Skip to main content

John Ruskin Letters to Ellen Heaton

Call Number: MSS 46

Scope and Contents

The collection comprises 90 items, including 86 letters from John Ruskin to Ellen Heaton written from 1855 to 1864 (the bulk from 1855 to 1857). Ruskin’s letters take on a mentoring tone toward Heaton and are often full of advice, primarily related to artistic practice and collecting. Heaton was an avid art collector and often seems to have solicited Ruskin’s opinions on works prior to purchase. The letters reflect Ruskin’s role in shaping the larger British art market and community, according to his particular taste and philosophies. Ruskin and Heaton shared a particular interest in the drawings of J.M.W. Turner, and the acquisition, care, exhibition, and appreciation of these works are frequently addressed in the letters. Ruskin writes: “For money’s worth, & enjoyment to yourself, (at least I hope so as you gain more knowledge) an inch of Turner is worth an acre of other people – there is no comparison possible between him and any body else in landscape. Only in buying Turner – you now do no good to art whatsoever – only to yourself" (letter H.12, May 19, 1855).

Ruskin demonstrates an intimate knowledge of Heaton’s collection and appears to have occasionally handled art market transactions on Heaton’s behalf, just as Heaton appears to have purchased particular pieces on Ruskin’s request. He writes frequently of borrowing or consulting works in her collection, and sometimes suggests methods for framing and storing particular objects.

Ruskin’s advice for Heaton, however, often reaches beyond the physical presence of artworks. His letters are rich in their explications of tactics for looking at works of art, particularly landscapes. The letters provide some insight into Ruskin’s writing process, particularly in regards to his monumental work Modern Painters. Occasionally Heaton shares some of her own writing, apparently collections of moral tales, about which Ruskin provides feedback regarding writing style and technique.

In 1855, Ruskin refers continually to Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who worked on subjects from Dante Alighieri for Ruskin and Heaton. Neither Heaton nor Ruskin are entirely happy with the work: “The Rachel [i.e. Rossetti’s Rachel and Leah] is a curious instance of the danger of interfering with R. I wanted some illustrations from Dante for myself … he didn’t do any of them for a long time, until I got provoked & said I thought it was very bad of him – and then he did this. He never would fail in a subject of his own choice” (letter H.23, mid-November, 1855).

A number of letters refer to the artist and model Elizabeth Siddall. Ruskin writes: “By the bye there is one of Rossetti’s pupils, a poor girl, dying I am afraid, of ineffable genius, to whom some day … a commission may … be charity, but there is no hurry, as she doesn’t work well enough yet, and Rossetti and I will take care of her till she does, if she lives” (letter H.6, February 1855).

The quotidian details of the letters touch upon Ruskin’s travels, social visits, speaking obligations, and states of health. These details provide glimpses of the activities of Britain’s intellectual society. Several letters address Heaton’s acquisition, on Ruskin’s behalf, of photographs depicting particular landscapes and works of art, shedding light on the role photography played in Ruskin’s artistic and intellectual processes, whether as reference material, documentation, or works unto themselves.

The series of Miscellaneous material comprises four items, including two letters from Ruskin to Thomas Richmond, a page of quotations of Biblical verse, and a note from Heaton (to her family) on the preservation or publication of these letters, in commemoration of Ruskin.


  • 1850 - 1864
  • Majority of material found within 1855 - 1864


Conditions Governing Access

The materials are open for research.

Existence and Location of Copies

The letters are transcribed in their entirety, with annotations, in: Sublime & instructive : letters from John Ruskin to Louisa, Marchioness of Waterford, Anna Blunden and Ellen Heaton. Edited by Virginia Surtees. London : Michael Joseph, [1972].


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

Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection


The collection is arranged into two series: I. Letters from John Ruskin to Ellen Heaton; II. Miscellaneous. The letters are arranged chronologically. Item numbering corresponds to the numbering in Surteees, Sublime & instructive.

Related Materials

Related material: Dante Gabriel Rossetti Letters to Ellen Heaton (MSS 47), Yale Center for British Art, Department of Rare Books and Manuscripts.


.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


The collection comprises letters from John Ruskin to Ellen Heaton, written from 1855 to 1864.

Biographical / Historical

John Ruskin (1819-1900) was a British art and architectural critic, social commentator, educator, and artist. Born in London to wealthy Scottish parents, Ruskin began drawing lessons at a young age. After completing his studies at Oxford, Ruskin traveled extensively in Europe, where he would develop a special interest in Italy, later inspiring some of his best known written works, including The Stones of Venice. Ruskin was an influential supporter of the artist J.M.W. Turner, as well as a major influence on the group known as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The Pre-Raphaelites sought to reform British art through a return to honest simplicity and the use of luminous colors and literary themes. Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelites advocated a certain “truth to nature,” emphasizing that many layers of truth, especially regarding nature, may be ascertained through direct observation. His many publications included The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), The Elements of Drawing (1857), and Modern Painters (five volumes, 1843-1860). In addition to art and architecture criticism and history, Ruskin’s writings ranged in theme from social issues, education, geology, natural history, and political economy.

The recipient of the letters, Ellen Heaton (1816-1894), was a Leeds based art collector and philanthropist. Heaton began collecting art after inheriting a significant amount of money and property following the deaths of her parents. It is unclear how Ruskin and Heaton first met, but the earliest surviving correspondence suggests that Heaton may have contacted Ruskin for advice about a group of Turner drawings she was considering for purchase after reading the early volumes of Modern Painters. The introduction likely came through Thomas Richmond. Over the course of their friendship, Heaton frequently solicited art collecting advice from Ruskin, who appears to have sometimes facilitated sales for her, or purchased items on her behalf. Heaton was among the first to commission work by the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Ruskin also encouraged her to support artists such as Arthur Hughes, J.W. Inchbold, and Edward Burne-Jones (though Heaton declined to purchase any work by Burne-Jones). Ruskin discouraged her initial interest in Ford Maddox Brown.

Heaton was often referred to as having had a unique personality. In an 1863 letter to his father, Ruskin wrote, “Miss Heaton is—Miss Heaton, and always will be—“ (Sublime and Instructive, 151). Heaton was friendly with a number of writers and artists of her era, including Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. Heaton never married. She traveled extensively throughout Great Britain and the continent, often with her domestic partner, Fanny Haworth. In addition to her direct support of artists through commissioned paintings and drawings, Heaton also engaged in acts of cultural philanthropy, including providing the financial means for working men to attend lectures and supporting impoverished lace artisans in Leeds.

Custodial History

The material passed from Ellen Heaton to her nephew John Heaton, and subsequently to his brother Beresford Heaton, then to Katherine Ogilvy Heaton, and finally to Elizabeth Maud Sackville Robertson. Sold at auction, Christie, Manson & Woods, July 16, 1969 (see catalog entry no. 117).

Guide to the John Ruskin Letters to Ellen Heaton
compiled by Mairead MacRae and Kate Phillips; edited by Francis Lapka
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description note
Finding aid written in English.

Part of the Yale Center for British Art, Rare Books and Manuscripts Repository

Department of Rare Books and Manuscripts
1080 Chapel Street
P. O. Box 208280
New Haven CT 06520-8280 US


1080 Chapel Street
New Haven , CT 06510

Opening Hours