Thomas Carlyle Letters to John Ruskin

Scope and Content

Letters of Thomas Carlyle, written from Chelsea:

  • Numbers 1-7, to John Ruskin, 23 January 1855 - 15 July 1874 (number 7 is in the hand of an amanuensis, signed by Carlyle);
  • Number 8, to Ruskin's father, John James Ruskin, 23 April 1861.

Administrative / Biographical History

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881), essayist, historian and social critic, was born in Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire, on 4 December 1795. His early life was somewhat aimless. He enrolled at the University of Edinburgh in 1809 but did not complete his degree, and spent the years 1814-18 teaching mathematics in Annan and Kirkcaldy. He returned to Edinburgh in 1818, where, after studying law briefly, he became a tutor and wrote articles for the Edinburgh Encyclopedia. He studied German literature, and published a translation of Goethe's novel Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. He also wrote a Life of Schiller (1825), which appeared first in serial form in 1823 and 1824 in the London Magazine. After a trip to Paris and London, he returned to Scotland and wrote for the Edinburgh Review.

In 1826 Carlyle married Jane Baillie Welsh, a writer whom he had met in 1821. After 1828 the Carlyles lived on a farm in Craigenputtock, Dumfriesshire, where Carlyle wrote a philosophical satire, Sartor Resartus (The Tailor Retailored). The work, first published between 1833 and 1834 in Fraser's Magazine, was partly autobiographical. Carlyle emerged as a social critic deeply concerned with the living conditions of British workers. At the farm he also wrote some of his most distinguished essays, and he established a lifelong friendship with the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In 1834 the Carlyles moved to Chelsea, where Thomas became a member of a literary circle that included the essayists Leigh Hunt and John Stuart Mill. In London Carlyle wrote The French Revolution, A History (2 volumes, 1837), a historical study concentrating on the oppression of the poor. This was followed by a series of lectures, in one of which, published as On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History (1841), he contended that world civilization had developed because of the activities of heroes. His hatred and fear of democracy and praise of feudal society were reflected in much of his subsequent writing, especially in Chartism (1839) and Past and Present (1843). His concept of history appeared in a number of his later works, notably in Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches, with Elucidations (1845) and History of Frederick II of Prussia, Called Frederick the Great (10 volumes, 1858-65), which was his most extensive work.

After his wife's death in 1866, from which he never completely recovered, Carlyle retired from public life, and wrote little. He declined the offer of a baronecy from Disraeli and died on 5 February 1881 in London.

Source: Fred Kaplan, 'Carlyle, Thomas (1795-1881)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. By permission of Oxford University Press -

John Ruskin, art critic, was born in 1819, the only child of John James Ruskin, a wealthy wine merchant and his wife, Margaret. His parents encouraged Ruskin's love of drawing and took him on numerous Continental holidays, which awoke his passionate interest in the natural landscape. He was educated at home, before going to Christ Church, Oxford, where he did not find the curriculum to his taste.

In 1843 he published the first volume of Modern Painters (5 volumes 1843-1860), which began as a defence of the artist J.M.W. Turner, but grew into an exposition of Ruskin's principles of art. He later made an equally passionate defence of the Pre-Raphaelites, who had been initially dismissed by most established critics. Ruskin also had a great interest in medieval architecture. He was a champion of the gothic style, which he expounded in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and The Stones of Venice (1851-3), believing it to be the expression of man's wonder at God's creation. Ruskin was a critic in the broadest sense of the term. He believed that art, morality and politics were all inter-connected, and his musings ranged effortlessly across these subjects. From the late 1850s, his writings took on a more political tone, as he attempted to combat the influence of conventional economics and industrial capitalism. His belief in the natural dignity of labour and an economic system based on use rather than profit was summed up in Unto this Last (1860) and Essays on Political Economy (1862-3).

Ruskin was appointed first Slade Professor of Art at Oxford University in 1870. He threw himself into this work with characteristic intensity, establishing a school of drawing, donating a number of works of art to the University, and attracting great crowds to his lectures. Several volumes of the lectures were later published. Disagreements with senior University figures saw him resign the professorship twice in 1878 and following a brief return in 1885.

Although he published an unfinished autobiography, Praeterita (1885-9), his literary output diminished greatly after 1880. He lived increasingly as a recluse and invalid at his home, Brantwood on Coniston Water. Ruskin died on 20 January 1900 and was buried in Coniston churchyard. Ruskin was a remarkably successful critic, who influenced by the style as well as the substance of his writings.

Source: Robert Hewison, 'Ruskin, John (1819-1900)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004. By permission of Oxford University Press -

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is available for consultation by any accredited reader.

Acquisition Information

Purchased by the John Rylands Library at auction at Christie's on 25 March 1957 (Lot 116).


Description compiled by Jo Humpleby, project archivist, with reference to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography articles on Thomas Carlyle and John Ruskin.

Other Finding Aids

Catalogued in the Hand-List of the Collection of English Manuscripts in the John Rylands Library, 1952-1970 (English MS 1191).

Related Material

For other Carlyle letters held at the JRUL, see English MS 336 (ref.: GB 133 Eng MS 336). See also the Ruskin Papers at the JRUL (ref.:  GB 133 RUS).


The following articles on Carlyle by Charles Richard Sanders have been published in the Bulletin of the John Rylands Library: 'Carlyle's letters', BJRL, vol. 38 (1955-6), pp. 199-224; 'The Victorian Rembrandt: Carlyle's portraits of his contemporaries', BJRL, vol. 39 (1956-7), pp. 521-57; and 'Carlyle's letters to Ruskin: a finding list with some unpublished letters and comments', BJRL, vol. 41 (1958-9), pp. 208-38.

Geographical Names