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John Ruskin: Letters to Thomas Goff Lupton

Call Number: MSS 5

Scope and Contents

The collection comprises one letter from Benjamin Haydon and sixty-five letters from John Ruskin to Thomas Lupton and/or his son Nevil. Haydon's letter is a brief one in an angry tone, and seems to be related to some sort of professional falling out with Lupton. The scope of Ruskin's letters is far wider, and spans the professional and the personal. For the most part, John Ruskin appears to have been in close communication with Lupton about the engraving and printing of images for his books during the 1850s. In particular, the two men's connection to J.M.W. Turner, who had died in 1851, prompted their collaboration on works that sought to bring Turner's landscapes and other art into print. In addition to The Harbours of England, which featured Turner's engravings accompanied by an introductory essay by Ruskin, the correspondence covers such works as the third through final volumes of Ruskin's Modern Painters. Lupton, along with other engravers, was responsible for helping Ruskin to create many of the illustrations for these publications. It seems that Ruskin's commitment to Turner's legacy drove his rather furious pace of work and publications in the 1850s, the decade during which his personal life was most in turmoil. He remarks, in a New Year's message to Lupton in 1855, that he hopes the year will be a good one and that, "God willing--we will make it a busy one."

Ruskin's letters to Lupton reveal a very close working relationship, with both men working on plates at different stages, and sending plates and proofs back and forth to one another. Ruskin is anxious for perfection throughout, and frequently chides Lupton for delays or for departures from his instructions, despite the engraver's experience and well-established reputation at this time. Many of the letters relate specific directions about the handling of plates, and seem to have originally accompanied the plates themselves, carried to Lupton by one of Ruskin's servants. Ruskin's letters often express frustration with the other engravers involved in his projects, and he bemoans his difficult interactions with them to Lupton.

While the bulk of the correspondence dates from the 1850s, the years in which Ruskin and Lupton were most actively working together, it carries on throughout the 1860s and 1870s, until Lupton's death in 1873. Although Ruskin can be harsh, demanding, and impatient with Lupton in his professional correspondence, he seems able to offer genuinely friendly concern and communication at other times. For instance, Ruskin offers Lupton a moving letter of sympathy upon the death of the engraver's wife, Susannah, in 1864. Another letter of condolence, written to Lupton's son after Lupton died in 1873 (and in another person's handwriting), expresses the deep respect and affection that Ruskin held for his collaborator and friend. When Ruskin is in poor health (he suffered mental and physical illness especially during the 1860s and 1870s), he is relatively honest about his condition, informing Lupton of the reasons for gaps in his correspondence when he chooses to retire from work and communication in order to rest from time to time.

In addition to the correspondence with Thomas Goff Lupton, Ruskin writes a couple of letters to Lupton's son Nevil, who seems to have assisted his father both in the physical labor of his engravings and in the management of his business. Ruskin is respectful and kind in his messages to Nevil, and acknowledges his contributions.

Overall, the Lupton correspondence offers insight into the working relationship and friendship forged between John Ruskin and Thomas Lupton over two decades, during some of the most productive years of Ruskin's life and at a time when both men were contributing their skills to securing J.M.W. Turner's legacy, even as their own legacies were still being created. It illuminates the lengthy and painstaking process of creating each of the illustrations on which Lupton and Ruskin worked, and sheds light on Ruskin's professional style--impatient, industrious, efficient, and exacting.


  • 1845-1873


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

The collection is the physical property of the Yale Center for British Art. Literary rights, including copyright, belong to the authors or their legal heirs and assigns. For further information, consult the Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Paul Mellon Collection.


The collection is arranged into two series: I. Dated letters. II. Undated letters. The second series contains letters whose date could not be approximated to closer than one or two years. The single letter to Lupton from Benjamin Robert Haydon is the first item in series one.


0.42 Linear Feet (1 box)

Language of Materials


Catalog Record

A record for this collection is available in Orbis, the Yale University Library catalog

Persistent URL


This collection comprises letters sent by John Ruskin to Thomas Goff Lupton (or his family) from 1850 to 1873. It also includes one ALS to Lupton from Benjamin Haydon, sent in 1845.

Biographical / Historical

John Ruskin was born on February 8, 1819, in London to John James Ruskin, a vintner, and his wife (and first cousin), Margaret Cox. A highly intelligent and creative child, Ruskin was already writing and drawing at an early age. An anecdote about a fictional piece written at the age of seven reveals much about the traits that marked Ruskin's later approach to his work: "The [seven year old Ruskin]...wished to control all aspects of book production: plates, print styles, title-page, and so on are all given detailed attention" (Batchelor, 17).

Anxious about his health and his social surroundings, John James and Margaret Ruskin kept their son, who was their only child, largely out of school and had him tutored at home. He received education in typical academic subjects, but was also given art lessons in childhood and youth. Although his parents eventually enrolled him in school when he was fourteen, Ruskin was soon pulled out of this formalized education in order to allow him to travel to Europe with them. As a teenager, Ruskin was still closely watched over by and spent most of his time with his mother and father. He seems to have had few friends his age, although he developed a passionate infatuation with the daughter of one of John James Ruskin's business partners. This romantic attachment was not fully mutual, and a matter of concern for Ruskin's parents, who ultimately did not want their son to marry a Catholic.

