Of all Ruskin’s many experiments—whether in gardening or weaving, publishing or estate management—one of the least well-documented is the tea-shop he set up in Marylebone, West London in the mid-1870s. Stuart Eagles invites you to sit back with your favourite brew as he fits together newly discovered pieces of the jigsaw puzzle to give a clearer picture of
MR RUSKIN’S TEA-SHOP
“‘Tea’ must be a general term for an extract of any plant in boiling water” Ruskin wrote in Proserpina, his idiosyncratic take on botany:
“though when standing alone the word will take its accepted Chinese meaning: and essence, the general term for the condensed dew of a vegetable vapour, which is with grace and fitness called the ‘being’ of a plant, because its properties are almost always characteristic of the species; and it is not, like leaf tissue or wood fibre, approximately the same material in different shapes; but a separate element in each family of flowers, of a mysterious, delightful, or dangerous influence, logically inexplicable, chemically inconstructible, and wholly, in dignity of nature, above all modes and faculties of form.” (Ruskin 25:560)
Of all the people to enter the trade, who but Ruskin could thus have described tea?
In October 1874 John Ruskin, the Slade Professor of Fine Art at the University of Oxford and “confirmed tea-drinker”, set himself up as “somewhat of a connoisseur” and opened a tea-shop at 29, Paddington Street, Marylebone (Ruskin 28:xviii).
It was run—initially at least—by the Tovey sisters, two former servants of Ruskin’s mother. The Ruskins made it a point of honour to look after their servants. Following the death of Ruskin’s mother in 1871, and the winding down of the old family home at Denmark Hill, several servants relocated to Ruskin’s new home at Brantwood in the English Lake District, while others were provided with penions or were found positions elsewhere.
The Toveys, however, were tasked with running Ruskin’s tea-shop.
According to Ruskin’s editors, E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn, they did so for about two years until one of the sisters died and Ruskin abandoned the project (see Ruskin 28:xviii). But this, as we shall see, turns out to be only partially accurate.
It is nearly 12 years since my brief and incomplete account of Ruskin’s tea-shop was published in After Ruskin (OUP, 2011). I wrote then that although the venture was a “commercial failure” that could not be said “to have proved successful by any objective measure”, it was nevertheless an important example of Ruskin’s unceasing challenge to his contemporaries: to behave honestly in all things (p. 121).
This may sound condescending to modern ears, even “holier-than-thou”. It is certainly true that Ruskin held everyone, himself included, to the highest moral standard. But insofar as he preached his gospel, he also put his money where his mouth was. He tried to put his principles into practice and to lead by example. He wanted to show the world how society could be improved by acting in the interests of the community. Above all, that meant serving the needs of the poor. This would require a radical departure from convention.
Ruskin’s moral convictions were rooted in his Christian faith. But his practical experiments—the tea-shop no less than any other—were a defiant response to contemporary injustices.
Nineteenth-century tradesmen were, he believed, concerned only with profit. Dangerously cut loose from any moral obligation to serve the community, they justified their self-serving greed and corrupt practices by holding fanatically to the false science of utilitarian political economy. In the name of competition, and in the guise of advertising, many Victorian shopkeepers bent the truth beyond breaking point. They charged exorbitant prices for shoddy products which it was an insult to describe as “goods” in any meaningful sense.
A decent tea-shop, run honourably by an honest retailer, would follow Platonic Law and would be motivated not by the pursuit of money but by a sense of social service. The needs of the most vulnerable members of the community must be catered for. His tea-shop, therefore, would supply high-quality goods, honestly described. And it would sell them at fair prices in usable, affordable quantities. Ruskin’s arguments, in fact, anticipate many of the concerns of the ethical retail movement.
Ruskin’s own direct and brief description of the venture was given on a business card sent by his publisher, George Allen, to subscribers of Fors Clavigera, his letters to the workmen and labourers of Great Britain. Although it was picked up by contemporary newspapers, it has not hitherto been quoted by Ruskin scholars. The existence of such a business card and the fact that it was distributed is important, not least because it modifies the common understanding that “[n]o advertisements, no self-recommendation, no catchpenny tricks of trade were allowed” (Collingwood 226).
The front of the card bore the title “Harriett Tovey, tea and coffee dealer, 29 Paddington Street, Portman Square”. The back read as follows:
“Mr Ruskin’s object in setting up this shop is that the poor round-about may be able to get their tea and coffee pure and unadulterated.”
The language clearly underlines Ruskin’s sense that modern business practices transgressed Christian law. Essentially it was a blasphemy to sell anything that was less than completely honest.
