Sothebyʼs Sale of Ruskin Manuscripts and Library, 1930

On 24 July 1930, Sotheby & Co. held an important sale of Ruskinʼs literary remains, described in the sale catalogueʼs title as the Catalogue of the Manuscripts and Remaining Library of John Ruskin, removed from his residence, Brantwood, Coniston, and Sold with the Consent of Arthur Severn, Esq., and of His Trustees . . . . This sale was perhaps the single most consequential event for the provenance of the early manuscripts.
The Contents of the Sale
Books from Ruskinʼs Library
The first 109 lots of the sale contained items from Ruskinʼs library, of which more than half (lots 24–83) was devoted to the Kate Greenaway Collection from Brantwood”, while the remainder ranged from illuminated manuscripts and incunabula to modern first editions and presentation copies. Sothebyʼs must have anticipated that the Greenaway collection would command interest, having devoted four of the six plates in the illustrated catalogue to drawings from her books, as compared with only two plates showing Ruskin manuscripts. The expectation was justified, as indicated by a copy of the sale catalogue at the Beinecke Library that was annotated by an observer. Almost every lot in Greenaway collection found a buyer, with the highest price of £420 paid for a collection of autograph letters from Greenaway to Ruskin.
Among the books unrelated to Greeanway, a copy of William Blakeʼs illustrated edition of Youngʼs Night Thoughts, its engravings “coloured by the artist himself”, fetched £400 from the Maggs Bros. firm. Otherwise, according to the annotator of the Beinecke copy of the sale catalogue, the rare book and manuscript dealers Maggs and Bernard Quaritch acquired a few of the manuscript volumes and modern illustrated volumes, while other lots either were left unsold or their buyers unrecorded by the annotator. For example, the Beinecke copy of the catalogue fails to note at least two items of incunabula as well as two lots of Walter Scott novels that, according to James S. Dearden, were purchased by J. H. Whitehouse (Dearden, Ruskin, Bembridge, and Brantwood: The Growth of the Whitehouse Collection, 49; and see Sotheby & Co., Catalogue of the Manuscripts and Remaining Library of John Ruskin, 14, 15–16 [lots 84, 89; and of the five available lots of Scott novels, 96–100, apparently only lots 96 and 100 purchased by Whitehouse, which he singled out perhaps because the catalogue mentions these as containing annotations by Ruskin]).
Manuscripts from Ruskinʼs Library
The Ruskin manuscript portion of the sale was advertised in the catalogue as the “Ruskin Manuscripts from Brantwood: A large and highly important collection of autograph letters, diaries, note‐books, poems, etc., including the original manuscript notes and sketches for ‘The Stones of Venice’, ‘Fors Clavigera’, ‘Praeterita’, and numerous other works, extending from 1827 to the end of Ruskinʼs working life in 1889” (Sotheby & Co., Catalogue of the Manuscripts and Remaining Library of John Ruskin, 18). The sale was divided into lots 110–22, of which the following pertain to the contents of ERM.
  • Lot 110, “Letters to His Father, John James Ruskin”, items 1–6 as numbered in the catalogue.
    • Each item of the six consists of a 4o blue‐morocco and gilt binding containing letters. Item 1, the first volume, entitled in the catalogue as “Early Poems”, corresponds to MS XI. The catalogue description does not mention that W. G. Collingwood had assigned a roman‐numeral designation to this collection in his “Preliminary Note on the Original MSS. of the Poems” (see History of the Bibliography and Editing of the Early Ruskin Manuscripts; and System of Title Citation for Manuscripts); and indeed, while Collingwoodʼs 1891 description of MS XI as an “envelope containing collected loose papers” had been updated in the Library Edition as “now [in 1903] bound up in a volume of letters and poems” (Ruskin, Works, 2:534), even that description had become inaccurate by 1930, owing to rebinding (see MS XI: Description). That this first volume of the six in lot 110 includes at least a portion of the items that had been contained in Collingwoodʼs “envelope” is clear from the catalogue description of “Early Poems (8), beginning with ‘Look at that Ship’, dated Feb. or March, 1828, when Ruskin was nine years old”, along with 137 letters, 1829–59.
  • Lot 111, “Holograph Diaries and Notebooks”, items 1–27.
  • Lot 112, “Early Poems and Juvenilia”, items I–VI, as numbered in the catalogue.
