalate was all bosh. So in the rest of my writings on Ruskin I shall almost entirely drop the courtesy prefix, for the man is too large to have his individuality framed and hung up as it were in so small a thing.

Now, Sir, you will see that I’m getting away, that my Pegasus has neither been winged nor lamed in his rather adventurous holiday in strange places, and as Tennyson would say “amongst other minds”. Like Lancelot in the idyll, he still has “lance in rest” [2].  But what inflated egotist leisure must have made me to dare to tackle such a subject so vast as the exploration of the mental qualities of the most potential intellect of the age that is now left to us.

Well, that is hardly what I am undertaking. That is hardly what I will undertake, for I have no plummet by which to sound Ruskinian depths and no tape-line nor yard-wand in my possession is equal to the comprehension of the stature of the man. All that I should seek to do will be, in my jottings weekly for some little time ahead, to give a readable and chatty description of my visit to Ruskin’s lake-side home and the experience I had there, feeling quite sure that as the privilege accorded to me was a most unusual one, not to be enjoyed by many who are eminent among us, my rough notes will be examined by all who know their Ruskin as a New Testament of Art, with deep interest and a new delight quick with the freshness that comes from contact with great and sacred things, with bookly eminences, with great records and achievements, and marvellous thoughts that have stirred men’s minds in many continents and have enriched the races of man all over the earth

My visit to Ruskin-land came about just in this way. I have received many kindly courtesies from the Vicar of Melling and Colonel and Mrs Lees of Thurland Castle, and on a recent flighty visit to their delightful homes they kindly gave me an introduction to Mr and Mrs Arthur Severn, who are frequent visitors at Thurland. It is unnecessary for me to say that Mr Severn is Ruskin’s alter ego; the custodian and ward of his literary and art interests.  Mrs Severn – Mrs Joan Ruskin Severn I ought to say is Ruskin’s favourite niece[3], and ministers kindly to his needs and to his comfort in the declining years of his life. It is to the kindness of Mr and Mrs Severn that I am indebted for being able to visit Ruskin-land and look upon the innermost icons of the most famous art shrine that is contained therein.

I mention these particulars because, as it is well known, Mr Ruskin has been in failing health for some years past. It is necessary, therefore, that nearly all visitors should be forbidden an audience: and, indeed they are so forbidden.  I also mention them because what I am writing is done with the full sanction of “the family.”  It is a bad fashion to intrude upon family privacies, like an unauthorised Captain Cuttle[4], making notes of things that are not to be made public, and generally irreverently abusing domestic sanctities. I should not have written a line about my visit to Brantwood – Mr Ruskin’s home if I’d not had the family’s permission to do so, but that, I am happy to say, was heartily and cordially given.

My visit to Brantwood was paid on a recent Saturday afternoon. I have never been in the lake country before, so I had a dreamy conception of undulating mountains, glassy and black waters, and plush-like woodlands, such as the pictures that deal the lakes give us. I had for company a pleasant and intellectually-minded companion, who can, on occasion, develop a tart and sardonic vein, with lurid colourings that give their own flavour to a situation. I found that Coniston town and lake, by the side of which Brantwood cosily nestles, is a much further distance from Preston and Blackburn than I had imagined. We were nearly a whole afternoon careering by towns and villages, round bays and headlands, past hills and straths before we sighted the estuary of the Duddon, at the land extremity of which, and from the junction at Foxhill,  the one-horse line diverges, which takes us uphill into the mountain-locked valley, in the hollow of which lies Coniston Lake like a mirror of liquid silver whilst the sun shines upon it, and as a black and threatening tarn when the skies lower and are dark and carry the thunder of heaven in their atherial canopies.

At this point it will be quite natural in me to become rhapsodical, but I’m not going to do it.  It is a great quality in high art to hold yourself in: to do less in a certain line than it is in your capacity to do: to leave the observer with the impression that there is a lot more in you than you have put into your subject, or that for the moment you care to blurt out. And rhapsody is hardly in my line. If I had £5,000 a year I might be tempted to rhapsodise to my heart’s content, and, if of course I made a fool of myself in the process it wouldn’t matter. Well, with my limited means I can neither afford to be sneered at nor laughed at, so I will e’en trudge on a level prosy road, carrying my bundle of saleable wares in my pack on my back. When I have the five thousand a year I will scale the delectable mountains of fantasy and then the world may discover that it has new genius, of whose merits it has too long been oblivious and neglectful.

So just here we will rest awhile, and noticed some strictly prosaic matters that necessarily fall within the purview of this column, and with the reader’s consent, we will resume this part of our narrative in next week’s letter.

Blackburn Standard, Saturday 7th October 1893

In resuming my notes on Ruskin-land “I may pause to remark” that on the run down to Carnforth I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of two American tourists. One was a doctor, who had betaken himself to Europe in the hope of curing himself of an attack of insomnia, of which he had become the victim. The other was a commercial gentleman who had settled down in the States at an early period of his life, so I am guilty of no exaggeration when I call him, too, an American. Both were fairly well-informed men, and hailed from Bradford, a flourishing industrial community, in Connecticut.  They were both loud in their praises of the beauty of English scenery, the verdure of English hedgerows, and the fresh greenness of English meadows.

