Thomas Pringle (1789–1834)

Poet, editor, and abolitionist. As editor of the literary annual, Friendshipʼs Offering, Pringle was a key figure in arranging for Ruskinʼs most significant early professional publication as a poet. (Technically, Ruskinʼs public debut as a poet occurred earlier, but less auspiciously, under the editorship of his tutor and clergyman, Edward Andrews (1787–1841), who split Ruskinʼs 1829 poem, “Description of Skiddaw and Lake Derwent”, into two poems, “On Skiddaw and Dewent‐Water” and ‐Lines Written at the Lakes in Cumberland–Derwentwater, and published them, respectively, in the August 1829 and February 1830 issues of the short‐lived journal, The Spiritual Times.) In Friendshipʼs Offering; and Winterʼs Wreath . . . for 1835, published in November 1834, Pringle published two poems from Account of a Tour on the Continent, “Andernacht” and “St. Goar”, which were revised and yoked together under the title, “Fragments from a Metrical Journal”. Ruskin signed using his first public persona, J.R. (the Spiritual Times poems were signed R.). For the same issue of the annual for 1835, Pringle also commissioned a new poem by Ruskin, “Saltzburg”, to accompany an engraving after a topographical scene by William Purser (1790–1852).
Pringle was born in the Scottish border county of Roxburghshire. After brief involvement in Edinburgh journalism, he emigrated in 1820 to South Africa, where he worked as a journalist and writer, librarian, and teacher, returning to London in 1826. There, he grew important for his work on behalf of the abolitionist cause, and he became known for his poetry evoking rural life in South Africa. On 28 June 1834, the day following his signing of the official proclamation ending slavery in the British Empire, and thus consummating his lifeʼs work dedicated to abolition, Pringle experienced distress that he interpreted as a “crumb of bread” going down “the wrong throat”, but that proved to be a sign of advancing tuberculosis, leading to his death before the end of the year (Vigne, Thomas Pringle, 241).
It was while making his way as an editor in the London literary scene of the late 1820s and early 1830s that Pringle encountered the Ruskin family. Pringle became editor of Friendshipʼs Offering in 1828, starting his responsibilities with the volume for 1829 (that is, the volume that became available for purchase in October or Novemeber 1828, intended for the holiday season of 1828–29). The annual had been acquired in 1827 by the young publishing firm of Smith, Elder, from its founding publisher; and Smith, Elder released their first issue (the volume for 1828, published in November 1827) under the editorship of Charles Knight. When Pringle took over, he remained editor until his death in December 1834, having already prepared the volume for 1835—the volume in which Ruskinʼs poems appeared—and and sent it to press in August 1834 (Vigne, Thomas Pringle, 183, 244; “Index of Editors and Publishers of British Literary Annuals Published 1823–1830,” in Harris, ed., “Forget Me Not” Archive). During his illness in this final year of his editorship, Pringle was assisted by Henry D. Inglis (1795–1835), and therefore the Ruskins may have had some contact with this writer and editor, as well, in preparing Johnʼs first poems for a widely distributed public venue.
Precisely how Pringleʼs acquaintance with the Ruskins came about is unknown. Ruskinʼs later reminiscences of Pringle are subordinated to wry rhetorical purposes. First, in the 1878 “My First Editor: An Autobiographical Reminiscence,” Pringle appears as prelude to Ruskinʼs tribute to W. H. Harrison (ca. 1792–1878), the poet and editor with whom Ruskin maintained a much longer professional relationship, and who succeeded Pringle as one of the stewards of Friendshipʼs Offering for Smith, Elder. Second, in 1885–89, in Ruskinʼs autobiography, Praeterita, Pringleʼs story is involved in Ruskinʼs self-irony and satire about his fledgling career as a poet, a vocation that Ruskin ultimately rejected, but that his father cherished and had attempted to nourish in company with men like Pringle and Harrison.
As Rudolphe Vigne points out, in his monograph on Pringle, the association between Pringle and the Ruskins would have rested on their shared Scottish heritage and literary interests, and Pringle may have centered his high regard more on John James than on John. To document this friendship, Vigne has uncovered a letter (unfortunately undated), in which Pringle mentions “my friend Mr Ruskin of the house of Domecq and Co., . . . the greatest sherry merchants in England. I have drunk at Mr Ruskinʼs table sherry 80 years old, and which sells at 26 shillings a bottle” (Vigne, Thomas Pringle, 189). A key figure in these connections may have been Alexander Elder (17901876), one of the founding partners of Smith, Elder. The firmʼs counting house was located around the corner from the premises of Telford, Ruskin, & Domecq, and John James would have shared Elderʼs artistic interests (Hilton, John Ruskin: The Early Years, 29; and see Friendshipʼs Offering).
For John, a more compelling figure in these connections may have been his cousin, Charles Thomas Richardson (1811–34), who was employed by Smith, Elder as a shop boy. (Vigne is incorrect to number this “young shop-boy, Charles Richardson”, among the Scots in this publishing network. Charles did not belong to Ruskinʼs Richardson cousins from Perth, Scotland, but to his Richardson cousins from Croydon, near London [Vigne, Thomas Pringle, 186].) John admired Charles as an older cousin, who presented the boy with his first copy of Friendshipʼs Offering in 1829. In Praeterita, Ruskin remembers that, “on Sundays”, Charles “always brought a volume or two in his pocket to show us the character of [the firmʼs] most ambitious publications; especially choosing, on my behalf, any which chanced to contain good engravings”, and he writes that “we all took” an interest “in the embossed and gilded” annual (Ruskin, Works, 35:91). The gift of Friendshipʼs Offering earned no approval from Ruskinʼs mother, however, who on 31 October 1829 wrote to apprise John James that “Charles has given John a Friendshipʼs Offering”, and who concluded that “upon the whole [the publication] does not improve” the mind: “the plates are well done but they are not interesting”, and “the tales are horrible enough”, and “the poetry very so I think” (letter of 31 October 1829 [Burd, ed., Ruskin Family Letters, 208]).
This copy of the annual presented by Charles in late October 1829 would probably have been the recently published volume “for 1830,” one of the volumes edited by Pringle (see Friendshipʼs Offering). It contained contributions by his longtime friend, (ca. 1770–1835), whom Pringle was likely responsible for introducing personally to the Ruskins at Herne Hill, sometime between 14 January and 19 February 1832. In 1834, this connection proved significant for the Ruskins—at least as significant as another great man with whom Pringle remained more closely associated in Ruskinʼs memory—namely, Samuel Rogers (1763–1855), to whom Pringle introduced Ruskin as a prodigy (see Ruskin, Works, 35:93, 34:96–97).
Rogers did admit Pringle to his circle, as Vigne confirms (Vigne, Thomas Pringle, 191–92), but we have only Ruskinʼs much later, barbed accounts of the episode, wherein the boy allegedly failed to flatter Rogers adequately about the poetry of his topographical volume, Italy, and instead found greater interest in the engraved vignettes for the 1830 illustrated edition, and in the pictures on Rogersʼs walls. Accordingly, Pringle chided his charge for failing to attend to the conversation of great men. The anecdote may or may not be plausible, but a more significant and fundamental question concerns the motivation and outcome of Pringleʼs introduction of the fourteen‐ or fifteen‐year old boy wonder to Rogersʼs famous palace of art, St. James Place, where the poet had entertained the literati of Regency and early Victorian London (see Account of a Tour on the Continent: Discussion—Mentors, and Samuel Rogers (1763–1855)).
Back to top