199: Ruskin is 202 Today! The Story of his “Sacred Sister”– Francesca Alexander (PART ONE).

‘Tis true! Delivered on this date in London in 1819, the brand new, very young John Ruskin lived with his parents in their home on Hunter Street, Brunswick Square for four years before his father, John James, now making a substantial living in his company, Telford, Domecq and Ruskin, distributors of the finest sherries in the UK, made it possible for the little family (John an only child) to move in 1823. They found more commodious rooms in a house on Herne Hill not far south of the Thames. There they would live until John James was sufficiently well-heeled to build his own elegant home on nearby Denmark Hill some years later.

Every year on this date since this blog began, I have posted a special tribute to Ruskin and his genius. I didn’t want this year, despite it’s unique circumstances of pandemic, personal, and world imbalance, to be any different; in which context I thought I’d begin to tell you an important, if somewhat sad, story from Ruskin’s last decades.

Preliminary note: As regular readers know, three months ago, I suffered a stroke. I have spent the intervening days slowly repairing at home in Geneva, New York, a process much enhanced by the love and care given daily by my wonderful partner and wife, Jennifer Morris. I am happy to report that the recuperative progress is real and continuing, although my typing, and hence, blogging, skills, are still not what they used to be (hopefully, they will be again–soon!). Hence, I ask the reader’s patience as she or he makes their way through what follows. Most frustrating in the process of fashioning this tribute has been my inability to access my large cache of pictures which I regularly use to illustrate these posts. Happily, many of the images I wanted to include were available on the web. For the lacunae that remain, I beg your patience. Subsequent posts, I trust, shall be less demanding. In which context we will proceed to our story!

It was the early fall of 1882, and Ruskin was in Florence, once again on his beloved “Old Road” beginning another of his lengthy tours through Europe. With him was an American Friend, H. R. Newman, who, in prior travels, had learned of an American mother and daughter, Lucia and Francesca Lucia Alexander, who had been living in the city for many years. Francesca, among the kindest and most compassionate of the city’s many thousands of souls, was well-known and celebrated for her collection of original stories about the lives of Tuscan peasants she had met and befriended. Newman took Ruskin to meet the Alexanders in their rooms in a building overlooking the great church of Santa Maria Novella on the evening of October 6. The meeting would transform, very much to the good, the rest of his life, mot to mention theirs.

Church and Piazza of Santa Maria Novella, Florence; the Alexanders’ flat was on the upper floor of the building, far right

For Ruskin, the meeting with the expatriates proved the very definition of serendipity. Still recovering from his third bout of “brain fever,” as his severe mental attacks were then called, suffered earlier that year, he was, as ever during these regenerative days, despondent. From childhood, his accepted charge was to change the world for the better, to lead his fellows “out of the pain and suffering daily exacerbated by their greed-driven, industrializing wilderness”. In gaining said salubrious goal, as he saw it, he had failed miserably. All his millions of published words–his widely heralded works on art and architecture (1840s, 1850s) his scathing denouncements of laissez-faire capitalism (1860s, 1870s), and his more recent “practical” attempts to create communities populated by honest, humane adults (1870s, 1880s) had either failed outright or limped along ineffectually. He had wasted, nearly utterly, what many, including himself, regarded as his God-given gift: his genius. For which many and manifest shortcomings, that same Creator, who judged all at the appointed moment, would regard him, as he justly deserved, as exceedingly blameworthy when the day came.

Depression unremitting was one terrible thing, but excruciating loneliness was a second, for his genius had, all his adult life, set him apart from significant others, creating gaps of misunderstanding, resentment, and difference. For major instance, few of his putative ‘friends’ (he boasted scores) had supported him financially in his recent utopian community-building efforts. In light of which, although he had spent much on such from his own reserves, his pockets had proved insufficiently deep to meet expenses. The result was a sense of more failure.

