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Ruskin Dines Out

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On 10 April 1845, the young John Ruskin wrote home to his father describing a meal that he had recently enjoyed at Champagnole: two trout ‘just out of the river, of the richest flavour’, a woodcock ‘on delicate toast’, and a ‘small perfectly compounded’ soufflé, all washed down with a bottle of Sillery mousseux champagne. As the sun set, ‘glowing over the pinewoods and far up into the sky’, making the champagne ‘suddenly become rose’, he wrote that he ‘felt sad at thinking how few were capable of having such enjoyment, and very doubtful whether it were at all proper in me to have it all to myself.’

It’s unsurprising that Ruskin should have appreciated the work of a skilled craftsman, even if he’s unlikely to have considered the art of cooking as equivalent to weaving, lace-making or the other handicrafts he would later champion. His susceptibility to visceral delights may be more surprising, less because of his aversion to other pleasures of the flesh (his five-year marriage to Effie Gray was notoriously unconsummated) than because of the stereotype of early middle-class socialists, later propagated by George Orwell, as ‘secret teetotaller[s] … often with vegetarian leanings’.

Ruskin did what he could to bring the finer things of life to people normally deprived of them, though the closest he came to providing trout, woodcock and Sillery mousseux for all was the opening of a tea shop in 1874 on Paddington Street. He sold the best quality tea in small, affordable packets. According to his friend and biographer W.G. Collingwood, Harriet Tovey, an old retainer employed to run the shop, wanted to sell coffee and sugar too. Ruskin eventually relented on the understanding ‘that the shop was to be responsible for the proper roasting of the coffee according to the best recipe’. It is said that the establishment turned a profit, though when Tovey died in 1876 Ruskin seems to have lost interest and the shop closed.

Ruskin’s proto-socialist precursor Charles Fourier placed even greater emphasis on the role of good food in his model for a perfect society; Fourier thought that if every member of his utopian community were ‘raised to a high degree of gastronomic refinement’ then there would be universal demand for the finest fare and everyone would work together to produce it. In 2008, Richard Sennett wrote in the Spectator that rather than feeling guilty about enjoying good food, it is better to feel ‘angry only that there is less than ever of this natural, simple ambrosia to go around’. For anyone with a greedy conscience it’s a compelling corner to fight.

Ruskin’s tea shop was, in part, intended to provide Marylebone’s working classes with alternative refreshment to gin and other spirits. This might seem a bit rich coming from a man accustomed to drinking half pints of ‘Moet’s champagne with Monte Viso ice in it’. Ruskin didn’t branch out from tea shops to champagne bars, but he’s said to have delivered cases of sherry and champagne to the chambermaids who looked after him during a three-week stay at the Paris Hotel in Folkestone in the late summer of 1887.


  1. Joe Morison says:

    It’s one of the more unpleasant arguments used by those on the right. Essentially, it boils down to saying it is hypocritical to try and do the right thing while failing to be a saint. Because it’s not asking too much of a person to seek to help others by supporting a politics which will start redistributing all of our wealth to make the world a fairer and better place, but it’s asking a massive amount for them to impoverish themselves alone to do the same (and then by only a virtually undetectable amount). It’s why kids at school don’t mind wearing crappy shoes if everyone else is but are traumatized if the others have the newest trainers.

    The real and despicable dishonesty is from those on the right who persuade themselves that their pursuing their greed at the expense of others is actually them making everyone better off.

  2. Peter Smith says:

    One would think that John Ruskin was the only flawed example of a person who, in his life and in his work, had an aspiration to alleviate the suffering of those less fortunate than himself. He gets peed on from all sides, and, these days, ALL THE TIME. To the fundamental dishonesty cited here, I would add an apparent inability to get beyond thinking in clichés.

    I find myself wondering what Ms Vane does for a living; how she puts the bread on the table.

  3. grootka says:

    I’m so glad Ms. Vane didn’t go so far as to actually scold Ruskin. What a waste of time to twit a man of genius for his petty follies when, after all, she admits that “He sold the best quality tea in small, affordable packets.” Who else is doing that these days? Too bad Harriet Tovey didn’t find someone to carry on. Still, I’m happy to have learned of this homely episode and grateful to Ms. Vane for telling us.

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