Auctions | October 24, 2014

Unseen John Ruskin Letters on Effie Gray Scandal For Sale at Bonhams

A collection of seventy-five signed letters sent by John Ruskin, the preeminent English art critic of the Victorian era who championed the work of J.M.W. Turner, are to be auctioned at Bonhams ‘Fine Books, Atlases, Manuscripts and Photographs’ sale at Knightsbridge, London, on 12 November 2014. The letters, of which thirty-seven are still unpublished, are estimated to realise £30,000 - 40,000.

Interest in the love-triangle of John Ruskin, Effie Gray and John Everett Millais has greatly intensified after the recent release of the box office-hit Effie Gray. The doomed marriage of Ruskin and Gray, defined by his incomprehensible coldness and her affair with the artist (and one-time friend of Ruskin) Millais, undeniably provides a compelling story. Indeed, the scandal has long captured the public’s imagination, providing the subject of the 1912 silent film The Love of John Ruskin, the 1975 BBC series The Love School starring Peter Egan, and numerous stage plays.

With the auction of this fascinating series of letters at Bonhams comes the opportunity to understand more fully the thoughts and sentiments of the drama's protagonist (or perhaps antagonist). The letters provide an uncensored and previously inaccessible insight into the dark heart of Ruskin’s blackest years, showing remorse, anguish and anger mingle to form his deeply complex character. 

Although written to a priest, many of Ruskin’s letters digress from the subjects of the Church and the Lord’s Prayer, instead imparting the distressed confessions of a man lamenting the folly of his younger self: ‘I married like a fool,' he says, 'because a girl’s face pleased me. She married me for my money, breaking her faith to a poor lover.’

Effie Gray’s broken-hearted lover was just one whose life was ruined by contact with the ill-fated marriage. In another letter from the collection, Ruskin refers obliquely to Rose La Touche, the cherished student and pre-Raphaelite ideal with whom he subsequently fell in love, and relates how his separation from Effie corrupted the later relationship: ‘in the last ten years, and especially in the last year, my life has been set on a cast—and that of a righteous girl with it.—And both are destroyed.’

But the profound misery which is evident in these letters is matched by a hard vindictiveness, hinted at in ‘wretch’ and ‘who had been my friend, once.’ One letter betrays the ruthlessness, even cruelty, of its writer as he informs Malleson: ‘The first condition of my keeping friends with anybody is that when I ask them to do a thing, they should do it. If—without showing just reason—they twice give me trouble to ask twice, I have done with them.’ This is not a man, perhaps, to whom we owe unmitigated sympathy.

Pertaining to such a distinguished writer, critic and social theorist, the collection constitutes an invaluable literary resource. Matthew Haley, Head of the Bonhams Book Department, said: ‘These letters are a vivid reminder that there was passion and tumult underneath the outward formality of the Victorians. Here we see the bitterness and regret that haunted Ruskin throughout his life.’