They both spoke bitterly of the way in which all American towns were over-ridden in their government by the ignorant Irish. How to get rid of their predominance, they seem to think, was the one great political problem of the future. In Bradford quite recently a Mayor had been appointed by the ruling Celts simply because he was an Irishman. He had no qualification whatever for the office, and the first paper he was called upon to sign, upon it being handed to him, had to be witnessed with across. He could not write his own name! This in the latter end of century nineteen, and in the very midst of progressive democracy, and near the very centre of culture, and the “hub” of the universe, for such, indeed, Boston considers itself to be.

Like all cultivated Americans, I found the Doctor very proud of his ancestry, who had gone over the big water from England sometime in the sixteenth century. The Doctor did not think that his fore-elders had emigrated in the Mayflower.  I was pleased to hear this, for judging, from the Americans one hears of and reads of whose ancestors left England in that famous ship, one has come to the conclusion that alongside it Noah’s ark must have been a mere cockle boat, and the Great Eastern[5] the kind of German toy.

“The Coniston Station Master and his staff attending a Furness Railway steam train. The Furness Railway Company built the Coniston branch-line as a freight line, to carry slate and copper ore, but it rapidly developed in a passenger line, taking villagers further afield for work, and bringing tourists into the heart of the Lake District.” Ruskin Museum. (1893) Image courtesy of © The Ruskin Museum, Coniston,

With this little discursion, we may now resume the thread of our narrative. We reached Coniston, my friend and I, about five p.m., and as we had an appointment for Brantwood at 5.30, it did not leave too much time to spare. It is a pleasant walk from Coniston Station[6] to the hotel where we stayed, at the head of the lake. It is not difficult to realise the force of new experiences and fresh experience and expressions[7]  as we trudge along.

Coniston Lake occupies the hollow of a hill and mountain-locked valley, over which Coniston Old (alt) Man (we are to interpret “old” as meaning “high” and “man” as the corrupt German form for mountain) presides in stern solemnity. The principal group of mountains is at its northern extremity. Across the lake, as we saunter along, we can see the Eastern shores, steadily inclining upward, wood-covered about their base, to an apparent elevation of 1,000 odd feet. The ridge of the hill on this side is almost as straight as if it had been ruled by a particularly patient schoolboy, and gradually slopes towards the southern extremity.  Brantwood gleams out white from its woodlands, across the lake midway up the hill and down the valley. Indeed the site might have been specially selected for prominence and outlook it is so striking and so beautiful.

The opposite, or western, shore of the lake undulates and the hills gradually recede to the southward until they are almost lost in level plain. The lake-side town of Coniston straggles up from the lake shore, until houses assume a considerable elevation on the bases of the lower spurs that buttress up the Old Man. It is a pretty Swiss-like congregation of neat villas and pleasant cots, which do not combine in rows, but dot themselves about as they can find foothold on the shelving prominences. The view of Coniston from Brantwood across the lake is charming and the marvel to me is that the place is not more frequented than it is by visitors, seeing the unique characteristics of the pleasant village, and the panorama of scenery of which is the key.

But, as I said, the bolder scenery is at the northern end of the lake. The conical masses of the Old Man and the neighbouring mountains are most impressive. I take it for granted that the lake itself cannot be much above sea-level, and if this be so, you are able to take in the whole elevation of the mountains at a glance.  There is no mistaking their individuality, or the peculiar geological formation to which they belong. The Old Man is 2,633 feet above sea level or nearly 1,000 feet higher than Pendle Hill, which dominates the Ribble Valley, and the beautiful district of Craven.

The Old Man is said to be a very difficult hill to scale, and I can well believe it. In some parts, it is almost perpendicular. It is green to its summit and slopes gradually in its lower part towards Coniston and Torver. When the sun is smiling in the valley beneath, the summit of the mountain is often enveloped in masses of drift and rounded cumulus cloud. It was so on the evening when we first sighted its memorable form, a sentinel that has stood for centuries Sphinx-like watching the procession of the ages.

The walk from the station to the hotel, the Water Head Hotel [8]  was along a pleasant lane skirted by healthy-looking hedgerows.  The hotel itself is pleasant-looking residence, almost private, and stands in its own grounds. It is situated on the margin of the lake, and like all the dwellings in this part of the country is built of shingles of slate, apparently put together in a very loose fashion. A little light refreshment prepared us for our excursion to Brantwood.  There was no boatman to “row us o’er the ferry,”[9] so we took a light boat which was moored to the hotel jetty, and handled the oars ourselves.

I frankly confess that I’m not an expert at rowing. I used to be. But there are boats and boats, and there are oars and oars.  I had been accustomed in the days of long ago to row boats with row-locks such as are attached to the lighter craft which accompany sea-going vessels. Pleasure boats are not in my line, so for the first few hundred yards or so I did not cut the figure of a champion oarsman. My companion who occupied the steerage laughed at my efforts, and so did the occupants of another boat which put away from the landing stage to cross the lake at the same time as did our own. As I enjoyed the situation myself, it did not matter much, and after first few hundred yards the rowing got easier, and I was fairly in the swing of it. Besides, was not all the country around delightful and the lake as placid as though breeze had never ruffled its waters.