    • Each of the six items consists of a blue‐morocco slipcase, which contained manuscripts as follows. (The slipcases are not described individually in the catalogue, but they remain along with their original contents at the Beinecke Library; however, since the 1990s, the manuscripts have been stored apart from their respective slipcases, in order to guard against wear.) As the catalogue acknowledges (p. 20), its descriptions of the manuscripts rely on Collingwoodʼs “Preliminary Note on the Original MSS. of the Poems” in Poems (1891) (see History of the Bibliography and Editing of the Early Ruskin Manuscripts; and System of Title Citation for Manuscripts), citing Collingwoodʼs roman‐numeral designations for the respective manuscripts, and adopting condensed versions of his descriptions of the contents (items I.1–3, 5; II–V). Only the physical descriptions of size and bindings are additions to Collingwoodʼs “Note” and original to Sothebyʼs. It is noteworthy in context of rare‐book and manuscript dealing that Collingwoodʼs edition was treated as the authoritative, or at least the most accessible, bibliographical source, while the Library Edition was not mentioned in the catalogue, although the latter must have been used to document item VI and perhaps item I.4, both of which Collingwoodʼs “Note” omits.
      • Item I, a slipcase, HARRY & LUCY | POEMS | &c, containing manuscripts 1–5 as numbered in the catalogue.
        • I.1, MS I, described as a “roan” cover, contents “in pencil”, 6 × 3 3/4 in., with a summary of the contents abbreviated from Poems [4o, 1891], 1:262; Poems [8o, 1891], 1:263.
        • I.2, MS II, described as contained in “wrappers”, 6 1/2 × 4 in., with a summary of the contents abbreviated from Poems [4o, 1891], 1:262; Poems [8o, 1891], 1:263.
        • I.3, MS III, described as a “roan” cover, 6 × 3 3/4 in., with a summary of the contents abbreviated from Poems [4o, 1891], 1:262; Poems [8o, 1891], 1:263.
        • I.4, MS IIIA, described as a “roan” cover, 6 ×3 3/4 in., with contents summarized as “60 pp. (many blank) ‘Harry and Lucy’ concluded, geological notes, etc.”, the catalogue compiler being either unaware of or neglecting to acknowledge the (admittedly minimal) description in Ruskin, Works, 2:530 n. 3.
        • I.5, MS IV, described as a “roan” cover, 6 × 3 3/4 in., with a summary of the contents abbreviated from Poems [4o, 1891], 1:262–63; Poems [8o, 1891], 1:263–64, but with the additional observation that the manuscriptʼs main work, “Eudosia”, is “written in a minute and beautifully formed hand”.
      • Item II, a slipcase, RUSKIN | MS. | POEMS | 1829–32 | 1902, containing MS V, half calf, 7.25 × 4.75 in.
      • Item III, a slipcase, RUSKIN | MS. | ITERIAD | &c | 1902, containing MS VII, half roan, 9.75 × 8 in.
      • Item IV, a slipcase, RUSKIN | MS. | POEMS | ETC. | 1831–38, containing MS VIII, half roan, 9.25 × 5.75 in.
      • Item V, a slipcase, RUSKIN | MS. | POEMS | 1833, containing MS IX, half roan, 8 × 6 in.
      • Item VI, a slipcase, RUSKIN | MS. | JUVENILIA, containing “three note books”. Given the existence of this slipcase at the time the catalogue was compiled, the three notebooks can be presumed to be the same as the manuscripts now associated with that slipcase in the Beinecke Library, as follows. As in item I.4 above, the catalogue does not draw on existing descriptions that were available in the Library Edition, although admittedly the reference is rather deeply buried in the bibliography volume (Ruskin, Works, 38:206). The catalogue describes the notebooks as a group: “74–84–84 pp. containing geological, historical and grammatical notes, half roan, 6 × 4 in.” This summary of the contents credibly, if only roughly, corresponds to the Latin grammar, mineralogy, travel itineraries, and sermon drafts in fact contained in these manuscripts. The material “half roan” is incorrect, however—the notebooks being full roan, like the Red Books in I.1–5, above—and the catalogueʼs page count of the notebooks only very roughly approximates the 44 leaves, 42 leaves, and 43 leaves respectively found in them, as follows. The catalogue may afford a clue, however, that a leaf now missing from the third of these notebooks was still attached at the time of the sale, since that possibility would account for the catalogueʼs identical “84–84 pp.” for two of the notebooks:
  • Lot 113, “ The Poetry of Architecture and Modern Painters”.
  • Lot 114, “The King of the Golden River”.
The Buyers
While the Greenaway collection and some of the rarer library items caught buyersʼ interest, it was the Ruskin manuscripts reserved for the second half of the sale that commanded the highest prices, according to the notations in the Beinecke copy of the catalogue. Prices ranged from £440 for the manuscript of The Stones of Venice, to £520 for a collection of Ruskinʼs letters to his father, to £1,600 for Ruskinʼs diaries. The Stones manuscript and the diaries were acquired by Whitehouse, who spent a total of £2,089 at the sale, thus assuring that his collection, Dearden writes, held “its position at the head of Ruskin collections” (Dearden, Ruskin, Bembridge, and Brantwood: The Growth of the Whitehouse Collection, 55).
