Ruskin and the Book



By 1870, the three major titles, which had established Ruskin’s authority upon the popularly held views of art and architecture, had already been published. Modern Painters had been completed in 1860 with the fifth volume, The Seven Lamps of Architecture in 1849, and the final volume of The Stones of Venice in 1853.

Although a foray into social economy in 1857 had proved alien to his readers, leaving a great number of flat, unbound printed sheets of The Political Economy of Art in storage, Ruskin persisted with his theme, but in 1860 a series of essays for the Cornhill Magazine was cancelled by the editor after four issues, and for the first time in his writing career, Ruskin found himself at odds with his readers. His views on art and architecture were respectable, if not always comfortable, but the writings on political economy were so radical as to be considered outrageous by some, displaying a new and unacceptable independence of thought.

As his views on social economy developed, the practices of publishing and bookselling came under his scrutiny, resulting in the decision at the end of 1870 to become his own publisher. Using the name of his assistant, George Allen, and giving him less than two weeks notice of his new duties, Ruskin embarked upon the seemingly simple experiment of publishing his new title in a way that would demonstrate his theories in the market place.

At that time, it had become common practice for publishers and booksellers to operate on a series of discounts and commission, which offered little or no benefit to the author. With the proposed publication of Fors Clavigera on the first of January of 1871 ~ a series of letters, directed, according to its sub-title, to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain, and which would subsequently cover a diverse and rambling range of subjects ~ came the intention to write about the malaise which beset the publishing trade.

These writings, to be made available in pamphlet form, would be published according to his principles: a set price for trade and public alike, which gave a fair return to both author and publisher, and made clear to the purchaser what margin any middle man might add.

The significance of Fors Clavigera lies both in the development of Ruskin’s style of communication, and as the foundation stone of what would later become one of the best known and respected publishing houses. It may be best understood when viewed against the social implications of publishing and bookselling at that period.

For some time, readership had been limited. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the cost of a new work from an established author was restrictively high, at around one and a half guineas for the fashionable three-decker, and not much less for a serious work more finely bound in a single volume. With this purchase price being out of reach for most people, the subscription libraries were the popular means of access to current reading. If the subscription was not affordable, the only other hope was that a free Public Library or Mechanics’ Institute might have the copy on its shelf.

The high prices were of great benefit to the subscription libraries, and, as major purchasers of new works, they were able to exert their influence on the publishing houses to keep prices high. The publishers, in return, maintained the prices by threatening to withhold supplies from any outlet that dared to offer discounted terms. This stranglehold on prices kept the printed word away from all but the more wealthy in society.

A major change came in 1852, when in response to high public feeling, a committee met to examine the views of the bookselling and publishing trades, as well as the opinion of frustrated readers.[i] It concluded that the reading public would be best served by a competitive free trade in books, and thus the fortunes of the book trade quickly swung from one extreme to the other. At once, discounts and deals became the normal practice, and more and more booksellers were forced into other areas of trade to supplement the low profit produced by book sales.

As new mechanical and chemical processes were developed, the production costs of paper fell. New presses turned out the printed page at a rate not known before, and as a result, book prices fell even further. Reprinted works where the copyright had expired could be bought for as little as sixpence, but in almost every instance the typographical and binding quality had suffered badly to achieve this price. This would go some way towards justifying Ruskin’s reluctance to allow his own work to go out in cheaper editions. He had often stressed his own view on the value of the ownership of books, believing that if a man had to go without certain things in order to afford the purchase of a book, he would value that book the greater and read it more carefully. Ruskin saw the book as an object of value, not only for the quality of its content, but also for the craftsmanship inherent in its pages and binding.

The cost of a new title by a current author had fallen from the average thirty shillings to around ten shillings. ‘Culture-at-Home’ publications such as Cassell’s Popular Educator thrived, offering a mixture of knowledge, literature and learning for just one penny per issue, and one million copies would be sold in the next thirty years. It was a determined reader who would pay sevenpence plus postage for Ruskin’s Fors Clavigera, when a penny would bring such variety to the whole family. In the same year that Fors was available, Dickens sold an average of 150,000 copies of each penny instalment of Oliver Twist, and 83,000 of each instalment of David Copperfield.[ii]

It was in this climate of rising readership, discounts and competition that the first part of Fors Clavigera made its appearance, available from George Allen, Heathfield Cottage, Keston. It might be expected that the thought of self-improvement would tempt some of the working classes to invest in Ruskin’s opinions, but the average monthly sale of Fors in the first twelve months was just 600 copies. [iii]

There is a considerable difference between the part-works of Dickens, the serialisation of Thackeray and the many self-improvement periodicals ~ of which Cassell’s was but one of many ~ and the monthly offering from Ruskin.

