Ruskin The Liddells and Carroll

This article was written by Stephen Martin and presented by him at the October 2019 meeting of the Daresbury Lewis Carroll Society.

The Old Conger Eel - Ruskin and the Liddells

Lewis Carroll's 'the Old Conger Eel- the Drawling master' who came 'once a week' to teach  'Drawling, Stretching and Fainting in Coils' has commonly been associated with Ruskin. This segment  does not appear in the manuscript 'Alice's Adventures Underground' but it was greatly expanded  upon for the Mock Turtle's discourse on his education at school in 'Alice's Adventures in  Wonderland', published in 1865. This would imply, or we can deduce from this, that Ruskin began  giving Alice Liddell drawing lessons when she was thirteen years old, and so was an in-joke between them. But how likely was this? 

According to Dodgson's first biographer Stuart Dodgson Collingwood: "His own drawings were in  no way remarkable. Ruskin, whose advice he took on his artistic capabilities, told him that he had  not enough talent to make it worth his while to devote much time to sketching". One can presume  that Ruskin's harsh criticism was in relation to his own drawings for Alice's Adventures Underground  and that they weren't up to the accepted standard for book publication and so expressed the need  for him to hire a professional draughtsman to do the illustrations. In fact, it was Tom Taylor who  suggested John Tenniel and who gave him his letter of introduction.

Dodgson's drawing of the Mock  Turtle does have a strange and quirky charm but is not as well defined and characterised as Tenniel's  depiction of the same creature. Ruskin could have seen the manuscript at the Deanery on a visit but  there is no evidence to support this, unlike the novelist Henry Kingsley who definitely did and who  urged for its publication. I'm not sure how reliable Collingwood's statement can be! The original  manuscript of Alice's Adventures Underground was finally published in December 1885.

John Ruskin was born in London on 8th Feburary 1819. His father John James Ruskin owned his  own business as an importer of fine wines. The young John showed much promise as an artist from  an early age, and his sketchbook are full of drawings of nature and architecture. Ruskin entered the University of Oxford when he was 18 years old in 1837 and took up residence at Christ Church. Henry Liddell was a young senior tutor who described Ruskin as a "wonderful gentleman-commoner ... who draws wonderfully. He is a very strange fellow, always dressing in a great coat with a brown velvet collar, and a large neck cloth tie over his mouth and living in his own way among the odd set of hunting and sporting men that gentleman-commoners usually are ... I am glad that they do not bully him, as I should have been afraid they would". Ruskin did find Liddell imposing.

Ruskin did become close to the geology professor and canon of the cathedral Dr William Buckland. Buckland was definitely eccentric for he kept a menagerie of animals and birds which  included a bear, jackals, monkeys, and lizards, in the great quadrangle of the college. He also claimed  to have eaten his way through the animal kingdom: it was recalled that he served up horseflesh,  crocodile, mice in batter, but mole and blue-bottle were the nastiest of his dishes. Such stories  became legend at Christ Church and were passed down to Charles Dodgson who incorporated them  into the stories he told to Alice Liddell and Angie Acland. Henry Liddell despised 'Poor Buckland' and  considered that he didn't have the intellectual calibre to occupy a chair at the university. Buckland  greatly expanded Ruskin's geological knowledge.

At Oxford Ruskin never managed to live independently or avoid the stifling constraints of his  parents, his mother Margaret lodged on High Street and his father joined them at weekends. At the  third attempt Ruskin won the prestigious Newdigate Prize for poetry in 1839. He was continually  suffering from ill health and in 1840 coughed blood fearing he had caught consumption. Ruskin was  awarded a double fourth-class degree for his achievements in 1842.

In March 1859 Ruskin was invited by the headmistress Margaret Alexis Bell to give talks and take  lessons at the all-girls academy of Winnington Hall, near Northwich, in Cheshire. The school  consisted of around 35 paying/boarding pupils, aged 11 to 15, and he became entranced by the  attention from all these adolescent girls "all healthy and happy as can be". He taught art classes  following his own principles laid down in The Elements of Drawing but also took religious studies and  other subjects. Ruskin continued to be a regular visitor and financial supporter of the school into the  1860's. The school went bankrupt and closed in the 1870’s. In 1962 a bundle of old letters were  found which became known as The Winnington Letters which consisted of his correspondence with  Margaret Bell and some of the pupils such as Lily Armstrong, Dora Livesey, and Susan Scott. One letter was sent from Winnington to Alice Donkin, who has been mistakenly presumed to be a  pupil at the school; it could refer to Alice Jane Donkin but much more likely it was addressed to Alice  Emily Donkin, whose father William Fishburn Donkin was the Professor of Astronomy at Oxford.