Whitehouse had competitors, however, who adopted an alternative strategy to seeking high‐profile items such as the diaries and manuscripts of the better‐known Ruskin works. The Boston bookseller and collector, Charles E. Goodspeed, who had long been supplying American collectors with Ruskin first editions, had previously “found no competition” in London for the hundreds of Ruskin items beyond the typical antiquarian dealerʼs core of first‐edition (or earlier edition) volumes of Modern Painters, Seven Lamps, and Stones (Goodspeed, Yankee Bookseller, 263; and see Charles E. Goodspeed [1867–1950]). Goodspeed took the same approach at the 1930 Sothebyʼs sale, assisted by B. F. Stevens and Brown as his agent. Whereas Whitehouseʼs manuscript acquisitions were canonical by the standards of the time—the diaries, the Stones manuscript, and lot 119, which was headed by manuscript for Ruskinʼs Turner CatalogueGoodspeed targeted very early and very late works: for example, manuscripts of King of the Golden River (lot 114, £155), a portion of Fors Clavigera (lot 118, £50), and Praeterita (£155). His strategy is consistent with the biographical bias animating collectors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who aspired to comprehensive ownership of every published item by their modern authors of choice, from juvenilia to last works (see The Collecting of Modern Authors in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries; and see Catalogue of the Manuscripts and Remaining Library of John Ruskin, 21, 24–25).
In his 1937 autobiography, Goodspeed mentions that he acquired the King, Fors, and Praeterita manuscripts, and that he kept the Praeterita manuscript for himself, selling the other two (Yankee Bookseller, 267). Evidence at the Beinecke Library shows that his buyer for the King and Fors manuscripts was Yale University Library, and that the transfer was quick, sold in early November 1930. Evidence also reveals that Goodspeedʼs agent acquired additional manuscripts on his behalf at the 1930 sale, which, although Goodspeed fails to mention the items in his autobiography, he also sold to Yale University Library on the same date: Proserpina (lot 117, £30); miscellaneous notebooks, mostly on literary, historical, and geological topics (lot 122, £38); an assortment of Oxford lectures, lectures on the Val dʼArno, and a stray architectural notebook belonging to the 1850–51 Venice labors (lot 116, £70); and from the books portion of the sale, Ruskinʼs set of the Botanical Magazine, with his marginalia (lot 16). (Except for lot 16, all of these additional items are notated in the Beinecke copy of the Sothebyʼs catalogue as sold to B. F. Stevens & Brown, Goodspeedʼs agent; and the purchase of the Botanical Magazine is credited to Stevens & Brown by James Dearden in Ruskin, Bembridge, and Brantwood, 48.)
Goodspeed turned these items around to Yale for a total of $3,000. Curiously, in what appears to be the earliest published report describing acquisitions by Yale from the July 1930 Sothebyʼs sale, the items sold to the library by Goodspeed are not mentioned. Instead, in a detailed January 1931 report in the Yale University Library Gazette, it was lots 110 and 112, the six bound volumes of Ruskin family letters and the six slipcases containing juvenilia, that are celebrated as forming “a considerable portion of the Brantwood collection of Ruskin manuscripts” that is “now preserved for all time against sale and spoliation” (Weihe, “A Collection of Ruskin Manuscripts”, 47). These two lots are not included in the documentation of Goodspeedʼs November 1930 transfer of Sothebyʼs sale items to Yale, nor are the items that Goodspeed did definitely sell to Yale in 1930 mentioned in the Gazette article. It is possible that, within the “considerable portion of the Brantwood collection”, the Gazette writer meant also to comprise the items acquired from Goodspeed, but that he focused on lots 110 and 112 because they stood out from the rest, set apart not only by their contents relating to Ruskinʼs youth, but also by their striking blue‐morocco casings. Still, the focus on “this noteworthy group” of juvenilia and letters—represented in the Gazette as “an impressive addition to the Libraryʼs collection of Ruskiniana”, which was already grounded in “the completeness of its first editions and rarity of its items” donated in 1929 as the R. B. Adam Collection—begs the question of who purchased these two lots and how they come to Yale (Weihe, “A Collection of Ruskin Manuscripts”, 47; and see French, “The R. B. Adam Collection of Ruskin” and R. B. Adam II [1863–1940]).