We did not know the geography of lakeland, and so we had some difficulty in effecting a landing. However, we managed to fasten our boat to an iron fencing, which ran into the water not far from Mr. Ruskin’s house, as we imagined. In getting ashore we have some difficulty in avoiding getting wetshod, but we just managed it. We could have been saved all this trouble if we had known that there was a proper landing stage just opposite Brantwood, a little higher up the lake

Coniston Lake is six miles long and in the main part three-quarters of a mile wide. Its banks are, as I have said, for the most part beautifully wooded. Brantwood I should say will be some two miles[10]  distant from its northern end. There are islands, Peel Island and Fir Island – islets which grace the surface of the mere, like emeralds at different points.  The greatest depth of the lake is 164 feet; and its waters contain quantities of pike, perch and other freshwater fish.  As we sailed up the lake a great variety of scenery was disclosed. The principal mountains visible are the crags around Yewdale and Tiberthwaite, Helvellyn, Fairfield, the Red Screes &c.

Having alighted, our path was across some meadows rich in dewy grass. This soon brought us to the highway which runs along the eastern shore of the lake. This in turn led us direct to Brantwood, and calling attention to the wood embowered and scar-menaced mansion, a view[11] of which is given in these columns, I will close the notes of my visit for the present week

Blackburn Standard, Saturday 14th October 1893

From William’s notebook – Blackburn Standard (1893)

Though there is nothing very remarkable in the appearance of Brantwood it is nevertheless a pleasing and picturesque residence in itself, and apart altogether from its situation.  It is cosy, commodious, and comfortable, and just the place a literary recluse might select to dwell in who was tired of the madding crowd, but in love with Nature in her fairest moods, and her most engrossing and beautiful forms. There are good walks and highways through pleasant woodlands where few people come at any time of the year. These roads and winding ways are not only in pleasant woodlands, but lead up to what others than Bunyan would call the delectable mountains. From many a coign of vantage[12] the traveller has views of the distant cosy dwellings of men, of the soaring hills, and of the glassy levels of the quiet lake.

Our introduction to Brantwood was quite informal. Miss. Severn who is a delightful young lady, in the absence of her mother, gave us a hearty welcome. The domestic contretemps placed us at once in cordial relationship. A kitten had got behind a heavy sideboard in the dining-room, and was in danger of being crushed, and so Miss. Severn called into requisition the masculine energies of myself and friend. We lifted the sideboard from its place, and the kitten was set at liberty. And so were we, for we joined in hearty laughter about coincidence that freed at least two young ladies[13], from a serious sense of responsibility as to the probable fate of a domestic pet.

At first matters did not seem hopeful for the success of our visit. Mrs. Severn had had an unexpected call, and Mr. Severn was away fishing and painting somewhere about the Lands End. We had hardly finished tea, however, before Mrs. Severn returned, gave us a hearty welcome to the house of her illustrious relative. I then had the opportunity of acquainting her with what was in reality the main objective of my visit.  And here let me explain.

Some time ago I had the pleasure (with the permission of the family) of examining the literary and art remains of James Sharples, Blackburn’s blacksmith artist. In company with friends who know the value of art products, I had come to the conclusion that such work and such a memory should not be suffered to die of sheer neglect. In Sharples, Blackburn had a treasure beyond all price. But how was his memory and his work to be perpetuated? It was thought that the best way to do this was to influence eminent people in art and literature in such a way as to lead them to take personal interest in his life and work. With that end in view, his son, Mr. James Sharples visited London, taking with him introductions to the leading art and literary coteries there. One result of Mr Sharples’ visit to London has been that the splendid engraving “The Forge” has been re-issued, and is now in increasing demand. Another result may be that an Indian ink drawing of the “The Smithy” companion picture to “The Forge” close, maybe engraved. A certain result of a number of conferences at Sharple’s house is the permission granted by the Council of the Blackburn Technical School for a Sharples exhibition, to be held at an early date, in one of the principal rooms of the building. To this the public will be admitted free, or at a nominal charge. But I am anticipating.

It was thought that if only Mr. Severn’s interest could be awakened in the matter a great point would be gained, and, as luck would have it, I was thrown into Mr. Severn’s company, and, unsought, obtained an introduction to him. On knowing the circumstances of the case, he not only said that it would give him pleasure to look over any of Sharples’ work but that he would carefully consider it, and give his opinion as to its merits. It was mainly to give Mr. Severn the opportunity of examining some of Sharples’ pictures and drawings that I went to Brantwood and it was therefore a disappointment to me to find that Mr. Severn was not “at home”.  I would have named another time from visiting Brantwood had my own arrangements permitted.  As it was I took from Mr. Sharples a copy of the engraving of “The Forge” – a first proof of the new issue – for Mr. Severn’s acceptance. And I left with Mrs. Severn the number of studies and drawings – including the Indian-ink drawing of “The Smithy” – for Mr. Severn’s inspection. I have now his opinion of these in the letter which I am at liberty to quote.

