From Ruskin: London and a merchant's office, 1820-40
Posted by Helen on June 29, 1998 at 10:20:46:
A while ago, I promised to talk about John Ruskin (English social commentator and art critic) and his autobiography Praeterita, written around 1885: his father was a wine merchant and Ruskin gives some interesting insights into the lifestyle of a prosperous merchant family c.1820-40. I found lots of gems, far more than I remembered, because Ruskin is an amazingly good observer, capable of describing things with outstanding accuracy – his paintings, too, are outstandingly realistic. From this you will see a couple of miscellaneous comments, information about businesses, London locations, and travel, and some descriptions of people which show just how lifelike Jane Austen’s characters are…
(By the way, Caroline, yes, I know I should be working but everyone else in the country is watching the England-Columbia match at this point… ;-) )
Ruskin’s father was a wine merchant, starting out with no capital but soon making his way in the world. Ruskin was born at 54 Hunter Street, Brunswick Square (near Coram’s Foundling Hospital and what is now the British Museum (was it open then?)). When he was 4, his father was established enough to buy a house on Herne Hill (South London, Dulwich, where now Ruskin Park stands). At this time Dulwich was still pretty rural, as was Hampstead where they took holidays. His aunt married baker and lived in Market Street, Croydon (also still rural – now at the edge of South London, just about), which led to some social unease between their families.
The wine business was located in a counting house on the 1st floor (i.e. not ground floor) of Billiter Street, between Leadenhall and Fenchurch Street (i.e. in the City near Aldgate, slightly north of the Tower of London). The street was about 30 feet wide so that two brewers’ drays could just about pass each other – there was a brewery in the middle of the street.
The wine merchant’s business
Ruskin’s father was head partner of this firm: he and the other partner were really the agents of the man who owned vineyard (whose children all married into the aristocracy). He was originally head clerk in another firm: after his ‘nine years of duty’ (I presume, an apprenticeship), it broke up and the vineyard owner asked JMr. R. to be his agent: Mr. R. realized that the owner had ‘honour, and feeling’ but not so much ‘sense, or industry’ and so became head partner; the other partner was a landed gentleman who brought in capital and owned the premises (see the People section for his family).
Mr. Ruskin and his partner had mutual respect: for the gentlemanly lifestyle (lots of hunting) of the one and for the business acumen of the other.
The counting house consisted of a room 15x20 feet with desks for 2 clerks and a small cupboard with sherry samples on first floor, and a larger room opposite for ‘private polite receptions of elegant visitors’ (could this be the kind of room in which Mr. Gardiner heard from Darcy of Wickham’s activities in London?) and partners’ dining. The ground floor was occupied by a different firm (bottle retailers), and the ‘only advertisement’ the names of the three partners under the bell. There was one female servant who scrubbed floors etc – ‘cooking, waiting and answering the door… the visitors being expected of course to announce themselves by the knocker with a flourish in proportion to their eminence in society’. Business men, however, rang the doorbell and were admitted by a ‘latch manipulated by the head clerk’s hand in the counting-room, without stirring from his seat’. Ruskin calls the whole an ‘unpretending establishment’
- Ruskin 2: Travel, chaises and chariots Helen 10:22:24 6/29/98 (1)
- Ruskin 3: Childhood, daily life, taking the cure, music Helen 10:25:44 6/29/98 (0)
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