The Ruskin Family Handwriting

From Print to Cursive: The English Round Hand of John James Ruskin and Margaret Ruskin and Their Influence on Johnʼs Formation of a Cursive Hand
For a substantial period of the early Ruskin manuscripts, the most distinctive handwriting of the three Ruskins belonged to John James Ruskin, whereas the more closely related hands—close enough to be easily confused with one another, by the modern researcher—were Johnʼs and Margaret Ruskinʼs. From 1827, when Ruskin began writing cursive in ink, and well into the 1830s, the motherʼs and sonʼs cursive scripts appear similar, with many of the characters formed on the same or similar pattern. However, in a 1903 essay, “Ruskinʼs Hand”, W. G. Collingwood interpreted Ruskinʼs juvenile handwriting primarily in relation to his fatherʼs mercantile round hand:
[Ruskin] developed his own writing like other precocious boys and girls, though there is some trace of teaching at the very start. But after 1830 he exchanged, perhaps at the instance of superior orders, his “print” for copperplate; the “Iteriad” (1831) is fair‐copied in a large, regular round‐hand, and the Tour poems of 1833 are in a smaller, less anxious, but more formed business style. One sees the fatherʼs influence coming in, and all his letters to the old‐fashioned business man show the obvious desire to please. “My dear papa” is flourished around in the most approved writing‐masterʼs manner, and “John Ruskin” at the end is in black letter, finishing a sheet of impeccable commercial‐hand, in which the free‐and‐easy wording contrasts quite ludicrously with the formal writing.
(As an example of Ruskinʼs letters to his father with embellished salutations and signtures, see the letter of 6 March 1831 [Burd, ed., Ruskin Family Letters 233–35].) While it is true that, in the 1830s, Ruskin employed a “copperplate” cursive for his fair‐copy poems and some letters addressed to his father, his everyday cursive, such as that used for drafting poems, was not a “commercial” round hand like his fatherʼs.
Collingwood seems to recognize this difference, but he sweeps the facts pell‐mell into a character study based on Ruskinʼs hand, which he summarizes as “chameleon”: “For his mother he had another hand; for his friends and for himself an assortment of varying scribbles. But there, I think, comes out one of the leading points in his character. To be a man of strong thought and will, innovator in art, science, politics, morality, and religion, there never was such a chameleon, always ready to colour his mind after his surroundings; all things to all men” (Collingwood, “Ruskinʼs Hand”, Good Words, 652; reprinted in Collingwood, Ruskin Relics, 141–42). Collingwood originally wrote the essay for Good Words, a nondenominational Christian magazine with Scottish connections. His observation about Ruskinʼs chameleon character was itself colored, perhaps, by the magazineʼs ecumenical mission, which sought to enliven the dullness of English Sabbatarianism by extending the boundaries of Sunday devotional reading to include Christian thought in secular genres, especially poetry (see Ehnes, “Religion, Readership, and the Periodical Press”). Studied apart from such a script—and putting aside, also, Collingwoodʼs tendency to assume that Ruskinʼs sole significant audience in boyhood was his father—Ruskinʼs ordinary youthful cursive script appears consistent, not “an assortment of varying scribbles”, and its influences can be found as much in his motherʼs hand as in his fatherʼs.
Compared to Margaretʼs, John Jamesʼs hand is flamboyantly larger, more slanted, and its characters accentuated with long ascenders and descenders. Capital letters are frequent. (The contrast is vivid in the MS IA, g.1, version of “Calais”, to which both John and John James contributed fair copy.) Ruskinʼs early cursive hand resembles his mother's, which is smaller, more upright, and less exaggerated in the ascenders and descenders of characters. It is understandable that a home‐schooled youth would initially imitate his motherʼs hand, particularly in a household like the Ruskinsʼ, from which the father was absent for protracted periods. Margaret was, after all, the most constant daily influence on Johnʼs early education, including his penmanship. What does merit attention in Collingwoodʼs analysis is the formality and variety of styles that Ruskin used for his fair copies, both print and cursive. He modeled these styles on examples in copybooks as well as on typography he found in books.
Like many Victorian children, including the Brontës, Ruskin imitated typeface from the start of his surviving manuscripts. The influence of copybooks appears at a particular juncture in the development of his handwriting, the auspicious adoption of pen and ink in place of pencil in April 1827 (see Early Print Lettering and Cursive in Ink), at which point John James purchased a copybook—“Writing Butterworth 7/6”, according to his accounts—a text identified by Van Akin Burd and by James Dearden as Butterworthʼs Young Arithmeticianʼs Instructor, Containing Specimens of Writing with Directions (1815) (John James Ruskin, Account Book [1827–45], 2r; Burd, ed., Ruskin Family Letters, 168 n. 1; Dearden, The Library of John Ruskin, 59 [no. 407]). 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.
Apparently, John James regarded this juncture in the development of his sonʼs handwriting as a coming of age, analogous to his own. When John James enrolled at the Edinburgh Royal High at age ten, he was already somewhat older than his class, the customary starting age being eight—Johnʼs age when first using a pen. Scottish burgh schools like the Edinburgh Royal High in theory championed a democratic ideal of seating tradesmenʼs sons alongside those of patricians, and fees were kept moderate. Nonetheless, the Ruskin family may have needed extra time to scrape together the means even for moderate fees, or John Jamesʼs mother, Catherine, may have been apprehensive of exposing him to a famously sadistic Latin master (see Viljoen, Ruskinʼs Scottish Heritage, 59–62; and on the burgh schools, see Watters, “Καλοι κ'αγαθοι (The Beautiful and the Good): Classical School Architecture and Educational Elitism in Early Nineteenth‐Century Edinburgh”, 280–82). 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 age eight, in 1826–27, John had already begun practicing (in pencil) Latin Rules and Conjugations in MS Juvenilia A. Just so, at the Edinburgh Royal High, 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 broadening 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 Royal High, 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”. Respecting 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; and Margaret may have learned from such a manual at Mrs. Riceʼs Academy for Ladies in Croydon, where she attended as a girl and learned accurate spelling and legible penmanship “in good round hand” among other accomplishments (Becker, Practice of Letters, xi; Viljoen, Ruskinʼs Scottish Heritage, 86). Most copybooks modeled the formal script known as English round hand or copperplate, for which an influential standard had been 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 eighteenth century, round hand settled into a practical but elegant script that was less elaborate than earlier versions, and that was widely used in business. 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 them”; 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).