This was recorded in the periodical, The Academy (vol. 6, 24 October 1874, p. 465). With bitter sarcasm only lightly sweetened, the short notice went on to describe to readers this “latest eccentricity of the great art-critic of the present day”:
“The adulteration question certainly presents an alarming aspect when we find that it awakens such ‘divine wrath’ in the bosom of an ethical and aesthetical Professor as to lead him in the interests of humanity to rush into the tea trade. We have tasted Mr Ruskin’s tea and find it excellent, but for our own part we would willingly drink chopped broomsticks rather than lose the ‘aesthetic tea’ of peculiar flavour which Mr Ruskin has hitherto served out to us.”
Ruskin told readers of Fors, in his letter for December 1874, that his object was “to supply the poor in that neighbourhood with pure tea, in packets as small as they chose to buy, without making a profit on the subdivision” (Ruskin 28:204). He eagerly added, however, that “larger orders” were “of course equally acceptable from anybody who cares to promote honest dealing” (Ruskin 28:204-205).
Ruskin was quickly disappointed. Rent, taxes and wages absorbed his modest profits. The poor, he soon learned, “only like to buy their tea where it is brilliantly lighted and eloquently ticketed” and as he “resolutely refuse[d] to compete” with his “neighbouring tradesmen either in gas or rhetoric” his service was “little recognized as an advantage by my uncalculating public” (Ruskin 28:205). Besides, he added, people increasingly preferred spirits to tea.
But he also blamed himself for procrastinating about the shop’s signage. He could not decide whether it should be
“of a Chinese character, black upon gold; or of a Japanese, blue upon white; or of pleasant English, rose colour on green” (Ruskin 28:205.)
And “still less” could he decide
“how far legible scale of letters could be compatible, on a board only a foot broad, with lengthy enough elucidation of the peculiar offices of ‘Mr Ruskin’s tea-shop’.” (Ruskin 28:205)
Eventually, after “some months of artistic indecision” (and possibly not until the middle of 1875) he opted for the Japanese style. The sign was painted by Arthur Severn, the artist husband of his cousin, Joan (see Collingwood 225).
Until the sign went up customers merely saw a window dressed, according to Ruskin’s editors, with a “set of fine old china, bought at Siena” (Ruskin 28:xviii). In fact, W. G. Collingwood tells us, this came a Cavaliere, near Siena, whose unique collection had been pointed out to him by his friend, Charles Eliot Norton, the Harvard professor (see Collingwood 225).
Ruskin was, he admitted, doing too much at this point in his life to do anything properly. Among his numerous commitments as a writer, lecturer, and social pioneer was his consuming social project, the Guild of St George. This was also the year in which he asked his privileged Oxford students and disciples to dig out a new road at North Hinksey and thereby to demonstrate how muscular effort could be directed away from competitive sport towards useful social service in the English countryside.
So much for the shop itself, what of its managers?
WHO WERE THE TOVEYS?
Cook and Wedderburn give the names of the sisters as Harriet and Lucy Tovey. (Ruskin 28:xviii). The business card sent to subscribers of Fors made it clear that “Harriett” was the senior manager of the tea-shop. W. G. Collingwood describes Harriet as a cross between Miss Mattie from Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford, and the Ruskinian ideal of a salaried officer as described in Time and Tide (see Collingwood 226). It was presumably Harriet who suggested that “coffee and sugar ought to be included in the list” and, according to Collingwood::
“This was not at all in Ruskin’s programme, and there were great debates at home about it. At last he gave way, on the understanding that the shop was to be responsible for the proper roasting of the coffee according to the best recipe.” (Collingwood 226)
If Collingwood is right, and if The Academy accurately quoted the business card in October 1874, Ruskin must have agreed that the shop would sell coffee by the time it opened.
Although Harriet was undoubtedly the senior manager at Ruskin’s tea-shop, it is clear from Ruskin’s autobiography, Praeterita, that “Lucy” was the more prominent of the sisters as a servant in the Ruskin household. Her service stretching back to the “mainly characteristic days” at Herne Hill, as Ruskin called them (Ruskin 35:342). He explained:
“I can’t in the least remember who waited on us, till our perennial parlour-maid, Lucy Tovey, came to us in 1829—remaining with us till 1875. Her sister Harriet replaced Hannah Stone [as housemaid], who must needs be married […] in 1834; nor did she leave us till the Denmark Hill household was broken up.” (Ruskin 35:343)
Later in the memoir Ruskin relates how, on family holidays, he used to climb up to Blonay Castle in Switzerland, to which his parents and Lucy Tovey would also sometimes ascend by foot. Ruskin explained how the Ruskin family would take “Lucy” “abroad with us sometimes that she might see the places we were always talking of” and he explained how she would wait with Ruskin’s parents
“until I had done my bit of drawing or hammering, and we all went down together, through the vineyards, to four o’clock dinner; then the evening was left free for me to study the Dent d’Oche and chains of crag declining southwards to Geneva, by sunset.” (Ruskin 35:518)
Cook and Wedderburn also record how “Lucy Tovey, the parlour-maid […] used to describe how [the artist, J. M. W.] Turner at dinner ‘would pull down his coat-sleeves over his wrists to try to hide the dirty, crumpled shirt-cuffs’.” (Ruskin 35:601n)
In fact, “Lucy” Tovey’s real name was Louisa, and this blog provides an opportunity to put some previously elusive biographical facts about the Tovey family into the domain of Ruskin scholarship.