Writing under the date September 27, 1893 from Brantwood, Coniston, Ambleside, Mr. Severn says: “Thank you very much the engraving of ‘The Forge’: the most interesting piece of work. The sepia drawing, also, is really wonderful in the care and precision with which it is done. I have examined it carefully with a magnifying glass, and find nothing shirked or wanting. It must be a valuable drawing in its own way, and ought to be taken great care of. I think it should belong to our national collection. The other pencil drawings have a curious interest of their own, and whoever wrote the pencil criticisms knew what he was about”

I need not add anything to Mr. Severn’s letter. These notes are not intended to be an in memoriam of Sharples, whose remains will be dealt with shortly by others in these columns and elsewhere. It is satisfactory to know, however, that Mr. Severn expresses the same opinion about them as fell from Mr Ruskin lips on 20 or 30 years ago, and which I was to hear that day the same great authority substantially endorse.

The formal business of my visit over, Mrs. Severn kindly offered to show us the treasures of the house. We began with the pictures in the dining room. I cannot use their names, not estimate their values, nor give the names of the painters of them. I could not go through the home of Ruskin in notebook in hand, like an auctioneer’s clerk making an inventory. We began with Turners, that I know, and I think we ended with Turners. But there were many works by other masters, Titian, I think, and some Old Cromes, and William Hunts if I mistake not. But how can one burden one’s memory with so many splendid things. It is like describing the lights that come from the facets of a diamond to attempt to set forth at length the variety and distinctiveness of a whole gallery of paintings, each of which is in itself worthy of a day’s study even at the hands of the uncritical, untechnical spectator.

We saw a dreamy landscapes and ghostlike portraits, we saw pictures which were resplendent with a similitudes of Venetian stones in marvellous lacework; we saw cameos and curios gathered from many lands, but mostly from the home of mediaeval art – Italy; but what we remembered most were the Turners, for it was to glorify this master that Ruskin had spent the main part of his life, never wearying of a strain of adulation which was almost worship, and which expressed itself in every mode of which the plastic English time is capable in the hands of one of the finest  word builders and sentence framers that his native land has known in his own generation.

We were kindly shown Mr Ruskin’s drawing-room, a large, but not over commodious apartment; we were admitted into Ruskin’s bed-room, a little cabinet-like place that might be suitable for a ladies’ boudoir if the settings were made appropriate. Here the pictures on the wall are all Turners. As the great man sleeps in his cottage-like iron bedstead he can see Turners at his feet, Turners by his side and over his head. There are Turners on either side of the window that lets in the light of the day: Hood’s little window, “where the sun,” for I ought to know, “comes peeping in at morn “[14].

If art, like music, will pacify, Mr Ruskin ought to sleep soundly. As daylight dawns day by day the light beams reveal to him the splendid art dreams the fame of which is echoed over all the continents. What more could mortal man desire? To glorify a great man’s achievements and then make your home a temple of his art? And that too in the presence of scenery that we need not say awakes not only the rapture of poets, for is it not the yearly resort of thousands upon thousands of prosaic trippers, who wend their way through the land as though it were a remnant of a dispersed Paradise which the gods knew before the visionless biped which we call man had desecrated the planet with the ape-like tread of his unresting footsteps.

Here the P.D., with visage strangely out of gear at the turgidity of my poetic images, interposes to say that the space allotted for my weekly “tale’ of Ruskin notes is already more than full, and with this intimation I must now proceed to consider some matter-of-fact subjects of the passing time.

Blackburn Standard Saturday 21st October 1893

Resuming my Ruskin notes I may say that we lingered long in the cabinet of a bedroom which contained such priceless treasures of art as I have already named. The pictures were in strange contrast to the humble couch on which the most famous of living Englishman takes his nightly rest. Unnoticed that the pillow slips were marked in red in cursive characters “J.R.”. Except for the paintings and the books, any ordinary labourer sleeps on quite as imposing a bedstead, with quiltings and coverings to match, as that which occupied the corner near the wall in this limited apartment, sacred to genius and to art.

Whilst inspecting Mr Ruskin’s treasures Mrs Severn kindly showed us a Black-letter Bible illuminated and written all by hand, and that, too on vellum, silk like in its fineness. Here and there the writer had corrected passages in the margin, and these were converted into ornamental scrolls and designs.  It really added to the attractiveness of the text. I suppose the little book must have been worth more than its weight in gold. Anyhow, it was one of the most precious of the Ruskin collection, and was several hundred years old. It was in an excellent state of preservation.