Ruskin was not publishing for profit in the commercial sense. Through Fors Clavigera he aired his opinions and received those of some of his readers, without the thought of profit margins or appeasing critics. When the sales of Dickens’ stories fell, the feedback was almost instantaneous through the ordering, and the author could revise the plot or add another nail-biting climax to encourage sales of the next issue. The response of his readership was instant but impersonal. For Cassell, he could rest assured that it was human nature for man to try to improve his situation, and the substance of his articles could be re-used over again. His profit lay in sales volume rather than any relationship with his reader. Certainly, Ruskin’s attention was to stimulate his readers and provoke a response, and letter 89 of Fors is an excellent example. Aware of its potential controversy, he wrote to Susan Beever in September 1880:

I’ve just sealed in its envelope for post the most important Fors I have written, and addressed to the Trades unions, and their committees are to have as many copies as they like, free, for distribution, free (dainty packets of dynamite). I suspect I shall get into hot water for it. Also, I’ve been afraid for it myself, to set it down, for once….. [iv]

The intention had been to apply this system of publishing only to new works, and in an attempt to free himself from business pressures, Ruskin considered selling the rights of his existing works to Smith and Elder. The negotiations to establish a price for these works not only showed a vast difference in the value placed by each side on their future worth, but also served to highlight the inadequacy of the remuneration received in over 25 years with Smith, Elder & Co. Had Ruskin been relying on the payments for his writings to maintain himself, there is little doubt that a review of the figures would have taken place much earlier.

For the period of five and a half years from June 1866 until December 1871, which represents the latter period with Smith and Elder, Ruskin received just £1,500, and from this sum was deducted an unspecified amount to cover the cost of the printing of Fors.[v]

To purchase the copyright of all works published before 1870, and to include Ruskin’s interest in the plates, the sum of £2,500 was offered. Ruskin considered this a derisory offer, and threatened to put the publishing rights up for auction, but in a calmer mood decided to put all his works, past and present, in the hands of George Allen. He withdrew his works from Smith Elder & Co., but had to pay them £520 in 1878 for the engraved plates.[vi]

From the outset, the publishing establishment ridiculed Ruskin’s experiment. “The publishing house in the middle of a country field”[vii] was how one trade circular mocked the idea, referring to George Allen’s home in Kent as the address on the title page. Although the initial sales figures were low, Ruskin appeared unperturbed. “The public has a very long nose, and will scent out what it wants sooner or later”[viii] was his reply, but it took time to educate both the buying public and dealers to the idea of buying direct from the publisher. By the second year, monthly sales were approaching one thousand copies, with orders for back numbers reducing the stock in hand and necessitating a reprint.

Allen also began reprinting some of the earlier titles and achieved sales that eclipsed Smith, Elder & Company’s estimate for their own remaining stock. He had successfully grown into the role that Ruskin had placed upon him, and displayed fine business acumen, sensing the mood of the market with great accuracy. Aware of the public demand for affordable editions of Ruskin’s work for some time, he now had to persuade Ruskin that such a form of reprinting was not only desirable, but necessary – not just for the long term success of the publishing house, but to maintain an income for Ruskin.

Over the years, many would-be readers had written to Ruskin to explain that they would like to read his work if they could afford to buy it. Probably expecting a sympathetic reply, and perhaps even hoping for a free volume, they were disappointed. In April of 1879, corresponding with Sir James Daniell, the secretary of the Literary Society of Bristol, Ruskin wrote:

…It may interest the society to know a fact about Unto This Last. A working man copied it all out, from this first word to that last. Somebody came to me pitying him very much. I answered that the poor man had only done once, easily, what I had done myself three times over, with great difficulty, and that he would be very much the better for the business.[ix]

However, in 1882 Ruskin accepted the inevitable. He wrote to George Allen:

I quite see that the kind of people who are covering up the country between me and you with villas ten yards cube, set between gardens back and front ten yards square can’t buy our blue books, but should have the offer of something.[x]

This resulted in the Uniform Edition ~ the dark green cloth covered volumes that are so familiar. As ordinary as they may seem when viewed on a bookshelf, examination of their pages will show a clear typeface set in broad, comfortable borders ~ the balance of the white paper margins around the text areas providing an attractive and easily readable page. This was no fortunate accident of production, for Ruskin was now able to give his detailed attention to the text, just as in earlier years he had been able to influence the design of the bindings. There is no doubt that Ruskin’s insistence on the correct page layout laid the foundations of the adopted style still used today, and the simple elegance imitated by many of the private presses from the late nineteenth century onwards.

