As an 18-year-old French au-pair girl in Watford, I used to spend much of my free time at the second-hand bookstall of the covered market of what was then a rather small, almost provincial town north of London. This is where I came across a green-covered book with gold friezes on its cover and the name JOHN RUSKIN inscribed in capital letters. The spine bore the title The Seven Lamps of Architecture and Lectures on Architecture and Painting, and the edge showed that it had been cut only half-way. I was intrigued by this pretty book published in New York in 1877, and stood there, handling it and wondering why its original owner had stopped reading it (had the book been lost? Maybe the reader had to move house and carelessly left the book behind, or was the book so boring that it was discarded before the last page ?) These speculations must have taken some time for John, the antiquarian bookseller who never talked much, interrupted me by asking if I liked Ruskin’s writings. I had never heard Ruskin’s name before. John then introduced John Ruskin – ‘one of the deepest and most puzzling minds of last century’ – and urged me to read him. The book was sold to me at a very low price and I took it home with much excitement. Progressing through the pages with pencil and dictionary, I felt literally illuminated by these ‘Seven Lamps’. When I reached the page where the first reader had stopped, I acquired a nice old paper-knife that I felt was worthy of my treasured book, and proceeded with my reading with increased pleasure, as if I were walking on some untrodden path. Using my paper-knife as a dagger to avenge the author whose inspiring words and beautiful drawings had been despised by some lazy or careless reader, I reached the last page with exultation. This Wiley & Sons edition is not rare, nor is it very valuable, but in its folios the young girl that I was met the Victorian sage. The pages have been cut a long time now, but the pencil marks are still there in the margins, reminding me of old John whose appreciation of Ruskin was so right.

Last modified 25 September 2019