There are two studios in Brentwood, the old and the new. The new studio was scarcely complete at the time of our visit, but Mr Severn had already put it into use. It is a large and well lighted hall in the south of the building. It was here that we were shown one of the latest studies to which the great master had put his hand. It was an enlarged drawing of peacock’s feather, very vivid and natural. It was not finished and in all probability never will be. This thought gave it a pathetic interest; for last works, like the last words, make their own solemn appeal to the deeper feelings and sentiments of our nature

And so one by one we visited every room in this delightful mansion: even the bedrooms of the Masters Severn, in which were drawings and paintings of the various fishes taken from the lake. At Brantwood the domesticities are not neglected for high art, there is quite a homely and human trace everywhere, as there is bound to be in houses where juvenility curbed or uncurbed is in evidence. Our last visit was to the drawing room to say a brief farewell to Mr Ruskin in his study. He had been out for a walk and was resting after the exercise. It seemed almost sacrilege to disturb him, but as we were kindly offered an introduction it was not in human nature to refuse to avail ourselves of it.

I confess I felt nervous about intruding on Mr Ruskin’s privacy. I know that his health was in a shattered condition, and that for some time past he had refused audience even to old and dear friends, whereas we were but strangers – and prying ones too. Of course, if we had left Brantwood without seeing him, it would have been a great disappointment. Good manners, all the same, precluded us from asking to see him; and if that privilege had not been spontaneously afforded us, I am quite sure we would have come back as we went, without seeing him.

So after we had inspected the articles of art and vertu in the drawing-room, we were ushered into the old man’s presence. A certain sense of delicacy made us diffident; we were, however, soon at our ease. We had but few words: a reference to Sharple’s great engraving, “The Forge” and his drawing of “The Smithy”, which Mr Ruskin had seen for the first time that day and some general compliments – that was all. Then we shook hands with him and came away; a brief but memorable audience to ourselves. To Mr Ruskin perhaps an intrusion which he would have preferred to have been spared, for it was not difficult to see that any visit of this kind must cause him an effort and brought vividly to his mind a sense of lost power and an increased desire to court that seclusion which he has chosen for himself.

The great master was seated in a bent and reclining position in a cosy armchair[15]. His books were all round him. There was no mistaking the face that we had seen limned so many times in books and pictures. It was the same shaggy, luxuriant hair and beard. The same deep seated grey eyes, with their shaggy eave-like eyebrows, from under which the eyes looked piercingly upon men and things. It was Ruskin, but Ruskin in old age, and with the fires and energies burning low. You could not look at such a man without becoming the subject of indescribable emotions, for this was the shrine that had contained one of the most beautiful spirits that God had vouchsafed to this present generation.

It was pleasing to know that Mr. Ruskin had not forgotten Sharples and “The Forge”. He remembered the first publication of this wonderful work, and spoke of it in that same strain of eulogy as that which he had first indulged in with respect to it. Today he was pleased to say that it was his finest work and that he liked it even better than “The Smithy” a later study, a drawing of which he had just inspected.

“Good-bye!” And then for a moment we spoke not to each other. In a few moments, we were in the outside world, and basking in the garish light of a bright autumnal evening. The lake was down below us: the solemn hills all around. The night would soon fall on the dwellings of men. Sweet sleep would close enumerable eyelids. The world would soon settle down to the hallowed hush of night, as so it is with the procession of days and years, and so it is with us all. “Let us work whilst it is still called today”[16]. All his life long he has been a great worker, and now he has come to that period of eventide, and needs and has earned his rest.

We strayed through the gardens, and saw the plots which he himself had won from the rugged hillside, and the flowers and herbs and shrubs which he had planted. We plucked some red roses, his favourite flower – the same that adorn his sitting room every day, and brought them away as souvenirs of our visit. We plucked some sprays from shrubs which he had planted with his own hand, and also brought them away. The next morning, we dispatched them to distant friends as keepsakes, and no doubt they will treasure them for many a day.

Then we walked down to the boat, escorted kindly by Mrs Severn and some of the youngest members of her family. We had less difficulty in re-boarding our craft than mooring it. We were soon out in the middle of the lake. Then the night came on, and the stillness and the darkness. There was no noise but the splash of our unsteady oars, and that made by the wagging of our unruly tongues. My friend seemed in the mood for classic quotation and I let him quote. Metaphysically he seemed going over the problem of cui bono not for the first or second time. It is an old one with him.  I was more bent on quizzing and chaffing him, and upon singing snatches of operas and songs in a voice that would be the ruin of any chorus. I chaffed him because his rowing was worse that his metaphysics, deplorably out of joint as these were, and because every now and then we were describing circles in the water which led nowhere, but gave us abundant time to contemplate the stars. It was getting cold and the hotel lights were far down the lake. At length, we descried the jetty and, just like amateurs got on the wrong side of it. However, “all’s well that ends well” and with a little management our discomforts were at an end.

I may close this week’s notes by an anecdote clipped from the pages of a contemporary. John Ruskin, when sick, says the writer, is a difficult patient to deal with. He prefers to be his own doctor as long as he can, and has little faith in medicine. Once when laid up by a severe attack of internal inflammation he asked the doctor what would be the worst for him.  The answer was “beef”.  Immediately the self-willed patient hungered for a slice of cold roast beef. There was none in the hotel where he and his friends were stopping, and it was late at night. But a friend went off to get some, and at last found a slice in an eating house. He brought it to Ruskin wrapped up in paper, He enjoyed his late supper thoroughly, and fortunately the rash act did him no harm.