But this was not Allen’s only idea. For some time, he had been aware of the commercial potential of luxury bindings and limited editions at the other end of the market, along with carefully timed reprints of the major titles. It had come to his notice that copies of The Seven Lamps of Architecture, which had been out of print for some time, were changing hands for up to four times their original price. Allen persuaded Ruskin of the potential for a reprint, to which he eventually agreed, subject to some textual revisions.

George Allen’s influence on decisions made in the publishing house had increased as Ruskin’s health deteriorated. His astute business sense was beginning to produce profits not dreamed of under Smith, Elder & Co., and in 1886 an edition of The Stones of Venice was published, on which Allen himself had spent many months retouching and re-enforcing the mezzotints, which had suffered from wear. That issue too, was a great success. 1888 saw a new edition of Modern Painters, which followed the success of the others. The re-printing of these three titles alone brought more profit than the entire 25 years spent with Smith, Elder & Company.

The great irony here is that Ruskin, now virtually unable to produce work because of the deterioration of his mental powers, was being read by a greater and more varied audience than ever before. Even the works on political economy are being accepted, or at least argued over, while the ageing Ruskin lived in semi-isolation at Brantwood.

As often happens following the death of any author, there is a resurgence of interest in his or her work, and Ruskin’s death was no exception, but the expiry of copyright on some of the earlier works meant that George Allen was not the only publisher in the market place. With the benefit of hindsight, it could be argued that Allen was wrong in relying only on the Uniform Edition to supply the public with what they required. For a few years it seemed adequate, but as soon as the expiring copyright allowed, an explosion of Ruskin titles became available.

Of the 29 titles published in 1906, 28 came from George Allen. A year later, in 1907, 59 titles appeared, but again, only 28 came from George Allen, the balance of 31 titles being offered by a total of 15 different publishing houses! [xi]  Allen’s other cheap editions, priced at between one shilling and two shillings and sixpence sold consistently well, but their late arrival in such a competitive arena suggests that the wave of interest in Ruskin’s writing even surprised his publisher.

George Allen’s role has often been under-valued by Ruskin’s biographers. With the inheritance from his father dispersed on various gifts and schemes, we can only speculate on what may have happened to Ruskin and his Brantwood home in his later years if he had still been reliant on Smith, Elder & Co.  for his income.

From 1870, his literary output had taken two main forms: various serial publications which were interrupted and resumed according to his health ~ some never reaching completion ~ and books which were formed from the text of his lectures. With no more grand, extravagantly illustrated works to come, it was only Allen’s careful stewardship of the works in his charge that provided the necessary financial security for those later years. The various reprints and collected texts in all their forms, from finely bound limited editions on hand-made paper through to the cheap editions, not only provided that income, but have survived in sufficient numbers to influence successive generations.

Paul Dawson © Victoria & Albert Museum, London.



[i] Lord Campbell’s committee included Henry Longman (the Dean of St Paul’s), and the historian George Grote, with the protectionist’s case being presented by John Murray and William Longman. The English Common Reader by Richard D. Altick. Published by The University of Chicago Press.

[ii] The Publishers’ Circular, July 1871 and December 1872

[iii]The Story of a Great Friendship by W.S. Allen.
An unpublished manuscript owned by P. Dawson

[iv] The Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin, XXXVII, 327.

[v]  The Story of a Great Friendship by W.S. Allen.
An unpublished manuscript owned by P. Dawson.

[vi]  Ibid

[vii]  Although often quoted, the original source of this phrase has not been acknowledged, but may have been the Publishers’ Circular. Its earliest quoted use in connection with Allen’s home appears in Studies in Ruskin by E.T. Cook, published in 1890 by George Allen

[viii] The Story of a Great Friendship by W.S. Allen.
An unpublished manuscript owned by P. Dawson.

[ix]The Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin, XXXVII, 280.

[x] Letter from John Ruskin to George Allen dated 16th June 1882. The Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin, XXXVII 400.

[xi] Figures gained by analysis of relevant yearly volumes of The English Catalogue of Books, published annually by Sampson Low, Marston and Co., Ltd.