During the evening he and Newman spent with the Alexanders, Francesca had shown Ruskin her copious manuscript containing the stories of Italian peasants, each accompanied by one or a number of her own elegant drawings illustrating some part of the tales being told. Ruskin was mesmerized by both and exited in a kind of reverie, having already decided that, should Francesca agree, he would publish her book! The next day he wrote Mrs. Alexander, in part, as follows, “I want to tell you with what happy and reverent admiration I saw your daughter’s drawings yesterday; reverent not only of a gift of genius I had never before seen, but also of an entirely sweet and loving spirit which animated and sanctified the work, which it expressed in the surest faiths and best purposes of life.”

Francesca Alexander, mid-1880s; photographer unknown

Image result for francesca alexander images
Portion of a Letter to Ruskin in Francesca’s hand
Image result for francesca drawing of story of ida
Title page of the first American edition of “ida” with Francesca’s drawing of Ida on her death-bed as frontispiece

A word about the above images. The picture of Francesca is one of very few extant. It shows her about the time Ruskin first met her. The drawing of a young, seemingly sleeping, woman is Francesca’s of a young woman named Ida, someone the Alexanders had met, befriended, and cared for in their flat until Ida wasted away and died.. The drawing was a wrenching reminder to Ruskin of the lost, now seven years’ dead, Rose La Touche, his one true love. The brief excerpt from the letter in Francesca’s hand is more important, although in a different way. I will return to it momentarily.

True to his word, when he returned from his Old Road tour, Ruskin set about publishing Francesca’s stories and drawings. Before he departed Florence he had bought her manuscript for 6000 guineas, just under $19,000 in today’s dollars. The first story out was “The Story of Ida.” Its sales were considerable. It would be followed by monthly installments he called Roadside Songs of Tuscany. In presenting all of which he would serve as editor, with all proceeds going to Francesca for her unceasing work with the Tuscan poor.

Not terribly long ago, I received an email from my friend and fellow Companion in Ruskin’s Guild of St. George, Bob Knight. An avid collector of Ruskiniana, Bob knew of my great admiration for Francesca. Along our way, I HAD TOLD HIMi had told him that I would dearly love to have “something” in her Saintly hand. After some web-sleuthing, Bob located this note, offered for sale by a dealer in 19th century memorabilia in New York City. From them, I bought the note and had it framed–my wish fulfilled thanks to his kindness. If we take a moment to examine its words (in the photo), we find Ruskin’s admiration of Francesca’s essential qualities on display. Her words are warm and compassionate; reading her hand one feels like one is immersing oneself in a warm bath in ink, as, my experience of reading hundreds of her letters to Ruskin in various libraries supports; it is is handwriting that is a privilege to read.

From these, we move directly to Ruskin’s always evolving studies of clouds, or, more accurately, to his comments remarking on what he DOESN’T know about clouds, a passage he originally included in the 5th volume of Modern Painters (more explanation following), where he wrote:

It is one of the most discouraging consequences of the varied
character of this work of mine, that I am wholly unable to take
note of the advance of modern science. What has conclusively
been discovered or observed about clouds, I know not; but, by the
chance inquiry possible to me, I find that there is no book which fairly states
the difficulties of accounting for even the ordinary aspects of the
sky. I shall, therefore, be able in this section to do little more
than suggest inquiries to the reader, putting the subject in a clear
form for him.

All men accustomed to investigation will confirm
me in saying that it is a great step when we are personally quite
certain what we do not know.
1 [cf, Job xli:18, 20, 26.] 2 [Job 37:16.]
First, then, I believe we do not know what makes clouds
float. Clouds are water in some fine form or another. But water
is heavier than air, and the finest form you can give a heavy thing
will not make it float in a light thing.1 On it, yes; as a boat; but in
it, no. Clouds are not boats, nor boat-shaped; and they float in the
air, not on the top of it. “Nay,” [Comes a response], “but, though unlike boats, may they
not be like feathers? [Ruskin:]”If out of quill substance there may be
constructed eider-down, and out of vegetable tissue,
thistle-down, both buoyant enough for a time, surely of
water-tissue may be constructed also water-down, which will be
buoyant enough for all cloudy purposes.” Not so, however. . Throw out
your eider plumage in a calm day, and it will all come settling to
the ground: slowly indeed, to aspect; but practically so fast that
all our finest clouds would be here in a heap about our ears in an
hour or two if they were only made of water-feathers. “But may
they not be quill feathers, and have air inside them? May not all
their particles be minute little balloons?”