Blackburn Standard 28th October 1893

It is Mr. Ruskin’s method, when in fair health, to take two walks daily, morning and afternoon. In the evenings he fills up the time by playing chess and whist with the family, or any friends who may be staying at Brantwood. So his life is now an easy routine, with little change from day to day.

On the lake side he is everywhere spoken of as “The Professor”.  Many faded bills on outhouses and posting places showed that he is a liberal of local institutions, such as agricultural and flower shows, &c. Some time ago he used to take great interest in the village social gatherings. It is said that on one occasion a performer, having failed to keep his appointment with the villagers and having sent no apology for his so doing, was soundly trounced in a letter which was read from the platform, and which was couched in the choicest Ruskinese. He has always taken a deep interest in the welfare of the village school, at which a few years ago he was a frequent attender. Many of the children received letters from his pen on matters interesting to their little minds, for Mr. Ruskin could entertain children as well as their fellows of larger growth.

It is well known, of course, the Mr. Ruskin’s charities have been unbounded. He has given away nearly the whole of a large fortune; and I believe is only one instance recorded of his having taken any money to his lawyer for the purpose of investment. That was a sum of some thousands of pounds which he received from the sale of a Meissonier. He had bought this painting originally for £1000, and sold it for £6000. No one was more surprised than the family lawyer when, Mr. Ruskin made this departure in the management of his business affairs. “Hallelujah!” he is reported to have ejaculated, “there is good news at last”.

I may mention that Burne-Jones is evidently an art-deity at Brantwood. Several of his works are on the walls, and they would not be there if Mr. Ruskin. had not a high opinion of him. In the corridor which runs from the old to the new studio are hanging the whole of the panels, photographed more or less successfully, of Mr. Burne-Jones’s well-known legend, ‘The Briar Rose’.

There is an anecdote told of Mr. Ruskin that on a certain occasion a young artist waited upon him, and among other things, asked him the question, “Do you think sir, I shall ever draw as well as Turner?” Mr. Ruskin’s reply was characteristic. “It is far more likely that you shall be made Emperor of all the Russias There is a new Emperor every 15 to 20 years on average, and by hap and fortunate cabal, anybody might be made Emperor. There is only one Turner in 500 years, and God decides without any admission of auxiliary cabal what piece of clay his soul is to be put in”.

On another occasion writing on the subject of painters and painting generally, Mr. Ruskin delivered himself of the following sentiments, which constitute really the gospel on which all his art teaching has been based: – “A great painter – a great man –  is born great, born for ever. No other person can approach him or liken himself in the slightest degree to him. A man is born a painter as a hippopotamus is born a hippopotamus, and you can no more make yourself one than you can make yourself a giraffe. Moreover, a great man’s work always tells more in advancing him than other people’s, so that the older people are, the further they are off the great man. A little baby is very like a big baby — infant Charon like Michael Angelo. When they are each seventy years old this difference is infinite.”

Coniston, in the Winter season of the year, must be a very quiet and dead-alive place; but in the Summer and Autumn, when visitors are continually passing through, it wears, to some extent, an aspect of brightness and gaiety. On the Sunday morning, we found the Church well attended, though the place seems overstocked with religious edifices. At the Wesleyan chapel also there was a fair attendance, but the Baptist, Primitive Methodist, and Roman Catholic chapels seemed almost deserted. We peeped in at all these as we went round. It is wonderful how all these struggling causes manage to support themselves with such scanty  attendances.

Some of the villagers have made collections of RUSKIN manuscript, gathering up all the letters they could lay hands upon, which the old gentleman had written in quite an unreserved way to various friends and protegés in the district. Mr. J. Bell, Haws Bank, Coniston,[17] has quite a collection of RUSKIN manuscripts. These he has had carefully bound. Amongst them I noticed several RUSKIN letters, and the manuscript of a portion of “Fors Clavigera” Mr. Bell has had several offers to dispose of these, but has refused to part with them. This I consider a striking instance of hero worship.

Mr. Bell told me an amusing anecdote of a manufacturer who was building a house in the district, and who was taking a friend of his, a bookbinder, over the premises after they had just been planned out. He pointed out to the bookbinder the different rooms — the parlour, drawing-room &c. — and then he said, “This will be my library” pointing to another part of the plan. ” I shall” he continued “fill it with good books, I shall have a ‘look’ of Shakespeare, a ‘look’ of Tennyson &c.” The bookbinder suggested that the binding of the books should be uniform, and they would be best bound in Morocco, where upon the successful merchant replied, “No; I shall go in for local trade. I will have them bound in —.”

Another anecdote, as showing the simplicity of the people in these parts, was related by Mr. Bell. A local preacher was preaching in the Wesleyan Chapel in one of the mountain villages on the parable of the Prodigal Son. He proceeded to expatiate, remarked that “this was the fatted calf, and not an ordinary calf, but one, in fact, that may have been fed for years”. After the sermon, an old farmer went up to him and said: “Luk here, mi lad; if it’d bin kept for years and years, as tha sez, it wouldn’t be a cauf at all; it’d be a coo.”

