Presented by Ruskin to John Everett Millais
John Ruskin (1819–1900).
The Stones of Venice. 3 vols.
London: Smith, Elder, and Company, 1851–1853. (31497)
Bridwell Library’s set of the first edition of John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice is an incomparable association copy. Inscribed by Ruskin “To John Everett Millais, with the author’s sincere and respectful regards. Glenfinlas, 22 October, 1853,” it was presented to the Pre-Raphaelite painter at the conclusion of their extended holiday in Scotland. As the story goes, Ruskin never showed conjugal interest in his young wife, Euphemia (“Effie”) Gray, but to lessen her feelings of estrangement, he took her for a summer retreat at Glenfinlas. Millais accompanied the couple at Ruskin’s invitation, and it was decided that he would paint a large portrait of Ruskin posing by a rocky waterfall. As Ruskin busily compiled the 109-page index for The Stones of Venice, Effie spent most of the summer admiring the talents and good looks of the young Millais, and soon she was the painter’s favorite subject, as well. By the end of August, Effie and Millais were in love, and everyone knew it – including the apathetic Ruskin. Millais finished Ruskin’s portrait a year later, calling it the “most hateful task I ever had to perform.”
It was at the excruciatingly awkward end of the Glenfinlas sojourn that Ruskin gave Millais this inscribed copy of the newly published The Stones of Venice, specially bound in gilt dark green moulded leather covers with a design that essentially duplicates that of the publisher’s brown cloth edition binding. The covers feature a gold-stamped central motif of peacocks and doves in an elaborate ogival arch. This was based on a Byzantine relief from the Basilica of San Marco, illustrated by Ruskin in volume two, plate XI, and discussed on page 141. The stamped acanthus border replicates a typical Venetian Gothic moulding. The stamp of the binders, Westleys & Company (Friar Street, London), is at the foot of the front flyleaf in each volume.
The idea of presenting a specially-bound copy to Millais had occurred to Ruskin during the innocent days of the previous summer. In a letter of 19 July 1853 he told his father in London, “I should like [the] volumes bound in dark green, strongly, for Millais, who has been making me innumerable presents of little sketches and a beautiful one of a painting of Effie with foxgloves in her hair – worth at least £50.” The following winter Effie left Ruskin and filed for an annulment of the marriage. It was Victorian society’s biggest scandal, and Millais lamented that the only topics of public conversation that spring were the Crimean War and the Ruskins. Millais and Effie were married in July of 1855. It was a happy marriage that lasted forty-one years and produced eight children, but from the immaculate condition of these volumes it appears no one in the family did much reading of The Stones of Venice.