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Ruskin and the Aclands

Spring, 2000

THE daguerreotype described in the previous article is not the only item associated with Ruskin in the Museum. Several other items come to the Museum via a more direct link between Ruskin and Oxford science, namely Sir Henry Wentworth Acland and his family.

Acland was a lifelong friend of Ruskin from their undergraduate days together at Christ Church. In his autobiography Ruskin writes that it was Acland, although about a year and a half his senior, who ‘chose’ Ruskin and took him in-hand at college. Acland’s rooms, fifty yards across Canterbury Quad from Ruskin’s, were, according to Ruskin, ‘the only place where I was happy’.

Acland died in October 1900, just nine months after Ruskin. The year 2000 thus also marks the centenary of his death, although it has been completely overshadowed by his more celebrated friend. Acland nevertheless stands as one of the most important figures in the scientific life of the University in the latter half of the 19th century. His first University appointment was in 1845 as Lee’s Reader in Anatomy at Christ Church. He went on to become Physician to the Radcliffe Infirmary, Radcliffe Librarian and, in 1857, Regius Professor of Medicine. Outside the University he held many distinguished posts, including the Presidencies of the General Medical Council and the British Medical Association, and the position of Honorary Physician to the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII.

It was under the leadership of Acland that a sweeping programme of reform of Oxford scientific education took place, centred around a new institution, the Oxford Museum, now the University Museum of Natural History. In a manner analogous to the Ashmolean Museum before it, the Oxford Museum was intended not only to house the University’s scientific collections but to be a single roof under which teaching and research took place. As well as public galleries, lecture rooms and laboratories were provided, along with a new home for the Radcliffe Library.

It is the Oxford Museum that provides the most palpable example of the collaboration between Ruskin and Acland. It was through the influence of both men that the Neo-Gothic design that we see today was chosen over a rival classical design of extravagant proportions. Although Ruskin had little direct influence on the architecture, it was to him that responsibility fell for the decorative scheme, and in the numerous internal columns and exterior windows he was able to put into practice ideas developed during his architectural studies of Venice.

Acland’s house in Broad Street, almost directly opposite the Old Ashmolean on the site of what is now the New Bodleian, was a place where the most influential men and women of the time met, including such illustrious names as Gladstone, Salisbury, Newman, Pusey, Burdon Sanderson, and Kelvin. Following his election to the Slade chair of Fine Arts in 1869, Ruskin occupied a room in the Acland house, before moving into Corpus Christi College.

Also living in Broad Street with Acland and his wife was their only daughter, Sarah Angelina Acland. ‘Angie’ or ‘Miss Acland’, as she was known, has received passing mention in some of the more recent biographies of Ruskin. However, a friendship developed between herself and Ruskin that has gone almost unnoticed in its extent and intimacy (due to the emphasis placed on Ruskin’s obsession with another young girl, Rose La Touche). The nature of this friendship is evident both from Miss Acland’s memoirs and from the letters to her from Ruskin that survive.

In her memoirs Miss Acland recalls first meeting Ruskin in the 1850s when still a young child and when Ruskin was married to Effie Grey, who later famously divorced him for the painter John Everett Millais on the grounds of ‘incurable impotence’. It was after his divorce and when Angie was in her teens that a closer relationship developed between them, after Ruskin moved into Broad Street.

Early in his residency in Broad Street, Miss Acland adopted the pet name of ‘cricket’ for Ruskin, following an incident in which her father’s coachman misinterpreted a description of Ruskin as an ‘art Critic’. From that point on, in his letters to Angie, Ruskin would always sign himself as ‘your loving Cricket’ or ‘your loving Insect’. He in turn adopted ‘Teaze’ as his pet name for Miss Acland, invariably writing to her as ‘My darling Teaze’ or ‘My Darlingest Angie’.

Between Ruskin’s duties as Slade Professor, Ruskin and Angie would make long excursions by carriage, often to Wytham Wood and Port Meadow, taking tea at the Trout Inn at Godstow. From his letters it appears that Ruskin also acted as an informal art tutor to Miss Acland, setting her subjects to paint, helping her with her drawing, trying to make her see nature ‘with his eyes’ (‘not always very easy’), and advising her what to read (or what not to read: ‘Don’t read the 7 lamps. It’s really all wrong and terribly misleading …’)

It is easy to see the fascination that Ruskin must have held for Angie, given his already well-established fame as a writer and critic, even despite the difficulties that must have existed due to Ruskin’s perilous state of mind over his relationship with Rose La Touche and his fondness for any young beautiful girl that came his way. If the correspondence betrays hints of a growing intimacy between them, this was no doubt curtailed when it was decided by Mrs Acland that ‘it would be better for Mr. Ruskin to be independent in rooms’ and he was asked to leave Broad Street.

