The Ruskin Family Handwriting
The Handwriting of John James Ruskin and Margaret Ruskin
In June 1827, a few months after John Ruskin first began to use pen and ink, his father purchased Butterworthʼs Young Arithmeticianʼs Instructor, Containing Specimens of Writing with Directions (Burd, ed., Ruskin Family Letters, 168 n. 1). The manual was produced by the firm of Edmund Butterworth (d. 1814), who had held the post of writing master and accountant at the Royal High School, Edinburgh, until 1793, shortly before John James Ruskin enrolled at that institution in 1795. At age ten, John James was already somewhat older than his class, the customary starting age at the High School being eight. (While the High School was fiercely republican in seating tradesmenʼs sons alongside those of patricians, the Ruskin family probably needed extra time to scrape together money for the fees, or they may have been apprehensive of exposing John James to a famously sadistic Latin master [see Viljoen, Ruskinʼs Scottish Heritage, 59–62].) Given his own delayed matriculation, whatever its cause, John James perhaps acted with deliberate resolve in introducing his son in 1827, at age eight, to copybook exercises by his alma materʼs writing master. By this age, in 1826–27 John had already begun practicing (in pencil) Latin Rules and Conjugations in MS Juvenilia A. Just so, at the High School of Edinburgh, boys were drilled for five to six years in Latin lessons (and some Greek in the fifth year) as a foundation for entry to the universities, where at age thirteen or fourteen they began training for professions, most often for the law (Viljoen, Ruskinʼs Scottish Heritage, 59–61). It is impossible to view the 1804 Portrait of John James Ruskin by Henry Raeburn (1756–1823)—an iconically Romantic image of a youth, who looks up from the book on which he is leaning and gazes into the imaginative space his reading has opened up—without concluding that John James once hoped to continue his studies at the university. Instead, his departure in 1802 for a mercantile life in London compelled him to pursue self‐culture, which both his own determination and the intensifying print and visual culture of the era enabled him to support, first for himself and then for his family.
Copybooks like Butterworthʼs were designed to straddle the worlds of public instruction in schools and of private instruction in the home, whether by writing masters or by self‐guided practice. Even at the Edinburgh High School, the writing and arithmetic classes had always been optional, the expectation being that many youths would acquire these accomplishments on their own by various means (see Edmund Butterworth (d. 1814)). In an 1825 advertisement, the publisher Oliver & Boyd of Edinburgh characterizes Butterworthʼs Young Arithmeticianʼs Instructor as “designed for the Use of Schools and Private Families”, by “combining accurate Writing, correct Figures, and judicious Arrangement”. Of the five productions by Butterworth listed, the advertisement goes on to declare that “[f]or beauty of design, and correctness of execution, these Works of Mr Butterworth are admired by every competent judge of Penmanship. A decided preference is accordingly given to them by the most eminent Teachers in the United Kingdom. They are the productions of an indefatigable genius in his profession, exercised and improved by the experience of above forty years.—The demand for them continuing to increase, the Publishers have spared no expense in bringing them out in the superior style in which they now appear” (“Books Published by Oliver & Boyd”, 21).
As a path to self‐cultivation, copybooks typically provided instructional texts (set in letterpress) along with illustrations of writing samples in various styles or “hands” (reproduced from engraving or woodcut and, later, from lithograph). Subcategories of copybooks specialized in particular disciplines or audiences, such as youths or ladies (Becker, Practice of Letters, xi). Most copybooks modeled the formal script known as English round hand or copperplate, which in the eighteenth century had settled into a practical but elegant script that was less elaborate than earlier versions, and that was widely used in business. An influential standard for English round hand was set by the copybook, Universal Penman (1733–41), jointly authored by the engraver and writing master, George Bickham (1684–1758), and his son. Practiced using a pen with a flexible quill nib, round hand called for a looping style that accentuated contrasts of thin and thick strokes, a style related to the late‐eighteenth‐century transitional and modern typefaces that featured these extreme contrasts, such as Baskerville and Bodoni (Cramsie, Story of Graphic Design, 119–21). In the view of a historian of calligraphy, the common English round hand was “colourless, thoroughly unromantic, and dull”; however, these “were precisely the qualities which commended [the hand] to those who wrote our invoices and to those abroad who received then”; and this “plain hand for a plain purpose” was typified in the nineteenth century by “the books of Butterworth”, in which the hand became “even more matter‐of‐fact and more standardised” (Morison, “Development of Hand‐Writing”, xxxiii, xl).