That John James timed his purchase of Butterworth as an aid to Johnʼs coming of age answers to Johnʼs own submission of “his first written letter” to his father, as announced by Margaret in the same 28 April 1827 letter in which she mentions Johnʼs delight “at being able to use pen & ink”. By “first written letter”, Margaret may have meant, not just Johnʼs first letter using cursive in ink, but his first epistle written in his own hand independently of his mother and mailed to his father. What Collingwood called Ruskinʼs “first letter” was written by Margaret in her hand, taken by dictation from John who “pretended to read from his paper” that “he said was a letter to send to you” (Burd, ed., Ruskin Family Letters, 128; see autograph letter, John Ruskin and Margaret Ruskin to John James Ruskin, 15 March 1823). Between that so‐called “first letter” in 1823 and what Margaret dubs the “first written letter” in 1827, Ruskin Family Letters contains no other letters independently posted by Ruskin to his father, or any letters at all in a conventional sense. There is the New Yearʼs 1827 presentation copy of “Time: Blank Verse” (MS IA), which mimics a letter in its fold and direction to the recipient, but which presumably Ruskin hand‐delivered to his father. Ruskin wrote this MS IA document in pencil print, using lettering which suggests a printed book model rather than a handwriting copybook. For his “first written letter” (which Burd declares “unidentified”, but which can persuasively be identified as autograph letter, John Ruskin to John James Ruskin, May 1827), Ruskin wrote the text of the letter in cursive, mostly in pencil except for a final sentence prior to the signature inserted in ink. Composed prior to John Jamesʼs acquisition of Butterworthʼs Young Arithmeticianʼs Instructor two months later, Ruskinʼs cursive in this letter strongly resembles his motherʼs in the formation of the characters.
For the poetry texts included in the May 1827 letter to his father, “Wales” and “Spring: Blank Verse”, which follow the closing and signature of the letter, Ruskin used ink print lettering—the texts suggesting a model in printed matter rather than in a handwriting copybook. A print hand in ink, imitating typeface, remains the norm for Ruskinʼs fair‐copying of poetry for the next two years. The poetry anthologies in MS III (“poetry discriptive” [ca. Nov.‐Dec. 1827], MS III Poetry Anthology 2 and MS Poetry Anthology 3.
Whether modeled on printed books or handwriting copybooks, Ruskin clearly enjoyed the pleasure of copying; and the more ambitious and intricate the letter or script forms, the better in terms of expected praise. One wonders if Butterworthʼs copybook exercises ever occasioned as much mirth as its role in Ruskinʼs finishing the fair copy of his epic poem, “Iteriad”:
Iteriad is at last finished, quite copied in, fairly dismissed, I was cutting capers all the remainder of the evening after I had done the notable deed Uproarious was I and quite pleased with myself and everybody looked about me Then in the morning I took Mr Butterworth and I put such a finis If you saw the innumerable flourishes with which it is decorated and the paper loaded you would think there never was to be a beginning of that end I quite eclipsed Mr Butterworth threw him into the shade, made him quite ashamed of himself and his patry attempts ar flourishing.
One should not assume, however, that his parents shared in the triumph as unreservedly as John evidently believed they did. Of his 1827 “first written letter”, Margaret observed to John James that “the showing you his writing occupied his thoughts fully more than how he expressed his feelings”—an enthusiasm “you must excuse”, she indulgently advised, since John “says that the thoughts of your being pleased encourages him”, but not the thing most needful in her mind, namely “how he expressed his feelings” (letter of 28 April 1827 [Burd, ed., Ruskin Family Letters, 156–57]). The reverse of these priorities applied only to slower children. An instructive comparison is posed by Margaretʼs approach to Ruskinʼs cousin, William Richardson (1811–75), whom they regarded as limited in abilities, but industrious. For William, exercises in Butterworth seemed the ticket to success: “The very dullness of his faculties in childhood”, Margaret reasoned, “has induced such habits of laborious study as will at least place him on an equality if he does not go beyond many of far higher genius”; and one sign of the dogged self‐improvement was his “trying by copying Butterworth to improve his writing” (letter to John James Ruskin, 17 March 1831 [Burd, ed., Ruskin Family Letters, 251]). In Johnʼs case, methodical discipline was a duty to be paid for his gift of invention, but laborious exercises were not required, as in Williamʼs case, to make up for the lack in native genius. As John James assured John at age ten: “It would be sinful in you to let the powers of your mind lie dormant through idleness or want of perseverance when they may at their maturity aid the cause of Truth & of Religion”, for his genius had “doomed [him] to enlighten a People by your Wisdom & to adorn an age by your Learning” (letter of 6 November 1829 [Burd, ed., Ruskin Family Letters, 209–10]).
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, John first used pen and ink in 28 April 1827 (see letter of 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 are 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).
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” (letter of 28 April 1827 [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.
Copperplate
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.
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