In the summer of 1864 the painter William Blake Richmond came to stay at the Liddell's holiday  home Penmorfa on the West shore of Llandudno, Wales on a commission by the Dean to paint his  daughters. Richmond said that "The girls entered into the scheme with unexpected kindness". They  had to sit from 7 am having to remain still and patient for 7 to 10 hours a day for 7 weeks. He added the  backdrop of the Great Orme later. Richmond would not allow themto see it until it was  completed. Ruskin was full of praise and enthusiasm for the picture titled The Three Sisters with  only one area of criticism: "My dear Willie, you have made one great mistake. The rest of the picture  being supremely beautiful, why the devil didn't you paint the damsel's feet instead of her shoes?  Perugino would never have made such a mistake!"

Ruskin was appointed the first Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford in mid  August 1869. Ruskin was the most acclaimed and qualified person for the post but it wasn't a fore  gone conclusion. Henry Acland was the curator and may have needed to stand down or resign which  he wasn't particularly happy to do. Liddell asked Acland "Are you positively certain that Ruskin  would like to be Curator of the Galleries? Have you got in in writing?" Ruskin gave his first lecture in  February 1870 and it caused a sensation; he did inspire some of his students and audience with his  enthusiasm for Italian Renaissance Art but he also bemused others in equal measure too. In a letter  of 1872 Mrs Liddell said of one of his lectures: "It was of the wildest kind ... How can you make out  anything of Art in this extraordinary conglomeration? The Dean says he shall not go again to listen to  such nonsense". Of another lecture Mrs Liddell wrote: I am going to Mr Ruskin's next lecture -  wonder if it will be as wonderful and incomprehensible as the last".

Ruskin was not in favour of women becoming painters and he voiced this opinion to one aspiring  artist Sophie Sinnett: "You must resolve to be quite a great paintress; the feminine termination does not exist, there never having been such a being as a lady who could paint. Try and be the first".  (letter dated 1859). Ruskin did have to drastically change his mind by the late 1860's with the  emergence of some great women painters such as Elizabeth Thompson Butler. He needed to accept  female students at the School of Art and integrate them with the male. Ruskin was very pleased with  Alice Liddell's promising skill as an artist and she was becoming one of his star pupils. Ruskin  presented her with a copy of Waiter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border inscribed 'Alice P  Liddell, First Prize for Time Sketch, 1870'. In early 1871 Ruskin wrote her an unintentionally  condescending letter: "I have sent you a little vignette of Turner's- which you must not be frightened  by, as if it were too difficult. Turner's method is so simple as a child's- and you will need no skill to  copy his works". Alice's younger sister Rhoda became a pupil too. Disralei on meeting her  announced - "This is, I understand, the young lady in whose art education Professor Ruskin's".

Ruskin wrote a fond affectionate recollection of an episode with the Liddell girls when "the Planet  Saturn had treated me with his usual adversity in the carrying out of a plot with Alice in  Wonderland". The Dean and Mrs Liddell had been invited to dine at Blenheim Palace but they had set  off in a blizzard of snow. Alice had sent him a note when it was all clear, he set off, found an armchair, a bright fire, a laugh or two, some pretty music, tea and Alice "bringing the muffins to  perfection". But then, unexpectedly, the Dean and Mrs Liddell arrived back having found the road  blocked with snow drifts. Ruskin felt "There was a sudden sense of some stars having been blown  out by the wind". They apologised and encouraged him to stay and finish his tea and buns but he  adds: "but we couldn't keep mamma and papa out of the drawing -room when they had done  dinner, I went to Corpus, disconsolate". He refers to Edith being his favourite and her death came as  a heavy blow to Ruskin in 1883. This was written in his autobiography Praeterita many years later and was greatly romanticised

A General Feebleness of Expression - Ruskin and Dodgson

Dodgson read and admired Ruskin's writing, his collection of books contained Elements of  Drawing(1857), Unto this Last(1862), The Crown of Wild Olive(1866), The Queen of the Air(1869),  and his Poem(1882). Dodgson wrote in his poem "Hiawatha Photographing": "Next the Son, the  Stunning- Cantals ... He had learnt it all from Ruskin ... And he had not fully understood his authors  meaning .... "; this poem first appeared in The Train in 1957 and was published again with illustrations  by Arthur B Frost of a languid aesthetic youth in 1885. Dodgson became curious and stimulated to  meet Ruskin by long talks with Richard St John Tyrwhitt(1827-95), vicar of St Mary Magdalen,  Oxford, and with Alfred Tennyson when he met him in the Lake District. Dodgson wrote: "We talked  a good deal about Ruskin, whom he seemed to have a profound contempt for as a critic, though he  allows him to be a most eloquent writer. He said that Ruskin had written to him asking to make his  acquaintance, that he had answered in a friendly spirit, and that Ruskin had then sent him an  impertinent letter, of which he had taken no notice, nor of any letter received from him since". Was,  Ruskin's temprement a little highly strung even at this stage of his life, or was the great poet a little  over sensitive to Ruskin's quirky behaviour?

