John Ruskin Letters Gift

January 4, 2019

Who could have guessed there were five unrecorded letters written by the great Victorian polymath, John Ruskin, just down the road from my home? This is the kind of wonderful serendipity that seems to happen in the world of Victorian art. After all, the fact that the largest collection of Pre-Raphaelite art in the United States was assembled right here in Wilmington, Delaware is in itself pretty extraordinary!

Illustration no. 2: Elliott & Fry, Carte de visite of John Ruskin, undated. (Signed by the sitter). Helen Farr Sloan Library & Archives, Delaware Art Museum.

Illustration no. 1: John Fergus, Glasgow. Cabinet Portrait of William Cassels (1843-1929), circa 1890. Photograph, 6 1/2 x 4 1/4 inches.

About a month ago I received an email from a Delaware Art Museum Member, whose grandfather, William Cassels [ILL no. 1], was the recipient of the aforementioned letters penned by Ruskin. He explained that Cassels was a Scottish mechanical engineer who was also a fine watercolorist. In addition to the letters, the donor owned a photograph of Ruskin [ILL no. 2] and a number of Cassels’ beautifully rendered watercolors [ILL no. 3]. Knowing of the Museum’s Bancroft Pre-Raphaelite Collection, he wondered if we might be interested in having the letters for our Archives. We were!

The letters, written between 1881 and 1884, are Ruskin’s reply to Cassels’ expressed dissatisfaction with Victorian industrialism. Although we have only Ruskin’s responses it seems that Cassels was grappling with his own role—and source of livelihood—in the modern commercial world. He desired to follow Ruskin’s philosophy of living in closer relationship with the land. Ruskin advised Cassels to “save all you can earn, in order to secure your own independence.” He further encouraged him to stay the course, as “your present experience and feeling will be of the greatest use in any profession which you can follow with a free heart.” Ruskin’s advice must have resonated with the engineer. The donor explained to me, “…my grandfather worked in the world of industry but seemed to have his own issues with it. Eventually he left that profession and emigrated to Alberta, Canada in 1909 to take up the life of a farmer. In doing so, my grandfather was ‘living out’ Ruskin’s teachings.”

Illustration no. 3: William Cassels (1843-1929), Scottish Landscape, undated. Watercolor on paper. Private Collection.

William Cassels was born on July 31, 1843 (died 1929). He married Barbara Brodie MacIntyre in 1890. His father was a carpenter in Glasgow, Scotland. Cassels moved around quite a bit having lived in Glasgow, Matlock (Derbyshire), Kirkentilloch, and Stirling before moving to Alberta. At the time that he wrote to John Ruskin he was a member of the newly formed Glasgow Ruskin Society, one of several regional groups founded in this decade. He published two pamphlets, Wealth: definitions by Ruskin and Mill Compared in 1882 and The Social Problem. Work vs. Waste in 1885.

As an artist, William Cassels followed Ruskin’s exhortation to observe and paint nature in all its glorious detail. The paintings in the donor’s collection are each articulated in meticulous detail, reflecting a close adherence to Ruskin’s admonition to the young artists of Great Britain to “go to nature in all singleness of heart, and walk with her laboriously and trustingly, having no other thoughts but how best to penetrate her meaning, and remembering her instruction; rejecting nothing, selecting nothing, and scorning nothing…rejoicing always in the truth.” Cassels did exhibit his work, most likely in Glasgow, although I have not yet been able to confirm the exact venue. After moving to Canada, his artistic practice seems to have significantly decreased and only a few Canadian scenes survive. This may have been due to the demands of farming which did not allow for much leisure time. Therefore, he would have been most active as an artist from about 1863-1901.

We are so thrilled to welcome our first John Ruskin letters into our Archives. As a scholar, I am excited to have stumbled upon new material for the field of Pre-Raphaelite studies. The letters are now available online through the Museum’s Helen Farr Sloan Library and Archives. To view them, click here.

Thank you to our donor for this absolutely priceless gift. The wonders of the Delaware community will never cease!

Margaretta S. Frederick
Annette Woolard-Provine Curator of the Bancroft Collection

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