According to the annotated sale catalogue at the Beinecke, the successful bids for lots 110 and 112 were placed by “Allen” (lot 110, £520; lot 112, £260). This member of the George Allen family was probably Hugh Allen, whose role in the sale can be gathered from a letter by Ralph Brown of B. F. Stevens & Brown to J. H. Whitehouse on the occasion of the Severn Sale of Ruskin Effects, 1931: “we are having the benefit of the assistance of our friend Mr. Hugh Allen, and his help has been invaluable”, as compared with “the lack of interest shown by the Severn family in all matters pertaining to Ruskin” (quoted in Dearden, Ruskin, Bembridge, and Brantwood, 87). Beyond the initial purchase of lots 110 and 112 by Allen, however, the details of the manuscriptsʼ journey from London to New Haven are obscured by conflicting evidence.
According to a 1942 article on the Yale Ruskin collection authored by Charles Beecher Hogan, lot 112 containing the twelve “little notebooks” of juvenilia were “purchased by Mr. Charles Goodspeed” when they were auctioned “en bloc at Sothebyʼs”, and “in turn” these items were “purchased by Yale”. It seems odd that Goodspeed would have commissioned two agents at the sale—Allen, as well as Stevens and Brown—unless, for some reason, Allen acted in concert with Stevens and Brown to obtain these two particular lots. Adding to the confusion, Hogan says that the volumes of letters (lot 110) “were purchased by Yale at the Sotheby auction of July 24, 1930”—a vague statement, suggesting either that Yale did not transact through Goodspeed for lot 110, or that Goodspeedʼs mediation is to be taken for granted by the reader. The latter assumption should have been forestalled by a footnote specifying that “other items that came from Brantwood, through Sotheby and Goodspeed” have been “marked with an asterisk”. Hogan does not attach an asterisk to “the magnificent assemblage of Ruskinʼs letters” at Yale, leading one to the conclusion that Yale acquired the letters, lot 110, directly through the agency of Hugh Allen, while lot 112 came roundabout to Yale, from Allen to Goodspeed to the university library (Hogan, “Yale Collection of the Manuscripts of John Ruskin”, 62, 63). In the “Report of the Librarian, July 1, 1930–June 30, 1931, published 1 April 1932, the purchase of “a large mass of Ruskin material” is reported, listing “letters written by him to his father” (but not the juvenilia) along with the items that formed the Goodspeed purchase. Perhaps the obscurity surrounding these purchases must simply be put down their having been overshadowed by “the great event of the year—the greatest since the founding of the Library”—which is announced at start of this issue of the “Report of the Librarian” as “the transfer of the books and of the functions of the Library to the Sterling Memorial building” (pp. 8, 3).
At about the same time that Yaleʼs new Sterling Library building was completed and opened in 1930–31, Chauncey Brewster Tinker (1876–1963) took up his post as keeper of rare books for the libary in addition to his professorial appointment in the English Department. While his name does not appear in connection with Yaleʼs boon from the 1930 Sothebyʼs sale, Tinker is likely to have taken a keen interest in the Ruskin materials, and perhaps advised about their acquisition, whether or not he had an active role. Sources differ whether Tinker was appointed keeper of rare books at Yale University Library in 1930 or 1931, but he had long been an advocate for building up the libraryʼs collection, and he was a legendary teacher of eighteenth‐ and nineteenth‐century literature—including Ruskin, whom he treated as a thinker, and not just a fine stylist. Tinker was also known for giving students access to manuscripts and rare books from his extensive personal collection, which included Ruskin; and he was aware of the extent and interest of Ruskinʼs bibliographical history. In 1929, the year prior to the Sothebyʼs sale, Tinkerʼs close friend and fellow collector, R. B. Adam II (1863–1940), donated his meticulously curated Ruskin collection to Yale; and it is notable how felicitously lots 110 and 112, the letters and juvenilia, complement Adamʼs bequest, which includes the run of early poems published in annuals (Pathak, “Chauncey Brewster Tinker”, 278–80; Metzdorf, The Tinker Library, viii; French, “The R. D. Adam Collection of Ruskin”, 3–4).
Whatever the circumstances determining the roles of these buyers during the 1930 sale, they shared a perception of themselves as watchful for the proper custodianship of the Ruskin archive. In his autobiography, Goodspeed quoted Ruskinʼs intentions for his estate as stated in his will, implying that the Severn family may have acted in bad faith by authorizing the Sothebyʼs auctions. And when Hugh Allen died in August 1931, Ralph Brown of B. F. Stevens and Brown wrote to Goodspeed to eulogize “our friend” as “a sad loss to Ruskin lovers as his knowledge and kindly interest was always at the disposal of those, who like himself, admired the great Victorian” (Brown to Goodspeed, 29 August 1931, ).
Back to top