Ruskinʼs Handwriting
Early Print Lettering in Pencil
The earliest extant sustained writing by Ruskin appears in MS I and MS IVA, dated 1826–27, which he wrote entirely in print lettering. The medium is graphite, for which Ruskin probably would have used a porte‐crayon—a metal holder for rods of plumbago—or he might have used a cedar pencil. The plumbago used in Britain was proudly mined in Borrowdale, where high quality deposits were carefully husbanded (Finlay, Western Writing Implements, 52–53). The porte‐crayon is a typical object in eighteenth‐century genre paintings showing boys absorbed in drawing, such as works by the French artists Jean Siméon Chardin (1699–1779), Jean‐Baptiste Greuze (1725–1805), and Nicolas‐Bernard Lépicié (1735–84), who were concerned with conveying progressive educational ideas and with representing children as thoughtful, individualistic observers (see Johnson, “Picturing Pedagogy”).
Ruskin based his print lettering in part on models found in his favorite books. For example, in his adaptation of Maria Edgeworthʼs Early Lessons, “Harry and Lucy,” Vol. 1, he imitated the originalʼs title page; and his lettering generally suggests the influence of English transitional serif typefaces, such as Baskerville and Bulmer, and their predecessor, Caslon, which predominated in British books of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Even in these first manuscripts, the Red Books, however, Ruskin also flourished his lettering with decorative capitals that in the 1828–29 “Harry and Lucy,” Vol. 3, he called “double” print. The style of this lettering appears based on the sanserif typefaces that began as a neoclassical revival in the 1780s and sprang into a variety of forms and associations in the first decades of the nineteenth century (see Cramsie, Story of Graphic Design, 117–18, 126–27). One likely model for his “double” lettering was the largest, most prominent labeling used for maps in Ruskinʼs geography book, Geography Illustrated on a Popular Plan by the Rev. J. Goldsmith (1820). (see Ruskin, Works, 35:79)
Early Print Lettering and Cursive in Ink
According to Margaret Ruskin, Ruskin first used pen and ink around 28 April 1827 (Burd, ed., Ruskin Family Letters, 156; see also “Harry and Lucy,” Vol. 2, n. 8). These fledgling efforts with pen and ink are best exhibited in MS III. Its inside back endboard is covered with random words and letters in ink, as if Ruskin was practicing use of his pen. In that same year, when entering the first works to be fair‐copied in MS III—that is, “Harry and Lucy,” Vol. 2, and Poetry DescriptiveRuskin traced his letters in ink over top of his initial pencil lettering, which remains visible beneath. (A clearly visible example of the procedure is found in line 1 of “Spring: Blank Verse”, where Ruskin left the terminal s of the word beauties in pencil, forgetting to overwrite that one letter in ink.)
The drawings for this Red Book, MS III, are in pencil, while their legends written in ink. A similar mix occurs in a May 1827 letter to his father, the text of which Ruskin wrote in pencil, but which included two poems fair‐copied in ink, “Wales” and “Spring: Blank Verse”, (Ruskin Family Letters, 159 n. 1). By 1828–29, when fair‐copying “The Monastery” in MS III, he had perfected a tiny ink lettering, free of pencil tracing underneath. Another transitional piece is “The Ship” and “Look at that Ship” [1827], which Ruskin lettered in pencil in the “feb / march 1827” version, and in ink in the MS III version
Ruskin probably learned to write in ink using a quill, if trade statistics for the 1820s provide a reliable guide. In London alone, imported goose quills consumed annually averaged around 20 million, and the country as a whole used about double that number. However, the 1820s in Britain also witnessed the mass production of steel pens, and by 1838 this output increased to 220 million. Also by the 1820s, manufacturers were perfecting quill nibs for use in pen holders, and improvements in quill fountain‐pens were being patented. These alternatives to the traditional quill became more affordable and widely used in the 1830s. Quills of any kind were purchased already prepared or “dressed”; and as the huge consumption suggests, consumers typically were unskilled in mending a quill for extended use, or unwilling to take the trouble, preferring merely to discard a dull pen for a fresh one (Finlay, Western Writing Implements, 3, 21, 42, 47, 10).