After his move out of Broad Street, Miss Acland undertook work for Ruskin in a more formal capacity and is described by him at one point as ‘my secretary’. She seems to have taken on some responsibility for organizing his rooms in Corpus and carrying out administrative work, such as filing and copying, on one occasion being asked by him to return some ‘very disagreeable correspondence’ from a ‘very foolish girl’ which she had wanted to burn.

After 1879 and Ruskin’s resignation from the Slade chair due to failing health and mental instability, his correspondence with Miss Acland continued for some time, petering out at the end of the 1880s as Ruskin increasingly retreated to Brantwood in Cumbria. In 1893 however, Miss Acland and her father went to stay with Ruskin, for the last time, at Brantwood. It was on this occasion that the photograph of Ruskin and Acland illustrated opposite was taken, by Miss Acland herself.

Miss Acland took up photography in the early 1890s and soon became a noted amateur practitioner. She began first with portraiture, photographing many of the distinguished visitors to her house, before turning to colour photography. The Museum holds a large collection of her work, mostly in the form of glass lantern slides and autochrome transparencies.

The photograph of Ruskin and her father is one of several taken by Miss Acland on 1st August 1893 during her stay at Brantwood, including one of Ruskin alone. The Museum holds these photographs in the form of collodion lantern slides, the original half-plate negatives from which they were made being in the Bodleian. The lantern slides are dated 1898 and were prepared for a lecture Miss Acland gave to the Oxford Camera Club in 1899 on portrait photography.

The published account of her lecture mentions her thoughts about the portrait: ‘the lighting was good,’ she reported, ‘but ivy made nearly as bad a back-ground as could be.’ She also mentions that it was taken on a ‘Carbutt film’. John Carbutt was the first to produce a photographic emulsion on celluloid in the early 1880s, and, although Miss Acland’s comment in this instance probably refers to a glass plate, she also took at least one photograph of Ruskin on film on the same occasion.

Miss Acland’s photograph of Ruskin and her father was reproduced as a photogravure print in the 1893 edition of The Oxford Museum, an account by Acland and Ruskin of their new museum first published in 1859. Her portrait of Ruskin alone was published in a number of periodicals from 1895 as the ‘most recent’ portrait of Ruskin, beginning with the Windsor Magazine.

Unfortunately, the portrait of Ruskin became a source of increasing aggravation for Miss Acland, for two reasons. Firstly, soon after its appearance in the Windsor Magazine, the portrait was published in the London House Magazine without her permission. This prompted a series of exchanges between Miss Acland and the publisher of the Windsor Magazine, who had passed on an electrotype of the original printing block of the Ruskin portrait to the editor of the London House Magazine, as a favour. Secondly, Miss Acland wanted to have her portrait of Ruskin separately issued as a photogravure print. Presumably through Ruskin, she engaged George Allen, Ruskin’s publisher, to this end. After a long series of delays a proof of the print was eventually produced, by the ‘Swan Electric Engraving Company’, but did not meet with her approval. A number of failed attempts to rectify the problems followed, before Miss Acland was persuaded to abandon the whole idea by Allen, who seems never to have believed in the financial viability of the project or of the print’s popularity with the public.

The Brantwood portrait was not the last photograph to be taken of Ruskin by Miss Acland. This honour goes to a colour photograph taken after his death, not of Ruskin himself, but of the famous portrait of Ruskin by Millais, which was begun at Glenfinlas in 1853 and is the first exhibit in the current Ruskin exhibition at ‘Tate Britain’. The photograph of this portrait, which is undoubtedly the first colour image of it ever to be made, is of interest for a number of reasons connected with the small world of Ruskin, photography, Oxford and the Aclands.

On one level the portrait itself betrays influences of photography in its execution, particularly in the shape of its frame, which is typical not of painted portraits but of daguerreotype portraits of the 1850s. On another level, it is linked through its provenance: it came to the Museum among photographs left by Miss Acland to Minn, the donor of the Museum’s Ruskin daguerreotype, albeit by a completely different route.

More significantly, the photograph reminds us of the special place Ruskin held in the hearts of both Miss Acland and her father. Acland was at Glenfinlas with Ruskin when the portrait was made and is said to have held the canvas for Millais. After Ruskin’s divorce from Effie Grey and her marriage to Millais, Ruskin lent the portrait to Acland, finally leaving it to him in his will, at Miss Acland’s insistence. During his life, the portrait hung in Acland’s study in Broad Street, before, on his own death, passing to Miss Acland, who made it the subject of one of the few photographs ever taken of one of her own possessions, showing it hanging in her most cherished place, the space above her writing desk.

G. M. H.