Mr. Bell also told me that he had frequently spoken to Mr. Ruskin about the high price at which he kept his books, and which prevented them getting into general circulation. In answer to this, Mr. Ruskin one day showed him a letter he had received from an admirer, who not being to afford the cost of Modern Painters had copied that work entirely in manuscript. Mr. Ruskin argued that this man would know more about his book than if he had bought a copy, and had only carelessly read it through.

Here my notes on a short visit paid to Ruskinland must come to an end. Apart from Coniston being the residence of so great a man, the district has its own charms, one of which is the peculiar luxuriance of the vegetation. The yew trees down by the lake showed their lovely pink berries in profusion, and the laurels were everywhere one mass of cherry-like berries. How is it, that in a district so far north, the climate is so much milder than ours?

Blackburn Standard 4th November 1893

May I revert briefly to my notes on the visit to Ruskinland, which were ostensibly concluded in last week’s issue?  I had thought of closing these up by some notice of Mr. Ruskin’s style, but, unfortunately, a severe attack of the “grippe” gave the quietus to my intentions. There is no reason, however, why I should not do this week what I was prevented from doing last week

Ruskinese has never been written by any other man than Ruskin. There are parts that remind you of Jeremy Taylor in a distant kind of way, but they bear no kind of relation to the whole. The style is simple, yet full of unconscious art. Ruskin has an imagination like a subtle crystal, in whose cool depths you may see innumerable fair things. He has a memory of proportions quite elephantine. This, and a fine genius for analogue, enables him to gather wealth from almost every possible and impossible source. He is saturated with a feeling of child-joy in everything that his eye sees and his ears hear. The smallest sight or sound is magnified in his sensitive brain in a hundred different pictures and harmonies, compact of beauty. Wonder, awe, reverence; the great faculties of your most intellectual spirits are everywhere discoverable in his writings. Coupled with this there is an intense love of simple, uncurbed Nature, which prefers the Arcadia of her pure delights to all the scaffold-work and artificial devices of a so-called civilization. His phrases are fluent with life; they run with haste to discharge their freights of thought, and you run with them, for you are impressed with their dynamic energy, and realise, however you are overborne, you must hasten and know what is to come. His criticisms have in themselves at times the elements of a biting scorn, but never of a brutal cynicism. When he uses the lash it is in the humour of a man whose mood is more eccentric than cruel. It would be a mistake to credit Ruskin at all times with a sound judgement, for indeed he nods every now and again, not to put it too harshly, in a way that is foolish as well as eccentric. Nature has made Ruskin the writer that he is, and no one could attain to his style by any manner of artifice or any amount of study. It is that art which is beyond the teaching of the schools, though the schools can and have informed it with wealth of illustration and beauty of analogy. His passages are all clear-cut and jewel- like in their brilliancy, just as the wondrous hilt of that sword which the maiden of the hills wove for Arthur, and like it also that when Mr. Ruskin finishes his day’s tale of work by the mere of Coniston the vehicle of his genius will for future use, as much lost to men as was that “gleaming miracle” which was finally grasped by the hand and arm “clothed in white samite, mystic beautiful,” that claimed the sword of the ideal king.

The following section is not in the notebook but is in the published newspaper

The MSS. that I saw at Coniston show Ruskin to be a quick producer of good copy. He seems to write on paper of a good size, foolscap or ordinary quarto, in a fair, round, though somewhat jerky, hand. There are a fair number of erasures and corrections in the text. Greek and Latin quotations are jerked in with wonderful effect, but evidently are a present thought and not an after emendation. There is not much stipple work in Ruskin. The Bible is his favourite book of quotation. Saxon is his natural speech, but he does not bind himself in any trammels, and when it suits his whim, or the sense needs it, the derivatives of the Romance tongues are just as freely resorted to by him as the plain economic home words that he learnt at his mother’s knee.

Finally, Ruskin is the devotee of art. He has insisted, as no other writer before him has done, that things of beauty uplift men and ennoble life, whilst things deformed and uncomely degrade them and embitter it. That is why he so loathed the meanness of our town architecture, and the general utilitarian spirit seeking only for cash dividends.

Finally, Ruskin is like a child in his garrulous simplicity. He prattles at your ear, never doubting but you hear him at strict “attention,” and he gives you all his confidence. He keeps nothing from you of what he has to tell. Rare product of uncandid times! in which men have come to imagine that clouded words, like those of the Witches in Macbeth, are the natural currency of human speech!

They hold the word of promise to the ear,
But break it to the hope.

We must return to the Ruskinian fashion if the world is not to become daily more of a Gehenna, and the world’s newspapers are to become less the records of a saturnalia of sin and shame and crime than we now see them to be.


[1] Transcription of handwritten entries in the notebook from the back cover to the frontispiece.