Determined to give their son the best education possible and to see him progress upwards in society, the Ruskins sent John to Oxford in January of 1837. In a move that would have been unusual in any other family, Mrs. Ruskin accompanied her son to college, finding lodgings separate from those of her son, but sharing most of her meals with him and keeping a watchful eye on his academic and social activities. Ruskin found a measure of social and intellectual camraderie with his fellow students at Oxford, although he was something of an odd man out, already being a published poet and critic at this time, and not possessed of a rambunctious temperament like many of his peers. When Ruskin suffered a lung hemorhrage in 1840, his parents withdrew him from the university and the family embarked on European travels meant to help Ruskin recuperate. He would eventually earn his degree in 1842.

It was after his years at Oxford that two very important and very different developments occurred in Ruskin's life. For one, he began the work that would eventually become his famous multi-volume Modern Painters. Inspired by J.M.W. Turner's art, and seeking to defend the painter against his critics, Ruskin's work took a philosophical and art historical approach to painting in general and, especially in the first volume, to Turner in particular. It was also around this time that Ruskin first met Effie Gray, who would eventually become his wife in April, 1848. The marriage was to last six years, during which time Ruskin published The Stones of Venice, a work about Venetian architecture. When J.M.W. Turner died in 1851, Ruskin hoped, as one of the painter's executors, to be involved in planning an exhibition hall at the National Gallery for Turner's works. This project did not materialize, and Ruskin ultimately seems to have devoted much of his energies in the 1850s into getting many of Turner's works into print, an enterprise that would involve his collaboration with Thomas Lupton.

In 1854, Effie left her husband, and the dissolution of their marriage (on the grounds of non-consummation) was to send Ruskin's personal life and public image into turmoil. Despite this crisis, Ruskin's professional productivity does not seem to have been deeply affected during the 1850s. Throughout this decade, Ruskin was involved with the completion of Modern Painters, the publication of The Harbours of England (a collection of engravings after Turner's works), and the organization of thousands of Turner items at the National Gallery. His letters to Thomas Lupton, the engraver with whom he would collaborate for The Harbours of England and on some of his books, make clear his dedication to his various projects and his insistence on their perfection.

In the 1860s and 1870s, Ruskin continued his rather heavy pace of work, turning some of his thinking to social issues outside of art. In these years he experienced crises in his psychological health (mental illness ran in his family) which often accompanied the waxing and waning of his relationship with Rose La Touche, a young woman with whom Ruskin had fallen in love while she was still a child, and whom he hoped eventually to marry. Ruskin's proposals were deferred and ultimately rejected, with his past failed marriage to Effie coming back to haunt him in the form of fears and doubts on the part of Rose's parents. When Rose La Touche eventually died in 1875, Ruskin was grief-stricken.

Despite his continuing personal crises, Ruskin's professional life made steady progress in the mid to late Victorian years, with a Slade Professorship being awarded to him in 1869. In the 1880s, Ruskin's mental health began to decline more seriously, however, and he retired somewhat from public life, working on autobiographical writings in addition to works on contemporary social issues. Despite his frailties and the publicity of some of his major personal problems, Ruskin's works established him as a well-respected art critic and political thinker, making him one of Victorian England's most valued minds. By the time of his death in 1900, his contributions ranged across many fields and influenced those in public service, in the arts, and in educational spheres.

Thomas Lupton: Thomas Goff Lupton was born in 1791 and apprenticed to engraver and painter George Clint in 1805. Lupton's portrait drawings were exhibited at the Royal Academy between 1811 and 1820. After his apprenticeship with Clint, Lupton went on to engrave pieces for J.M.W. Turner, beginning a close working relationship and friendship. Lupton married his wife Susannah on May 30, 1818. They had six sons and one daughter; their son Nevil would help his father with his engraving business and went on to become an admired landscape painter, winning the Royal Academy's Turner Medal in 1857. According to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Lupton was instrumental in the introduction of "steel plates for engraving," in place of traditional copperplate.

Some of Lupton's most significant engravings date from the 1830s and 1840s, the decades marking the peak of his career. As DNB records, "[h]is finest single plates include Wellington Surveying the Field of Waterloo after Benjamin Robert Haydon (1841; original painting, 1839, NPG); Lord Byron after Thomas Phillips (1824; original painting, 1814, Gov. Art Coll., British embassy, Athens); and The Eddystone Lighthouse (1824; original watercolour untraced) and Sunrise, Whiting Fishing at Margate (1825; original watercolour untraced) after Turner."

Lupton collaborated with John Ruskin on a number of works, including The Harbours of England, which was a reworking of the 1826 Ports of England on which Lupton had collaborated directly with Turner. Lupton would also make engravings for parts of Ruskin's Modern Painters, among other works of the 1850s. Their friendship would continue until Lupton's death in 1873.


  • Batchelor, John. No Wealth but Life. London: Chatto and Windus, 2000.
  • The Letters of John Ruskin to Lord and Lady Mount-Temple. John Bradley, Ed. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1964.
  • Luytens, Mary. The Ruskins and the Grays. London: John Murray, 1972.
  • Luytens, Mary. Millais and the Ruskins. London: John Murray, 1967.


  • Piozzi, Hester Lynch. The Piozzi letters : correspondence of Hester Lynch Piozzi, 1784-1821 (formerly Mrs. Thrale), edited by Edward A. Bloom and Lillian D. Bloom. Newark : University of Delaware Press, c1989-1993.
John Ruskin: Letters to Thomas Goff Lupton
compiled by Fiona Robinson; edited by Francis Lapka
August, 2010
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Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

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