Smith, Elder, & Company
John Ruskinʼs publisher, from his first widely distributed poems, which appeared in Friendshipʼs Offering, to his first book, Modern Painters (1843), and beyond to the major books of the 1840s and 1850s.
The business began in 1816 as a London stationer and bookseller, founded by two Scotsmen, George Smith (1789–1846) and Alexander Elder (1790–1876). According to Sidney Lee, the partners undertook their first modest publishing venture in 1819, when they were admitted to the Stationersʼ Company, although more recently Bill Bell has shown evidence that they began publishing in a small way from the beginning in 1816 (Lee, “Memoir of George Smith”, 3–4; Bell, “Smith, George Murray (1824–1901)”). John James Ruskinʼs initial dealings with the firm appear to have been as a customer of their stationery and books. For example, an entry in his household accounts for June 1827 shows the notation, “Paid for Books to Smith E”, followed by a list of titles (John James Ruskin, Account Book [1827–45], 2r; see “Poetry Discriptive”: Title). Thus, John James was among the “friendly Scotch clientèle” that, according to a history of the firm, Smith, Elder supplied with writing materials, books new and used, and bookbinding services in its early days, as suggested by the preponderance of Scottish titles of books and music recorded in a daybook (Huxley, The House of Smith Elder, 4).
When first established, the premises were located in Fenchurch Street, near to the counting house of Ruskin, Telford, & Domecq in Billiter Street, which linked Fenchurch Street to Leadenhall Street (Hilton, John Ruskin: The Early Years, 29). In 1824, the firm moved one street farther west to 65 Cornhill; and taking on a third partner, it became Smith, Elder, & Company. An important part of the business was focused on exporting books and stationery to India, supplying British subjects stationed with the East India Company (Lee, “Memoir of George Smith”, 4–6). The headquarters of the East India Company, East India House, was situated close by (see City of London; see also Red Book).
It would have mattered to John James Ruskin that the founders of the firm, George Smith and Alexander Elder were, like himself, Scotsmen who were the first in their respective families to leave North Britain in order to seek better mercantile opportunities and cultured, metropolitan lives in London. They also opened a window onto the romance of literary life. Smith had served in the firm of John Murray, the publisher of Byron, and even had the honor on one occasion to deliver proof sheets to the poet himself—or, in a more colorful version of the story, carried an inquiry about a new edition that caused Byron to spring up and dance around the room (Lee, “Memoir of George Smith”, 3; Huxley, The House of Smith Elder, 3). It was Elder who oversaw the fledgling publishing arm of the business, however; and although the earlier memoirs characterize his involvement as “spasmodic”, Elder counted as a central figure for the expatriate literary Scotsmen in London during the 1820s–30s, according to Gillian Hughes (Lee, “Memoir of George Smith”, 7; “Introductory and Textual Notes”, 309).
Among the literary Scotsmen who later associated with Elder were Thomas Pringle (1789–1834) and Leitch Ritchie (1800–1865)—both future editors of Friendshipʼs Offering, which published John Ruskinʼs poetry. Smith, Elder, & Company took over this literary annual in 1827 from a neigboring bookseller in Cornhill Street, Lupton Relfe, and rapidly developed it from a pale imitation of Ackermannʼs Forget Me Not into one of the best‐selling productions of the two‐decade reign of the annuals. The burgeoning innovations in visual and print culture that made the annuals a popular success—mass‐producible illustration such as steel engraving, along with mechanized bookbinding and papermaking—proved particularly effective in the firmʼs make‐over of Friendshipʼs Offering. Again, Elderʼs tastes appear to have been key, for he was also an art enthusiast, and commissioned a number of ambitious portfolios of picturesque views for publication. Among the earliest of these was Views in Scotland, by John Heaviside Clark (1771–1863), a series of copper‐engraved views of the principal towns and historical sites of Scotland, published in 1824. Printed in aquatint, each plate sold at half a guinea, the series realizing a profit beyond the artistʼs substantial commission of £1,000 (Huxley, House of Smith Elder, 10–11).
Many connections tied Smith, Elder intimately to the Ruskins. Ruskinʼs older cousin, Charles Thomas Richardson (1811–34), worked as an apprentice or shopboy for the firm, starting probably no later than October 1829, when Charles presented John with a copy of Friendshipʼs Offering (probably the volume for 1830, Friendshipʼs Offering: A Literary Album, and Christmas and New Yearʼs Present, for MDCCCXXX, rather than the volume for 1829, as assumed by Van Akin Burd, since the 1830 volume would have just been published around 31 October 1829 when Charles got “it in a present from Mssrs. Smith & Co.” (Burd, ed., Ruskin Family Letters, 208, 209 n. 6).
Whether the volume for 1829 or for 1830, its editor was Thomas Pringle, who became Ruskinʼs first editor of his poetry published in Friendshipʼs Offering. Pringle certainly was on a familiar footing with the Ruskin family by January 1832, when he introduced the Ruskins to the writer, James Hogg (ca. 1770–1835). Perhaps Charlesʼs gift to John prompted John James to seek the acquaintance. Pringleʼs editorship of the annual started in 1828—his first volume being that for 1829 (i.e., the volume marketed during the holiday season of 1828–29). He continued to serve as editor until his death in December 1834, having prepared the volume for 1835 (i.e., the volume for the holiday season of 1834–35). This last volume, which featured the young Ruskinʼs first poems for the annual, was substantially completed during the summer of 1834 (Vigne, Thomas Pringle, 244). In the latter volume, Ruskin made his first appearance in a prominent professional anthology, publishing two poems: “Fragments from a Metrical Journal”, which was abstracted from his Account of a Tour on the Continent; and “Saltzburg”, which accompanied an engraved vedute of the city, drawn by William Purser (1790–1852), and engraved by Edward Goodall (1795–1870) (Pringle, ed., Friendshipʼs Offering; and Winterʼs Wreath . . . for 1835, 37–38, 317–19).
John James Ruskin, Account Book (1827–45), © The Ruskin, Lancaster University.