Image result for clouds images
Image result for clouds images

Throughout our nearly 200 posts, I have emphasized, I believe properly, Ruskin’s deep and unwavering love of Nature. We began, at our start, in the second post, with one of his paeans expatiating on the wonders that are clouds; [enter “The Wondrous Sky” into the search engine at the bottom of the right-hand column on this page if you’d like to read these still awe-inspiring paragraphs]. So much did he love these evanescent, transient, floaters, he thought, in his later years, he should write a book about what he still didn’t know about them. As with so many of the projects that emerged from his still-fertile imagination, he would never complete the volume. But, as often the case, he did publish, in various places, what were, in essence, drafts from that larger project. The sentences above and to follow are an instance. In them, we witness his unceasing curiosity to find out how things really work, a marvelous instance of what Giuseppe Mazzini, a 19th century journalist and vociferous advocate of Italian nationalism, called “the most analytical mind in Europe,” ( a complement of which Ruskin approved); Evidenced thus: [what’s below is also extracted from a chapter in Modern Painters V, a chapter entitled, “The Cloud-Balancings. As is not unusual with Ruskin, some close attention to the words will be required to follow his argument:

A balloon only floats when the air inside it is either specifically or by heating, lighter than the air it floats in. If the proposed cloud-feathers had warm air inside their quills, a cloud would be warmer than the air about it, which it is not (I believe). And if the
cloud-feathers had hydrogen inside their quills, a cloud would be
unwholesome for breathing, which it is not—at least so it seems
to me. “But may they not have nothing inside their quills?” Then
they would rise, as bubbles do through water, just as certainly as,
if they were solid feathers, they would fall. [Here, In Cœli Enarrant (1884; [the title of the unfinished larger cloud-work, a title taken from Psalms which registers his unshaken faith, despite all; ‘The heavens declare the Glory of God!’]) he added the following footnote:— ‘Compare [previous remarks made about the horrible buoyancy of smoke]. I did not know then over what spaces volcanic ashes were diffusible. Will any of my scientific friends now state for me the approximate weight and bulk of a particle of dust of any solid substance which would be buoyant in air of a given density?” “But is not that just what they do?”

No. They float at different heights, and with definite forms, in the body of the air
itself. If they rose like foam, the sky on a cloudy day would look
like a very large, flat glass of champagne seen from below, with a
stream of bubbles (or clouds) going up as fast as they could to a
flat foam-ceiling. “But may they not be just so nicely mixed out of something
and nothing, as to float where they are wanted?” Yes; that is just what they not only may, but must be: only this way of mixing something and nothing is the very thing I
want to explain or have explained, and cannot do it, nor get it done.

Except thus far. It is conceivable that minute hollow
spherical globules might be formed of water, in which the
enclosed vacuity just balanced the weight of the enclosing water,
and that the arched sphere formed by the watery film was strong
enough to prevent the pressure of the atmosphere from breaking
it in. Such a globule would float like a balloon at the height in the
atmosphere where the equipoise between the vacuum it
enclosed, and its own excess of weight above that of the air. It would, probably, approach its companion globules by reciprocal attraction, and form aggregations which might be visible.