Ruskinʼs early cursive hand more closely resembles the hand of his mother than that of his father, which is flamboyantly larger, more slanted, and extends long ascenders and descenders. (The contrast is vivid in the MS IA, g.1, version of Account of a Tour on the Continent, to which both John and John James contributed fair copy.) It makes sense that a home‐schooled youth would imitate his motherʼs hand, particularly in a household like the Ruskinsʼ, from which the father was absent for protracted periods. Yet when learning to handle pen and ink, Ruskin declared, according to his mother, “that the thoughts of your [John Jamesʼs] being pleased encourages him”, and Margaret believed that “the showing you his writing occupied his thoughts fully more than how he expressed his feelings” (Burd, ed., Ruskin Family Letters, 156–57). Examples of these first efforts from around April 1827 include Ruskinʼs May 1827 letter accompanying “Wales” (not the poem itself, which Ruskin copied in print lettering rather than cursive, albeit using a pen). An early example of cursive applied to a poem is found in The Constellations: Northern, Some of the Zodiac, and Some of the Southern in its RF T70 version. This version certainly predated the late 1827–early 1828 MS III fair copy of the poem, albeit perhaps not by very long, and the hand is very awkward, but recognizably Ruskinʼs; and the script appears to be in ink, although the medium can no longer be proven, since the RF T70 survives only as a photograph, so far as is known.
Ruskinʼs mastery of a copperplate hand is witnessed by Account of a Tour on the Continent in his impressive MS IX fair copy. MORE TO COME.
Unidentified Hands
MS VII, XI Fair Copy of the “Account”
MS VII contains 23 pages of fair copy, which W. G. Collingwood, in his “Preliminary Note on the Original MSS of the Poems”, characterizes as inscribed in “a female hand“, perhaps that of Ruskinʼs cousin, Mary Richardson (Poems [4o, 1891], 1:264; Poems [8o, 1891], 1:265). These fair copies include the poems, “The Rhine” and “Chamouni”, which are sections of the Account of a Tour of the Continenent. The editors of the Library Edition repeat this characterization verbatim, in reprinting Collingwoodʼs “Note” respecting MS VII; however, they effectively modify this characterization in a note appended to another section of the “Account”, the prose essay, “Chamouni”, which they speculate to have been copied in “a ladyʼs hand (query—his motherʼs [i.e., Margaret Ruskinʼs])” (Ruskin, Works, 2:380 n. 1). This latter essay does not form part of the 23–page section of fair copy in MS VII, but is written on two leaves (both sides of each) bound into MS XI, but the hand used for this fair copy appears identical to that used for the poems in MS VII. Cook and Wedderburn seem to acknowledge the identical hands by repeating Collingwoodʼs characterization of a “female“ or “ladyʼs hand, albeit dodging the implication of their “queryʼ—that if Margaret Ruskin fair‐copied the item in MS XI, then she also copied the times in MS VII.
The hand is in fact markedly more elegant than Margaretʼs, although it does exhibit a few characteristics typical of both hers and John Jamesʼs hands, characteristics that are not found in Johnʼs—namely, a long medial s as the first stroke of a double‐s; and heavy reliance on the ampersand. One might be tempted to ascribe the hand to John James; however, as Cook and Wedderburn point out more helpfully than in what theyʼve so far contributed to the question, John Jamesʼs hand is unquestionably responsible for an attribution and dateline that follow the prose essay in MS XI, “J.R. / fragment from a Journal / 1833“—and this hand definitely contrasts with that of the transcription itself (Ruskin, Works, 2:380 n. 1).
So we are left with Mary Richardson or possibly another "lady" as a candidate.