When John Ruskin, the nineteenth century’s most famous art critic’s father died in March 1864, his son was concerned about leaving his elderly mother alone at the large house on Denmark Hill when he was due to go to away the following month. Yes, there were plenty of household staff, not counting the four gardeners for the 7 acres of grounds, but she was a difficult old lady; insisting on covering the family’s collection of Turner paintings on the walls on Sundays in case they gave too much unwarranted joy on the Sabbath. What to do? Well, you did what was usual in such wealthy families in mid-Victorian England, you found a needy relative to fulfil the task of keeping her company. A distant cousin, Joan Agnew, down from Scotland, was staying in London at this time with another relative and she was invited to Denmark Hill for a week’s visit. Instead of a week, the connection would last for 36 years until Ruskin’s own death in 1900.
Joan Agnew (1846-1924) was barely 18 years old when she met eighty-three-year-old Margaret Ruskin, the art critic’s mother. Despite the wide age disparity, they got on well and Joan agreed to remain as her companion at Denmark Hill. Within a year, John Ruskin (1819-1900) had made Joan his ward and an arrangement was made that she would be allowed to visit her own mother in Scotland for a month every year. She was given three well-furnished rooms at Denmark Hill for her own use. She took over the running of the large house, managing the servants and even cutting Ruskin’s hair. He enjoyed her Scottish dancing and was an enthusiastic dancer himself, not a pastime normally associated with the intense 40-year-old at the height of his intellectual powers.
Joseph Severn (1793-1879), artist and friend of Keats, had met the young Ruskin when Ruskin had called upon him in Rome in 1840. The reason for the visit was a letter of introduction from one of Ruskin’s few Oxford friends, Henry Acland. Letters were addressed to both Severn and fellow artist George Richmond. They got on well and the following year found them all in London where the Severn family had now returned.
Arthur Severn (1842- 1931) and his twin-sister Mary were born at the family house at Buckingham Gate in 1842 and the Ruskin and the Severn families grew friendly, John Ruskin senior sending boxes of almonds, raisins and plums to the children, direct from his wine estate in Spain.
It was Mary Severn, then aged 15, already showing promise as an artist, who unconsciously paved the way for her brother’s contact with Ruskin, by expressing a wish, in 1857, to visit Denmark Hill to see the collection of Turner paintings. An invitation to them both to come for lunch and view the pictures swiftly followed. “We were living then in Belgrave Road close to Warwick Square and went over Vauxhall Bridge to Camberwell, then walked up Denmark Hill, arriving at the beautiful cedar tree just under the gate of Ruskin’s garden”. John Ruskin was delighted to show the young Severn twins his father’s collection of Turners.
The casual friendship between the two families continued, the years passed but by 1861 Joseph Severn’s success as an artist in Rome did not replicate itself in London. To relieve the financial strain, he sought and obtained the post of British Consul in Rome, a post which he retained until his death in 1879. Arthur left Westminster School, his family expecting him to follow his brothers into the Civil Service. Arthur, however had ambitions to be a painter like his father and although the prospect of a clerkship in a government office hung over his head, he stuck to it.
There was an interval of five or six years before Arthur encountered the Ruskins again. He was a guest at a dinner party given by his now married sister Mary and her husband, Charles Newton, the archaeologist who had also been at Oxford with John Ruskin. After dinner, Ruskin was shown a large watercolour drawing by Arthur of St Paul’s at sunrise. He criticized the presence of the ‘horrid Shot Tower and that ugly railway bridge’ in the picture but praised the sky. Another dinner party ensued, and this time Ruskin was shown Arthur’s large drawing of waves breaking by moonlight, “which he seemed to like very much”.
This study was hung at an exhibition of drawings at the Dudley Gallery. The hanging committee raised the price from £40 to £70 and the work sold so quickly that a replacement had to be made for another client. Arthur Severn was thus encouraged on his course as an artist. Most successful as a watercolourist in seascapes and landscapes, he would later exhibit frequently at the Royal Academy and the Royal Institute of Watercolour Artists.
Arthur Severn was not to meet John Ruskin again for several more years and when he did it was at a party at George Richmond’s. Ruskin’s study of Italian art had been chiefly guided by Richmond who had also painted John Ruskin’s portrait several times. At the party there was to be a rehearsal for a play -Severn later recalled, “During a long pause when the curtain was down, finding it a little dull, I looked about me, and a few chairs off saw a pretty good-natured-looking-girl with frizzy hair and a complexion like a rose, with no one to talk to. I sidled up and with no introduction began to talk to her. She was most agreeable, not shy, and looked amused I thought at my boldness”. The girl was Joan Agnew and Arthur was smitten.