This is, I believe, the view usually taken by meteorologists. I
state it as a possibility, to be taken into account in examining the
question—a possibility confirmed by the Scriptural words which
I have taken for the title of this chapter. Nevertheless, I state it as a possibility only, not seeing how any known operation of physical law could explain the
formation of such molecules. This, however, is not the only
difficulty. Whatever shape the water is thrown into, it seems at
first improbable that it should lose its property of wetness. Minute division of rain, as in “Scotch mist,” makes it capable of floating farther; or floating up and down a
little, just as dust will float, though pebbles will not; or gold-leaf,
though a sovereign will not, But minutely divided rain wets as
much as any other kind, whereas a cloud, partially always,
sometimes entirely, loses its power of moistening. Some low
clouds look, when you are in them, as if they were made of
specks of dust, like short hairs; and these clouds are entirely dry.
And also, many clouds will wet some substances, but not others.
So that we must grant farther, if we are to be happy in our theory,
that the spherical molecules are held together by an attraction
which prevents their adhering to any foreign body, or perhaps
ceases only under some peculiar electric conditions.

The question remains, even supposing their production accounted for—What intermediate states of water may exist between these spherical hollow molecules and pure vapor? The buoyancy of solid bodies of a given specific gravity, in a given fluid, depends, first on their size, then on their forms.

First, on their size; that is to say, on the proportion of the magnitude of the object
(irrespective of the distribution of its particles) to the magnitude of the particles of the
air. Thus, a grain of sand is buoyant in wind, but a large stone is not; and pebbles and
sand are buoyant in water in proportion to their smallness, fine dust taking long to sink, while a large stone sinks at once. Thus, we see that water may be arranged in drops of any magnitude, from the largest rain-drop, about the size of a large pea, to an atom so small as not to be separately visible, the smallest rain passing gradually into mist.

Of these drops of different sizes (supposing the strength of the wind the same), the largest fall fastest, the smaller drops are more buoyant, and the small misty rain floats about like a cloud, as often up as down, so that an umbrella is useless in it; though in a heavy thunderstorm, if there is no wind, one may stand gathered up under an umbrella without a drop touching the feet.

Secondly, buoyancy depends on the amount of surface which a given weight of the
substance exposes to the resistance of the substance it floats in. Thus, gold-leaf is in a
high degree buoyant, while the same quantity of gold in a compact grain would fall like
a shot; and a feather is buoyant, though the same quantity of animal matter in a compact form would be as heavy as a little stone. A small slate blows far from a house-top, while a brick falls vertically, or nearly so. Has the reader ever considered the relations of commonest forms of volatile substance? The invisible particles which cause the scent of the rose-leaf, how minute, how multitudinous, passing richly away into the air continually! The visible cloud of frankincense—why visible? Is it in consequence of the greater quantity, or larger size of the particles, and how does the heat act in throwing them off in this quantity, or of this size?

Ask the same questions respecting water. It dries, that is, becomes volatile, invisibly, at (any?) temperature. Snow dries, as water does. Under increase of heat, it volatilizes faster, so as to become dimly visible in large mass, as a heat-haze, It reaches boiling point, then becomes entirely visible. But compress it, so that no air shall get between the watery particles—it is invisible again. At the first issuing from the steam-pipe the steam is transparent; but opaque, or visible, as it diffuses itself. The water is indeed closer, because cooler, in that diffusion; But more air is between its particles. Then this very question of visibility is an endless one, wavering between form of substance and action of light. The clearest (or least visible) stream becomes brightly opaque by more minute division in its foam, and the clearest dew in hoar-frost. Dust, unperceived in shade, becomes constantly visible in sunbeam; and watery vapor in the atmosphere, which is itself opaque, when there is promise of fine weather, becomes exquisitely transparent; and (questionably) blue when it is going to rain.

For besides knowing very little about water, we know what, except by courtesy, must, I think, be called nothing—about air. Is it the watery vapor, or the air itself, which is blue? Is neither blue, but only white, producing blue when seen over dark spaces? If either blue, or white, why, when crimson is their commanded dress, are the most distant clouds crimsonest? Clouds close to us may be blue, but far off golden—a strange result, if the air is blue. And again, if blue, why are rays that come through large spaces of it red; and that Alp, or anything else that catches far away light, why colored red, at dawn and sunset? No one knows, I believe.

