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John Ruskin correspondence with Lucia and Francesca Alexander

Call Number: MS 5086

Scope and Contents

The 300 letters in this collection reflect the friendship that critic John Ruskin (1819-1900) and Mrs. Francis Alexander (nee Lucia Gray Swett, 1814-1916) and Francsca Alexander (1837-1917) maintained both professionally and personally from when they meet in 1882 until Ruskin’s death in 1900. Approximately half of the letters in this collection were previously published in John Ruskin’s Letters to Francesca and Memoirs of the Alexanders, (1931) by Lucia Gray Swett.

Ruskin helped Francesca, a folklorist, author and illustrator, to publish her first narrative, The Story of Ida, in 1883 and continued to assist with her next two projects, Roadside Songs in Tuscany and Christ’s Folk in the Apennines.  Additionally, he acquired 122 of her drawings during the years of their friendship.  Ruskin filled the mentor role left by Francesca’s father, Francis Alexander, a well-known Boston portrait painter, who had inspired his daughter’s artistic endeavors until his death in 1880.  The letters between Ruskin and Francesca are largely focused on their professional activities, with details covering the editing and publication process for three of Francesca’s books, The Story of Ida, Roadside Songs of Tuscany, and Christ’s Folk in the Apennines.  Ruskin also advises Francesca about her drawing technique, urging her to work on perspective and to practice drawing landscapes. In addition, Ruskin mentions his own activities, including his Oxford lectures, paintings, drawings, and music, and progress on his autobiography, Praeterita.  Francesca’s letters to Ruskin recount stories from Edwige and Polissena (inspirations for Roadside Songs in Tuscany and Christ’s Folk in the Apennies) together with other daily occurrences, and provides suggestions about the enclosures forwarded to her by Ruskin.

On a personal level, Ruskin’s letters are full of reports on his physical and mental health, fear of aging and death, his affair with Rose La Touche, his pet seagull, mutual friends, and reminisces from childhood brought about by his work on Praeterita.  Moreover, he frequently discusses the significance of dreams, symbols (such as owls and clouds) and religion.  To Mrs. Alexander, Ruskin also writes of shared literary interests, such as their mutual love of Lord Byron and their disagreement over French novels, and his perceived failures in his life, for example, duty to his parents and neglect of the poor.

Also included in this collection are drawings by Ruskin; page proofs from Praeterita, Roadside Songs, and Christ’s Folk, which often include handwritten annotations and illustrate the publishing process; and letters to and from Rose La Touche that were forwarded to the Alexanders (Box 2, folder 40 and Box 3, folders 15, 16, 22, 23, and 24) that shed light on the relationship between she and Ruskin.


  • 1882-1889


Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

Items in this collection may be subject to copyright restrictions. The Boston Public Library does not hold copyright on the material in this collection. Researchers are responsible for identifying and contacting the persons or organizations that hold copyright.

When reproducing material from this collection please include the credit line "Courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library/ Rare Books."

Biographical or Historical Information


1814 - Lucia Gray Swett born in Salem, Massachusetts.

1819 - John Ruskin born in London, England.

1836 - Lucia Gray Swett marries Francis Alexander.

1837 - Francesca Alexander born in Boston, Massachusetts.

1853 - Alexander family relocates to Europe. Settle in Florence, Italy.

1858-1875 - Ruskin begins relationship with Rose La Touche.

1870 - Ruskin appointed Slade Professor of Fine Art at Oxford.

1870-1879 - Ruskin lectures at Oxford.

1882 - Ruskin and the Alexanders are introduced in October by Henry R. Newman. Correspondence begins between Ruskin, Lucia and Francesca. Ruskin purchases Francesca’s illustrated manuscript for Roadside Songs of Tuscany.

1882-1890 - Ruskin purchases 122 of  Francesca’s drawings.

1883 - Ruskin publishes Francesca’s first novel, The Story of Ida.

1883-1884 - Ruskin lectures at Oxford. Discusses Francesca’s drawings.

1884-1885 - Ruskin edits and publishes Francesca’s major work, Roadside Songs.

1885-1889 - Ruskin works on his autobiography, Praeterita.

1887-1889 - Ruskin publishes Francesca’s third work, Christ’s Folk in the Apennines.   

1890 - Ruskin's health begins to fail.

1891 - Mrs. Alexander publishes New England Breakfast Breads, Luncheon and Tea Biscuits.

1897 - Francesca publishes Tuscan Songs.

1900 - Francesca publishes The Hidden Servants and Other Very Old Stories Told Over.

1900 - Ruskin passes away on January 20.

1902 - Mrs. Alexander publishes Sisters of Reparatrice.

1903 - Mrs. Alexander publishes The Visit of Lafayette, the Old Housekeeper’s Story.

1905 - Mrs. Alexander publishes Il Libro D’oro of Those Whose Names are Written in the Lamb’s Book of Life.

1916 - Mrs. Alexander passes away in Florence, Italy.

1917 - Francesca passes away on January 21 in Florence, Italy.

1931 - John Ruskin’s Letters to Francesca and Memoirs of the Alexanders published in Boston by Lucia Gray Swett.


2 Cubic Feet (300 items)

Language of Materials



This collection contains 300 letters, dating from 1882-1889, which document the personal and professional relationship between John Ruskin (1819-1900), Francesca Alexander (1837-1917), and her mother, Mrs. Francis Alexander (1814-1916), (nee Lucia Gray Swett). Originally from Boston, Massachusetts, the Alexanders met John Ruskin in Italy in 1882 and they immediately began corresponding. Many common themes run throughout the letters such as the writers’ emotional and physical well-being, art, Ruskin’s affairs, professional activities, news about mutual acquaintances, and spiritual beliefs. Ruskin’s letters to Francesca focus on her development as an artist. The collection also contains enclosures forwarded by Ruskin such as letters from important acquaintances, news articles, manuscript proofs, and drawings by Ruskin.

Arrangement Note

Arranged chronologically.  Misfiled letters retain original order. Undated letters are located at the end of Box 4

Source of Acquisition

E. Hallowell

Method of Acquisition


Related Materials

John Ruskin: Lady Afflick, 10 November [n.y/].  MS 1450

A.L.S.  to G. Cruikshank, 18 --? MS Eng. 329 (26)

A.L.S. to W. Wright, n.d. MS E.9.4 R8

20 A.L.S. to William Harcourt Hooper, 1863-1886. MS C.1.10

A.L.S. to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, June 22 [n.y]. MS KF vol 5 no. 501

A.N.S. to [?], 25 February 1833. MS Eng. 434

A.L.S. to D.G. Rozetti, 1855? XArtz Cab. 10.4 p.60

A.L.S to Ogdon N. Rood, 25 March [1872?] Mss.Acc 94

A.N.S. to Alexander Scott, 12 April 1880. MS Eng 150

A.L.S. to J.C. Lewis, 10 February [n.y.]. MS Ch.I.3.59

22 A.L.S. to William Harcourt Hooper, 1883-1886, MS C.1.10 (1-22)

Francesca Alexander:

4 A.L.S. to Mrs. Charles Fairchild, 1899-1900. MS Am. 661-664

A.L.S. to Sally Fairchild,1908? MS Am. 665

Mrs. Alexander (Lucia Gray Swett):

3 A.L.S. to Mrs Charles Fairchild, 1899, 1908. MS Am. 666-668

Processing Information

Finding aid writen by Melissa Hulse, May 2009.


John Ruskin correspondence with Lucia and Francesca Alexander
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