“I need hardly say that in a few days I discovered it was absolutely necessary to write to Ruskin and to say that I had some very important questions to ask him, and would he appoint an afternoon about clouds.” Thus, Arthur Severn became a regular visitor to 163 Denmark Hill, pursuing a courtship made excessively long by the obduracy of Ruskin’s concern for his cousin and ward. Some biographers have thought that Ruskin had designs upon the girl himself. Severn was however finally accepted as her suitor, welcomed as a frequent visitor, although he would have to wait three more years for permission to propose to Joan.
During this period Severn met Ruskin in Italy and toured Verona with him and pressed him on his wish for Joan’s hand. Receiving encouragement at last, frequent visits to Denmark Hill or theatre outings with Ruskin and Joan ensued and finally in November 1870 the couple were engaged. Margaret Ruskin, John’s mother, took to Severn and gave him ‘a considerable sum of money’ before his marriage. Ruskin presented the newlyweds the lease of 28 Herne Hill for their wedding present. It had been John’s home from 1823 until his father’s increase in fortune allowed him to lease the larger Denmark Hill house in 1842. However, 28 Herne Hill was retained and it would remain in the family until 1907. The house would not only be the Severns’ London home but also Ruskin’s pied a terre for his many visits to London.
Arthur and Joan were married in the Spring of 1871 and honeymooned in Yorkshire and Scotland. It was while in Scotland that Joan suffered an attack of rheumatic fever. Ruskin, concerned for his cousin’s recovery suggested a spell at Matlock Bath, Derbyshire and accordingly took rooms there in June. With Joan’s poor health, it took the Severns some time to travel to the spa. In the meantime, Ruskin himself had fallen seriously ill with ‘some internal inflammation’. Joan wrote daily to Mrs Ruskin who was alarmed at her son’s illness. Ruskin was incapacitated for over a month and during this time expressed a yearning “to lie in Coniston Water”.
In December 1871 Ruskin’s mother died, a great blow to both Ruskin and to Joan Severn who, by then had lived with her for seven years before her marriage and was her constant visitor afterwards. Soon after, Ruskin was unexpectedly offered ‘Brantwood’ on Coniston by its owner for £1500. Ruskin was quick to agree the purchase; some writers believe he never saw the house before buying it. The wish to live in the Lake District is not so surprising considering his recent thoughts of that area. He was also disenchanted with city life and hated the Crystal Palace which dominated the view over Dulwich from his windows. He was similarly distressed by the increasing industrialization of the nation, the growth of factories and his perceived view of the decline of the craftsman. He at once decided to dispose of the lease of 163 Denmark Hill, move to the Lake District and move in when occasion required him to be in London, with the Severns.
As Brantwood would take some time to be put in order and the lease of Denmark Hill assigned to a Mr Walter Bruce, a distiller, for £1000, John Ruskin proposed, according to Severn, “a delightful plan of taking us abroad with some friends for three or four months.” “We were delighted”. The party consisted of Ruskin, the Severns, the painter Albert Goodwin, a Mrs Hilliard and her daughter together with his secretary Crawley. Ruskin confided his hope to Severn that the ladies would leave them alone enough for them to do some drawings.
The lengthy tour was a success with the exception for Ruskin of Rome which he did not like, partly because of the over-zealous restoration of some of the churches and monuments to which he took great exception - ”It is a nasty, rubbishy, dirty hole -I hate it.” However, the Severns were able to visit Joseph Severn there and Arthur himself particularly admired the Alban Hills. Ruskin, a workaholic as ever, wrote his regular Fors Clavigera letters for publication while on the tour and also wrote instructions for the foundation of the Ruskin School of Drawing at Oxford (now named the Ruskin School of Art) founded for the encouragement of artisanship and technical skills, which would open later that year. He was also making observations and drawings in Rome and Venice for forthcoming lectures at Oxford where he had held the post of Slade Professor of Art since its establishment in 1869 and which he held until 1878 and again from 1883-5. He also was a constant encourager and critic of the art works of Severn and Goodwin, insisting in the detail and the faithfulness to nature. Finally, however, tempers frayed between Arthur Severn and Ruskin, their personalities perhaps too similar, and the Severns returned to London early. Ruskin meanwhile, had been diverted by correspondence from England that suggested a possible reconciliation with Rose La Touche, with whom he was once infatuated and from whom he had become estranged. Ruskin followed the Severns a few days later, to his rooms in the Severn household at Herne Hill.