It is true that many substances, as opal, are blue, or green, by reflected light, yellow by transmitted; but air, if blue at all, is blue always by transmitted light. I hear of a wonderful solution of nettles, or other unlovely herb, which is green when shallow,—red when deep. Perhaps some day, as the motion of the heavenly bodies by help of an apple, their light by help of a nettle, may be explained to mankind.

But farther: these questions of volatility, and visibility, and hue, are all complicated with those of shape. How is a cloud outlined? Granted whatever you choose to ask, concerning its material, or its aspect, its loftiness and luminousness,—how of its limitation? What hews it into a heap, or spins it into a web? Cold is usually shapeless, I suppose, extending over large spaces equally, or with gradual diminution. You cannot have, in the open air, angles, and wedges, and coils, and cliffs of cold. Yet the vapor stops suddenly, sharp and steep as a rock, or thrusts itself across the gates of heaven in likeness of a brazen bar; or braids itself in and out, and across and across, like a tissue of tapestry; or falls into ripples like sand; or into waving shreds and tongues, as fire. On what anvils and wheels is the vapor, pointed, twisted, hammered, whirled, as the potter’s clay? By what hands is the incense of the sea built up into domes of marble?

And, lastly, all these questions respecting substance, and aspect, and shape, and line, and division, are involved with others as inscrutable, concerning action. The curves in which clouds move are unknown;—nay, the very method of their motion, or apparent motion, how far it is by change of place, how far by appearance in one place and vanishing from another. And these questions about movement lead partly far away into high mathematics, where I cannot follow them, and partly into theories concerning electricity and infinite space, where I suppose, at present, no one can follow them.

What, then, is the use of asking the questions? For my own part, I enjoy the mystery, and perhaps the reader may. I think he ought. He should not be less grateful for summer, rain, or see less beauty in the clouds of morning, because they come to prove him with hard questions; to which, perhaps, if we look close at the heavenly scroll, we may find also a syllable or two of answer illuminated here and there.

There is more, but, as we have so often found with Ruskin’s high genius, there is always more. His subject is nothing less than all things: Life in all its intricacy and splendor. Certainly, if you take the time to peruse only a small portion of his 6 million published words, this becomes palpable as well as indubitable. What a legacy and gift we have in these words, all composed by a pure heart and untiringly compassionate and curious mind before being committed to ink on the page for our edification whenever the spirit to be edified touches us. A gift of another saint.

To communicate just a small portion of that goodness has been the objective of this blog from its first post. And it will remain its objective for as long as the blog exists.

And now, as we begin just the second week of the second month of this new year, now that we know a bit more about the mysteries that still envelop clouds, may I take this last moment to wish that you all remain well out there in this challenging moment!!

But before we end, here’s just a wee bit more of the Francesca-Ruskin tale:

He always wrote his letters to her (hundred in the end) and his later manuscripts on the small table in his study at Brantwood. Here is W. G. Collinwood’s image of him at work on it:

Image result for collingwood drawings images + Ruskin
“Ruskin in his study at Brantwood, ca. 1885: The Ruskin Museum, Coniston, UK

As the sun started to disappear behind the mountain locally known as “The Old Man
of Coniston” on the western side of the lake and the light began to fade, Ruskin picked up his pen again. What he would set down in the next few minutes would be the last letter he would ever send his Sorella, . It would also be one of the most personally revealing letters he would ever write, its substance refracting every theme that has been a subject of discussion in this long skein of posts celebrating his life and genius: his mental collapse, his inability to come to terms with the death of his Rose, and, perhaps most heart-wrenchingly, his loathing of himself for his failures, including his conviction that he bore the prime responsibility for her death: “Darling Sorel”, he began,” All is still going on well [with me—as far as I can judge of myself—and indeed I
am thankful to see Joanie for a time released from the anxiety and—worse
than anxiety—the torture of seeing me…in dreams or passions which are in
almost everything the contrary of myself.

