Last week. Scotswummin interviewee Maggie Stuart introduced us to Joan Severn, cousin of the famous John Ruskin and her own addition to our exhibition of forgotten historical heroines. Joan would eventually come to play a huge role in John's life, her correspondence with him often acting as his personal diary. But how did they come to meet in the first place? Maggie explains...

 Joan Severn (née Agnew) by John McClelland © National Portrait Gallery, London

Joan Severn (née Agnew) by John McClelland © National Portrait Gallery, London

John Ruskin was very proud of his Scottish connections. His father’s side of the family included many well-known Galloway names: the Agnews of Stair, Adairs of Gennoch (near New Luce), and the Tweddels or Tweddales of Glenluce. The Tweddales were a staunch Presbyterian family, originally from the Lothians. There is a story, told by Ruskin, that one member of the family, Catherine Tweddale, had been given a copy of the National League and Covenant by Baillie of Jarviswood before his execution in 1785. She passed it to her nephew, a minister of Glenluce, whose son succeeded him as the parish minister and when he died it was donated to a museum in Glasgow. Subsequent efforts by the Ruskin scholar Helen Gill Viljoen to validate this story were unsuccessful.

Joan’s mother’s side of the family were Tweddales. Her mother was Catherine Tweddale, the daughter of James Tweddale, collector of customs in Wigtown. James was the brother of the Catherine Tweddale who had run away to marry the young English grocer John Thomas Ruskin, the grandparents of the now-famous John Ruskin. Also brought up in the Tweddale home in Wigtown was Catherine’s brother John. This uncle of Joan’s went to live in London and was later to be an important link between the Ruskins and the Wigtown relations.

For young Joan, life cannot have been easy. Until the age of six, she must have lived in a sad and stressed household - her father in and out of madness and her mother struggling with pregnancies and bereavement. Joan’s education appears to have been sketchy. The literature of the time has many examples of a basic education being given at home and there were also numerous small private schools catering for the middle classes. Girls would be taught the skills thought to be essential for young ladies, fancy needlework, perhaps a little French, nothing highbrow. We know she had singing lessons; Joan’s own description of being taught by a blind man appears in Ruskin’s Praeterita, part of which was written by Joan, her cousin at the time suffering one of his many mental breakdowns. She could play the piano and her Scottish dancing was admired, especially by Ruskin. Her upbringing, in spite of straitened circumstances, would have been that of a lady. For example, she seemingly never learned to cook. It would be fairly unusual for a girl of her class to be given an academic education. It is unlikely that she attended the Subscription School in Harbour Road where her father had been the first name on the list of subscribers.

Yet in 1864, when she was 17, Joan made the journey from Wigtown to London. It is quite possible that she travelled alone. We don’t always appreciate that Victorian children were not wrapped in cotton wool and in fact many were sent on long journeys with instructions to carters, ship’s stewards and the like to keep an eye on them.

Not all the accounts agree on the details of Joan’s move to London - it’s not easy to work out the sequence of events. We know that she first went to stay with her uncle John and his sisters in London. Was it discussed before she left Wigtown that she would become a companion to Ruskin’s mother after the death of his father? Ruskin's father had also died in 1864. He needed to find a companion for his mother; he knew that without her husband, she would make great demands on him and so he resorted to what was a common practice in Victorian times and cast around for someone within the family to befriend old Mrs Ruskin. It is not clear exactly how Joan came to his notice but in the same year as his father’s death, Joan joined the household.

It is surely too much of a coincidence that she just happened to be visiting her uncle when old Mrs Ruskin needed support. The story, according to Ruskin in his autobiography Praeterita, is that her uncle introduced her to John with the words "This is Joan." She almost instantly endeared herself to him and his mother, and arrangements were made for her to join the household. Ruskin had met Joan and her family three years previously on a visit to Scotland. He wrote that he couldn’t remember Joan but knew that she "would be nice." It seems strange that her mother would want to let her go. In the days before the telephone and when travel took so much longer, it would be a serious decision. Did her mother let her go with a heavy heart, sacrificing her own feelings in order to give Joan all the advantages of a life with the wealthy Ruskins? Or was she so broken in spirit that she wanted no more family responsibility? Whatever the circumstances it was agreed that Joan would visit Wigtown for one month every year, a rather cut-and-dried arrangement more like an employment contract than an easygoing family agreement. Her mother does not seem to have made any trips to London.

It cannot have been an easy transition from the quiet life she had in Wigtown to the much grander and intellectual atmosphere of her new London home. Ruskin was 40 and at the height of his intellectual powers. His mother had a difficult temperament, nor was she liberal in her views; she insisted upon having the Turners and other works of art covered over on Sundays because they gave too much enjoyment on the Sabbath. It is to Joan’s credit that she was able to develop a warm and loving relationship with her ‘auntie’.

Joan’s life became very different from the one she would have had in Wigtown. In less than a year, Joan became Ruskin’s ward, staying with him at Denmark Hill, the rather grand house bought by his father. She was given three rooms, beautifully furnished, and a very generous allowance. She seemed to settle easily into the Ruskin household. It was a much grander establishment than she had known at home where her mother, according to census returns, had only two teenage servants. Young Joan took over the running of the place, dealing with the servants, helping Ruskin with his affairs and even cutting his hair.

Maggie will be blogging for us over the next few weeks, revealing more about Joan's life, her connections to John Ruskin and Wigtown, and why she thinks this Scotswummin deserves her moment in the spotlight.