The trip thus ended, and the Severns finally settled in at 28 Herne Hill, and Ruskin, perhaps showing remorse for his behaviour, dispatched his four gardeners who would no longer be required in the large garden at Denmark Hill to the Severns’ modest garden both to mollify his hosts to give the gardeners a job.
This gesture was typical of Ruskin. He came up with a multitude of schemes to employ the poor, ranging from sweeping the streets of Camberwell to opening a tea shop at Marylebone. He was a believer in the dignity of labour. Another platform he liked to occupy concerned physical exercise. He believed everyone should take exercise but to do it in a productive way rather than wasting time on what he considered, pointless pursuits like games. Both at Oxford and at Brantwood, he would roll his sleeves up and personally lead the digging and resurfacing of a road, thereby reconciling the need for exercise with that of useful purpose. One of his diggers at Oxford was Oscar Wilde.
Brantwood was made ready, but was then only a single-story building, It had yet to welcome the Severns increasing brood of children which would require an additional storey to the house to accommodate them. Both Ruskin and the Severns stayed at Herne Hill frequently in the 1870’s and 80’s, Ruskin writing some of his autobiography, Praeterita, in his room which had once been his former nursery. During this period, and certainly from the mid-1870’s, Ruskin began to exhibit a tendency of over assertiveness in his writings; suggesting that his arguments were the only valid ones. Nowhere was this more obvious than his criticism of the work of James McNeil Whistler. That is not to say that Ruskin had shied away from ferocious criticism in the past. In 1856, Punch magazine had published a lampoon of Ruskin under the title of ‘Poem by a Perfectly Furious Academician’:
I takes and paints
Hears no complaints,
And sells before I’m dry;
Till savage Ruskin
He sticks his tusk in,
Then nobody will buy.
In 1877 Ruskin went to see the Grosvenor Gallery’s first exhibition. The Gallery had been established to provide a window to art outside the mainstream and this first exhibition featured the works of Edward Burne-Jones, an artist Ruskin admired. Ruskin had already criticized the gallery a few days earlier in one of his Fors Clavigera letters for its founders, Sir Coutts Lindsey and his wife Caroline, both amateur artists, having the temerity to put their own pictures on the same walls as professional artists. The Grosvenor Gallery was associated with the aesthetic movement, soon to be pilloried by Gilbert & Sullivan in their operetta ‘Patience’ - the line ‘A greenery-yallery, Grosvenor Gallery kind of man” etc. On display at the opening were some works by Whistler. Of these Ruskin savagely wrote “…I never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a paint pot in the public’s face.” What John Ruskin might have thought about today’s Turner Prize would certainly be interesting!
Whistler, not unexpectedly did not take this criticism lightly and commenced legal proceedings for libel. For Arthur Severn, the rather embarrassing thing was that Whistler and he were acquaintances, brought together by Severn’s brother, Walter, who, some fifteen years earlier, had let Whistler paint his ‘The Last of Old Westminster ’ from his rooms on the site of what is today New Scotland Yard. Severn held Whistler’s work in high esteem. His discomfiture was therefore compounded when at the request of Ruskin’s solicitors, Severn was asked to bring to the court a painting attributed to Titian, Doge Andrea Gritti acquired by Ruskin in 1864 so it might be compared with Whistler’s ‘Symphony’ paintings. Acting as Ruskin’s representative, Severn was required to enlist witnesses on Ruskin’s behalf including William Powell Frith. During the trial Severn was also retained by the defence to look up references in Ruskin’s ‘Modern Painters’.
Severn admired Whistler’s work, thinking Ruskin’s criticism ill-judged. However, he later wrote “I must say I thought it absurd of Whistler asking such high prices for so little work”. Apparently, Whistler, recognizing the difficulty of Severn’s position remained courteous to him throughout.
The court found Ruskin guilty of libel but only awarded Whistler a farthing in damages. Nevertheless, the effect on Ruskin’s reputation was serious and he felt compelled to resign his post at Oxford. The costs of the action were shared between the two men; Ruskin’s was paid by public subscription, but it drove Whistler into bankruptcy six months later.
Between 1880-81 Ruskin had a series of illnesses, mainly depression, lasting about a month each but In 1882 while staying with the Severns at Herne Hill he had a severe mental breakdown which would last two years; Ruskin later described it as his going mad. His health and mental stability would recover and he would briefly resume the Slade professorship at Oxford, however, the previously regular Fors Clavigera letters now became occasional. He was able to take some foreign travel, and started to write what would be his unfinished autobiography, Praeterita, However by 1890 he had become completely incapacitated. It was Joan who nursed and fussed over him, then, and until his death ten years later, in 1900, both at the Severns’ home at Herne Hill and at Brantwood.