But Sorel dear, that one dream—that Rosie guides me when I most
need it—is a deliberately believed part of my life—which neither you nor
Joanie can understand, because—with all her trials, remember, Joanie has her
husband and her five sweet children—besides what good is left to her in me.
And you have your mother, your companions—friends (and remember
women who love each other can be ever so much more to each other than
men can—unless they are like David & Jonathan or Achilles & Patroclus.
And you have your [dear companion] Edwige—and your Fratello, who is really,
in his reverence for you and sympathy, when he is himself, a great possession.
And, then, you have your Christ—and again remember—to women of your
virginal temperament, Christ is as much a Bridegroom as for St. Catherine—or
St. Agnes, St. Barbara, or St. Mary (Lazarus’ sister)—as God is your Father.
But to men of my temperament—whether Burns, Byron, Horace, or
Benedict de Saussure!—Christ is at the best—but a brother—in the highest
[sense]—a Master, or a Judge—we need the Wife as the best part of
ourselves—and Rosie was [Ruskin’s double-emphasis] my wife, never
possessed, but waited for—to the Grave. Think of her as an angel conscious of
the past—watchful of the future—and of me as feeling myself answerable for
her death, and—well, I won’t write more like this today—for I have to tell you
that the violets & anemones, our memorosas –are in their prime, and the hyacinths and gentians coming. And I’m able to get out and I’m sleeping long & well—and idle–nearly all day.
[References above: the first pair mentioned are devoted friends in the Old Testament, the second pair are principal personages in Homer’s Iliad. Edwige was a long-time friend of the Alexanders, and plays a prominent role in many of Francesca’s stories. Finally, as usual, it is no accident that Ruskin mentions a plant in his list above that has Rose’s name within it. Previously, he had taken pride that her name was embedded in the title of his book on flowers, Proserpina.

He ends his loving, and desultory, letter thus:” and I’m Mammina’s good for nothing Figlio, and your [loving Fratello]—perhaps a little good for something at last.”

There is considerably more to this poignant story of Ruskin and his Sacred Sister, but I shall save it for a subsequent post. In the meantime “Happy Birthday, Mr. Ruskin!! We are perpetually grateful for your manifold gifts! Until next time!



Image result for sunset coniston UK images

Sunset over Coniston Water, UK

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9 Responses to 199: Ruskin is 202 Today! The Story of his “Sacred Sister”– Francesca Alexander (PART ONE).

  1. Glad to see you’re back in the game! If you ever need an editor…

  2. genevacitycouncil says:

    Approaching 202 posts for the 202nd birthday! Love it! Great to see you back!

  3. James G Hanink says:

    Thanks so much, Jim! Haunting thoughts and images…

  4. Michelle Lovric says:

    So so so happy to see you back, dear Jim. We are all grateful to Jennifer for taking such good care of your precious self. I could spend the rest of my life writing books about what I don’t know and still just scratch the surface. I had never seen that mention of Rose as an unpossessed wife (very Grecian Urn) and it really touched me to the core. A big hug from snowy London where we toasted Mr R’s birthday last night in a Companion-able zoom. xxxMichelle

  5. Frank Gordon says:

    Happy Birthday, Mr Ruskin and welcome back, Mr Spates! Great to hear from you again.

  6. Arjun Jain says:

    Dearest Jim! How long have I been waiting for this! Thank you very, very much for writing! Are you at the same postal address, may I ask? I’d like to send you something.

  7. Tim Rawson says:

    Thanks, Jim. So good to see you back, wise Fratello.

  8. Jonathan Chiswell Jones says:

    Dear Jim- What a delight to have your post once more, and to think that you are recovering and well enough to give us healing draughts of J.R., whose delight in the world around him is so startling and to ponder the questions which occurred to him, which would have occurred to us were we less head crammed with ready answers which are not good answers at all. It is a blessing to be able to take time to read what you and J.R. have written. A blessing conferred in part by the virus which has also bought our culture of rush and grab to a sudden halt. Happy birthday to our beloved author and a long and fruitful life to you, our kind revealer of King’s Treasures. Jonathan Chiswell Jones.

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