‘I wrote to Mr McClelland, Withenfield House, Liscard, Cheshire and received from him on the 14th February 1899 a portrait of Mr Ruskin for which he charged me a guinea. The photo Mr McClelland explained to me was taken in Mr Ruskin’s study at Brantwood in July 1897, and had not been published in England.
It was used by Messrs Scribner of New York in December last (“Ruskin as an artist by M H Spielmann) for their magazine, and although not the most recent, is I think suitable for a London daily, and brings out something of the thoughtful face.  The other one of the two most recent photos taken I cannot send you as I have not a print ready nor would I offer at the same price. The one enclosed is far more recent than that by Hollyer.
The deputation which waited upon Mr Ruskin on his 80th birthday intended his Portrait to be painted by Holman Hunt and then presented by his admirers to himself or the Guild of St George. His health would not allow the project to be encouraged. There are already portraits by Millais, George Richmond and Herkomer and portraits have recently been painted by Arthur Severn and W G Collingwood. The latest photographs (Feb 1899) are by Mr McClelland, Liscard, Cheshire and Mr Hollyer .
Of late years unhappily, Mr Ruskins’ failing strength and spirits have often been remarked upon. He is no longer able to seek out his favourite haunts round Brantwood and during a recent visit to Coniston I learned that he now rarely ventures out of doors – not even into the garden towards the “old well under the strawberry beds”, where his big stalwart Scotch attendant used to hum over to him the old familiar Scots songs he loves so well. Even yet, however, Ruskin has lost none of his joy in their old melodies and next to his books he has no greater pleasure than a musical evening in the drawing room, surrounded by the Brantwood household.
Westminster Bridge  Feb 17 1899..

[2] from Idylls of the King: Morte d’Arthur by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

[3] Joan Severn was Ruskin’s cousin, not niece

[4] Captain Edward (Ned) Cuttle, a retired hook-handed sea captain, is character from Dombey and Sons by
Charles Dickens.

[5] SS Great Eastern was an iron sailing steam ship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, built by J. Scott Russell & Co. at Millwall on the River Thames, London. At the time of her launch in 1858 she was by far the largest ship ever built.

[6] The photograph shows Coniston Railway Station as it was in 1893, the year of William’s visit. Reproduced with permission from the Ruskin Museum, Coniston.

[7] The published version has ‘expressions’ and has been corrected by hand in the Notebook margin to ‘impressions’

[8] Waterhead Hotel, Coniston.  In the mid to late 19th century it was becoming commonplace for hotels to be built at major railway terminals. A similar, but small scale, venture by James Garth Marshall MP (1802-1873) was reported in the Westmorland Gazette, Saturday 28th October 1848 ‘J G Marshall, Esq., is about to take down the Inn at Coniston Waterhead, and erect on the western side of the present building a new and handsome hotel, with ornamental gardens attached. The new building will command a good view of the lake, and the distant mountain scenery will be seen to greater advantage than from the present site’ .    http://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000399/18481028/010/0002


[9] ‘To row us o’er the ferry’ from the first verse of ‘Lord Ullin’s Daughter’ by Thomas Campbell (1777-1844) Thomas Campbell helped to found University College, London and is buried in Westminster Abbey. http://www.poetsgraves.co.uk/Classic%20Poems/Campbell/lord_ullin’s%20daughter.htm

[10] The published version has ‘some two miles’ and has been corrected by hand in the Notebook margin to ‘a mile or more’

[11] This refers to a line drawing published in the Blackburn Standard and in WHB’s notebook he has written underneath ‘An especially favourite place of the poet Wordsworth’.

John Ruskin bought Brantwood in 1871.  1870-72, John Marius Wilson’s Imperial Gazetteer of England and Wales described Brantwood like this: BRANTWOOD, a villa, with charming grounds, on the E side of Coniston water, in Lancashire. A seat in the grounds was the poet Wordsworth’s favourite point for viewing the lake; and bears the name of Wordsworth’s seat.  http://www.visionofbritain.org.uk/place/24628

[12] Shakespeare, Macbeth:Act 1 Scene 6, Banquo to Duncan,  ‘Buttress, nor coign of vantage, but this bird’

[13] Census 1891.  Most probably Mrs Severn’s daughter’s Lily (aged 18) and Violet (aged 10)

[14] Thomas Hood (1799 –1845) first verse of his poem ‘I remember, I remember’.

[15] Transcription of WHB’s margin note. ‘Contrary to usual custom he has allowed his beard to grow very cosy in these recent years and it is now very bushy and white’

[16] Hebrews 3-13

[17] From Mannex’s Directory of Furness and Cartmel (1882) ‘Bell John, registrar of births and deaths, relieving, vaccination, school attendance, and inquiry officer for Hawkshead district; agent for Reliance Mutual Life Association Society, Haws bank’






  1. Bill Burnett

    A fascinating read – and so informative. I had no idea that there was such anti-Irish feeling amongst Americans for example. I chuckled at WHB’s observation on the number of Americans who claim descent from a “Mayflower” pilgrim. Rather like those who share his surname – it is a very popular claim amongst people named BURNETT, particularly in America, that they are descended from a Scottish clan chieftan who in turn came over from Normandy with William the Corn Curer!
    WHB certainly had a way with words – “the visionless biped we call man … desecrated the planet with the ape-like tread of his unresting footsteps” I love it!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.