Ruskin had, from the time of Joan’s arrival into his life to care for his mother, written regularly to her when he was away. In all he wrote over 3000 letters to Joan, the early ones calling her affectionately his “wee coz” but by the 1880’s a nursery style had crept into his correspondence, “wee Doanie”, “ownie Downie” and later “Di Ma” to which Joan responded with “Di Pa”. In these later years, Joan effectively became not only his constant companion but also his gatekeeper; limiting access to visitors who wished to talk to the great man. Ruskin did not always appreciate this concern, at times becoming belligerent and suspicious of his cousin, and resenting her attempts to control him and screening visitors she thought might upset him. Over the years their roles had reversed. In her youth, Ruskin had been her protector, now she was his.
In his Will, Ruskin left everything to the Severns, Brantwood, its contents including his collection of books, papers and pictures. He made a request in it, that Brantwood would be opened for 30 days each year for visitors. That the Severns failed to completely honour this condition has remained a source of rancour by Ruskin’s subsequent admirers, down to this day. Certainly many of Ruskin’s picture collection was sold off soon after his death and Brantwood might not have been open as regularly as Ruskin had hoped, but it was opened. Ruskin had been a controlling person in his lifetime and one suspects thatJoan and Arthur Severn had no intention that he should remain so from beyond the grave. Nevertheless, Brantwood was not actually sold until after Arthur Severn’s death in 1931.
Arthur Severn only enjoyed mild success as an artist, despite Ruskin’s considerable interest and encouragement. It could be argued that Severn’s fame came more from his association with Ruskin than through his own talent. However, he was an active exhibitor and was elected a member of both the Royal Institute of Water Colours and the Royal Institute of Oil Painters although his work never commanded a high price.
There can be no doubt that he was devoted to his wife. A great test of this actually came after Ruskin’s death, when in 1906, the same year that the Severns finally gave up the lease on their Herne Hill home which had been associated with Ruskin for almost eighty years. The occasion was a visit made to Brantwood by the best-selling author, Marie Corelli ((1855-1924). Corelli was born out of wedlock as Mary McKay, the result of a servant/master relationship of her parents (later legalised), she adopted the name of the Italians violinist and composer. Marie Corelli was aged fifty-one at the time of the visit.
Accompanied by her friend and companion Bertha Vyver, the visit, apparently, was such a success that they were invited back for supper that evening. At the time Marie Corelli was at the height of her literary fame. Between 1886 to 1923 she had twenty-seven romances published and made a fortune. Mysticism and re-incarnation were the themes of many of her books, which were so popular that print runs of some of her novels ran to 200,000 copies and their sales exceeded the combined published oeuvre of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (including the Sherlock Holmes titles), H G Wells and Rudyard Kipling. Admirers of Corelli’s books included, Oscar Wilde, Winston Churchill and Queen Victoria. Book reviewers however were continually hostile. Corelli is said to be the inspiration for the popular character created by F C Benson - ‘Lucia’. The recent film ‘Angel’ is based on her life and stars Ramona Garai as Marie. Like Corelli’s later books, it was not a success. Her literary decline was as steep as its rise and by the end of the First World War she was attracting many fewer readers.
Out of the visit to Brantwood had sprung an infatuation by Corelli for Arthur Severn; this led to her mission to make Severn’s work as an artist better known. With her huge publishing output she thought that if Arthur Severn illustrated her books, then he would be exposed to a massive audience. A studio for him was created at her house, Manor Croft in Stratford upon Avon. Severn was offered the choice of subjects he would illustrate in her books. He collaborated with her by illustrating her book ‘The Devil’s Motor’ in 1910 and there were plans for a further collaboration on a book about Shakespeare. However, once she realized that her feelings were not being reciprocated she wrote a thinly disguised story of her betrayal in her fictionalized diary - ‘Open Confession: From a Woman to a Man’.
Joan Agnew Severn died in 1924 aged 76 and was buried in St Andrew’s Church graveyard in Coniston, where John Ruskin lay at rest. Arthur Severn died in 1931. He was also buried at Coniston. Brantwood was sold after his death, together with the remaining Ruskin papers which were auctioned at five sales at Southeby’s and two at Brantwood. Many of these are preserved at the University of Lancaster. Brantwood was purchased as a perpetual memorial to Ruskin by John Howard Whitehouse in 1932.