Our Dumfries and Galloway researchers are busy interviewing the women of Wigtown as they prepare for this summer's exhibition at Glasgow Women's Library. And they've discovered a whole new generation of heritage hunters to help along the way!
Maggie Stuart originally came to the group as an interviewee, but it turned out she had a Scotswummin suggestion of her own: Joanna Ruskin Tweddale Sproat Severn. Here, Maggie introduces 'Joan' and the beginnings of her own Scotswummin research.
In September 1924, this letter was published in the Galloway Gazette, Wigtown’s local paper.
It is rather a remarkable thing how events of particular moment are often allowed to pass unnoticed. Recently there appeared in the press a more or less casual reference to the death, at Brantwood, Coniston, of a Wigtown lady whom the average Wigtonian knows little or nothing about, although she in herself, the intimate friend of an imperishable genius, were guarantee enough that the name of the old town should not wholly be forgotten. I refer to Mrs Joan Ruskin Severn, whose mother was a cousin of the famous philosopher and art critic John Ruskin. She was the daughter of Mr George Agnew Sheriff Clerk of Wigtown and Catherine Tweedie [sic] and was born in a house adjoining the old County Buildings on the site of which the present Sheriff’s Clerk’s office stands. Some time after the unhappy ending of Ruskin’s love romance [it will be remembered that in 1853 his wife Euphemia Grey obtained a divorce decree, and married the great Millais] Mrs Severn went to live with him and his mother at Herne Hill, London. The depth of friendship which resulted may be judged from the beautiful tribute which the renowned author pays her in ‘Praeterita’. This gifted woman maintained feelings of the most sincere affection for her native town, and was in constant communications with several of her old friends therein up to the very time of her death.
I am etc
The letter was sent to the paper almost three months after Joan’s death. The writer gave no name and the letter contained two inaccuracies: the spelling of Tweedie should be Tweddale, and Joan went to live with the Ruskins at Denmark Hill, a much grander house than their earlier home of Herne Hill. This suggests that the letter-writer was not that well acquainted with the family. However, Ruskin’s unfortunate marriage is mentioned in what seems to be a rather inappropriate context. Was this some local know-all trying to be clever or someone genuinely interested in celebrating a local woman he admired? Sadly we don’t know. The reference to "old friends" is interesting, it seems more likely that her contacts would have been relations and fairly distant ones at that. There was no follow up to the letter and no local memories of her appear to survive.
Not long after the death of Ruskin, there was an article in The Gallovidian by a man from Manchester but with Galloway connections. It mentioned Joan but it was mostly a florid homage to her cousin, based on Ruskin’s autobiography Praeterita. Apart from this instance, I have been unable to discover anything of note in the local literature about either of the cousins.
So who was this "gifted woman" and what was her relationship to the great John Ruskin?
I came across Joan Agnew’s family and their connection with John Ruskin when I was researching the history of our house for a community project looking at Wigtown’s buildings. This excellent idea was the brain child of The Wigtown and Bladnoch Business Association.
In the course of my research I discovered that at the top of the list of subscribers to establish the Subscription School, the building which is now our home, was one George Agnew. This was the father of the woman who was to be so important in the life of John Ruskin. I dug a bit deeper into her life and prepared what was originally intended to be used as a talk to be given to our local group Wigtown Talks and Walks. The talk was duly given with airings at other local societies but I couldn’t get Joan out of my head and extended my researches into her life beyond Wigtown. After wading through a fraction of Ruskin literature, I wanted to redress the balance. Joan devoted her life to him yet she is hardly mentioned in any of the many books about John Ruskin.
I hope this brave and resourceful woman will gain a few admirers and not be completely forgotten, hopefully leading to more research.
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.