Dodgson did finally meet Ruskin on 27" October 1857, he recorded in his diary: "At Common  Room breakfast met, for the first time, John Ruskin. I had little conversation with him, but not  enough to bring out anything in him. His appearance was rather disappointing - a general  feebleness of expression, with no commanding air, or any external signs of deep thought, as one would have expected to see in such a man". The Ruskin biographer Tim Hilton writes: "Dodgson and  Ruskin corresponded more than they met, though they lived in adjacent colleges. Ruskin would cut  Dodgson's signature from his letters to send it to girls whom he knew would like the autograph of the  creator of the Alice books. The actual contents of the letters did not greatly interest him. They  contained conventional remarks about art. At one point, irritated with Dodgson's enquiries, Ruskin  brusquely refered him to a back number of Fors Clavigera. "Can't afford ten- pence", Dodgson  replied, that being the price of Fors. The exchange cannot have made for warm relations". Ruskin  never appreciated the odd, puckish personality of Dodgson. Neither did Liddell . All three men felt  animosity towards each other, though they had to discuss intellectual matters, dine together and  worship together. This was in the nature of Oxford life"

Dodgson and Ruskin shared an interest in photography. Ruskin refered to photography as the"  sun's drawing". He collected Daguerrotypes of French and Italian architecture. Ruskin rarely took  photographs himself but hired professional photographers George Hobb, George Alien, and  Frederick Crawley to take pictures of frescoes, paintings, and architecture under his supervision to  help support visually some of his lectures. But he never believed that photography could supersede  art itself. Dodgson recorded in his diary: "With some difficulty I persuaded Ruskin to come and be  photographed" and the result was a profile portrait of a stern and serious Ruskin taken on 3rd June  1875.

One controversial subject they shared the same ethical view on was against vivisection. In  February 1875 Dodgson wrote a letter to the Pall Mall Gazette condemning the practice and  expanded his opinions in a follow up article Some Fallacies about Vivisection which outlined 13  fallacies dealing with the issue. He wrote to his friend and Conservative MP Lord Salisbury: "It seems  to me that there is a terrible need for legislation- not so much in the interest of the poor tortured  animals as of the demoralised and brutalised medical students". Ruskin resigned as the Oxford Slade  Professor of Art History in 1885 in outrage at the University's decision to experiment on live animal: "I cannot lecture in the next room to a shrieking cat nor address myself to the men who have been  doing- there's no word for it".

Dodgson sought Ruskin's advice on selecting Henry Holiday as the illustrator of his nonsense  poem The Hunting of the Snark. He recorded in his diary: "Ruskin came, by my request, for a talk  about the pictures Holiday is doing of the 'Boojum' - ... He much disheartened me by holding out no  hope that Holiday would be able to illustrate a book satisfactorily" (22nd November 1874). Luckily  Dodgson still went with Holiday and Ruskin was proved wrong by Holiday's detailed, imaginatively  and intricately composed and executed pictures.

On 26th January 1879 Dodgson wrote to his friend Emily Gertrude Thomas (1850-1929) asking her if she knew ‘Mr Ruskin’ and added that “I have the pleasure of numbering him among my friend” and told her that if he did have contact with Ruskin he would show him the Christmas cards designs and drawings. He concluded “If it is possible, if you don’t know the great- critic, that he might be useful to you thus to get to know him”. Hecontinued to name- drop several other famous artists of his aquaintance, but at least he was thinking of furthering her career.

Dodgson’s child-friend Ethel C Hatch wished to become an artist and he did everything to  encourage and help her including asking his friend Hubert Herkomer to examine her art works and  give his critical opinion of her talent. One of her friends secretly borrowed one of her books of  drawings and passed it on to Ruskin for his advice, he replied that she should study with him at the  Oxford School of Art and added that "some day" she should "do very beautiful work". When she did  find a place at the Slade Ruskin had already retired, she never met him in person she studied under  Ford Madox Brown. She did attend one of Ruskin's lectures and described it as "often very rambling,  and difficult to follow, but his voice and language were beautiful"

Dodgson sent Ruskin a presentation copy of Sylvie and Bruno while Ruskin was being nursed by his  cousin Joan Severn suffering from 'brainfever' at Coniston. When he never received a reply he wrote  to Mrs Severn "I share with the British Public the concern with which we heard of his illness ... Very  likely he has not been able to read any of it - though it would not fatigue him to look at the pictures .... "and says that this new book "would not be a mere unconnected dream, but would  contain a plot and that the book contains no dreams, this time: what look like dreams are meant for  trances .... " US" January 1890).

Stephen Martin