Sunday, 11 December 2011

Ruskin's Mother

Portrait of Margaret Ruskin aged 44 by
James Northcote RA, 1825 

Some understanding of Ruskin's view of the world can be found by learning more about his mother, Margaret. Some accounts state that Margaret's father was a devout puritan named Captain Cox, of Yarmouth, a master mariner who died young. 

It may surprise people to know that Margaret was in fact born on the 2nd of September in 1781 at The King's Head Public House in Croydon where her father, William Cock, was the tenant-landlord. William was also an astute property developer, building a number of cottages that provided the family with a comfortable income. It is true that William died in a riding accident when he was only 33. Margaret's mother was able to use income from the rent of the cottages to send her to Mrs Rice's Academy for Ladies.  It was there that she became an Evangelical Protestant.

In the early 1800's Margaret went to live with her Aunt and Uncle in Edinburgh, where she met and married her cousin, John Ruskin's father, after an engagement of eight years.  John's father made his fortune as a wine importer and was often away on business, so it was his mother who became responsible for his education. His mother taught him to read every part of the Bible each year, including learning long passages by heart.  Her ambition was for him to become the Archbishop of Canterbury, but Margaret also taught John using the works of Sir Walter Scott, Byron and Shakespeare. Accounts describe Margaret as a 'strict disciplinarian' but it seems that she also indulged John, her only child. The family were wealthy and holidayed with trips through Europe. 

The impact of this on Ruskin is hinted at in his letters on education, where he wrote "the first essential point in the education given to the children will be the habit of instant, finely accurate, and totally unreasoning, obedience to their fathers, mothers, and tutors. The second essential will be the understanding of the nature of honour, making the obedience solemn and constant."

Even when John Ruskin was at Oxford for seven years, his mother lived with him, taking lodgings in the High Street to 'watch over his health'. She continued to watch over him until her death aged ninety.  John Ruskin was fifty two and was profoundly affected by her loss.  Margaret Ruskin was buried with her husband in Shirley parish church in Croydon and Ruskin had the following inscribed on her tomb:

Beside my father's body
I have laid
My mother's;
Ever returned to earth,
Nor purer life
Recorded in heaven.