Louisa Tovey (1811-1883) was the first-born of the five children (four daughters and one son) of John Tovey, a jeweller, and his wife, Patience, née Smith. Louisa was followed by Emily Mary Lamb Tovey (1815-1898), the only one of the sisters who would marry (her husband, William Eaton, was a green grocer). Next came Harriet Tovey (1817-1876), the pre-eminent force in the management of Ruskin’s tea-shop. Then John Tovey, about whom I have discovered nothing more than that he was baptised at St Mary’s, Lambeth, on 5 September 1819; he was still alive in the 1880s; and he had at least one daughter named Louisa. Finally came Matilda Tovey (1822-1895) and although Ruskin never mentions her, and she has hitherto gone undetected by Ruskin scholars, she was listed on the census of 1851 as a housemaid to the Ruskin family at Denmark Hill, too.
As children, the Toveys lived in Herne Hill. But their father, John, seems to have died young, almost certainly plunging his widow and children into unanticipated poverty. Perhaps the Ruskin had known them in better times, and took in the Tovey daughters to help them out? The 1851 census records that the widowed Patience Tovey (1782-1860) was then working—appropriately enough in the context of this blog—as a charwoman.
The census of 1841 shows Louisa and Harriet living together, not far from the Ruskin family home. Harriet is not listed on any census as a member of the Ruskin household, but Louisa is—in 1851, 1861 and 1871. In 1851 she is given the Ruskins’ preferred name for her, “Lucy”, but she is otherwise recorded as Louisa.
The greatest source of misinformation about Ruskin is always Ruskin himself, and it is to Ruskin that we owe the misapprehension that the tea-shop limped on into the summer of 1876 under the management of the Tovey sisters.
In Letter 67 of Fors (July 1876), Ruskin told readers:
“The names of Warren and Jones appear for the last time in my accounts, for I have had to give up my tea-shop, owing to the (too surely mortal) illness of my active old servant, Harriet Tovey,—a great grief to me, no less than an utter stop to my plans in London.” (Ruskin 28:661). (The accounts of the Guild of St George show that Warren and Jones, the tea-shop’s suppliers, were paid £36 on 4 February 1876 (Ruskin 28:559) and £26 16s 3d on 23 March 1876 (Ruskin 28:608).)
In fact, Harriet and Louisa Tovey had ceased managing the tea-shop by the summer of 1875, a fact that probably explains why Ruskin recalled in Praeterita that “Lucy” remained a servant until that year. Ruskin told his friend—the Companion and patron of his Guild of St George Fanny Talbot—in a revealing postscript to a letter dated 20 July 1875 (and introduced with the words “The Teashop!”):
“The most active of my two old servants fell ill and had to leave the business. The other, I withdrew from it and have placed—with new sign, ‘Mr Ruskin’s Teashop’—a young and honest and active lad in it.
“Mr Forsyth, 29 Paddington Street, W. London.” (Spence 37)
I have been unable to discover anything of Mr Forsyth. Ruskin scholars have generally taken the word “old”, when Ruskin refers to his “old servants”, to signify age, but given that Louisa was no more than eight years’ Ruskin’s senior, and Harriet only 18 months’, he was presumably referring instead to their status as former servants of long service. To underline the point, when Ruskin set up the tea-shop in the autumn of 1874, Louisa was 63, Harriet 57, and Ruskin 55. True, as we shall see, Harriet was ill, so it is possible that the Toveys seemed older than they were, even that he believed them to be so.
It is impossible to know precisely when Harriet was forced to stop working, but her death certificate states that she had ‘carcinoma’ which had developed before she took on the tea-shop, though her illness may not have been diganosed until afterwards. Harriet was cared for in her terminal illness by her sisters Louisa and Matilda. The three sisters lived together in Livingstone Road, Thornton Heath, in a property appropriately named Herne Cottage. This is where Harriet died on 12 July 1876. The death certificate records that she had been suffering from cancer for three years. She was 59 years old. Louisa later moved to Balham, where she died in 1883 aged 72, and Martilda died in Brockley in 1895, aged 73. All three were buried in Camberwell Old Cemetery.
IN ITS BEGINNING IS ITS END: A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME
It is possible that the Toveys left the tea-shop around the time Ruskin suffered the terrible loss of Rose La Touche. She died on 26 May 1875, aged 27.
Ruskin’s biographer Tim Hilton argues that Rose was central to Ruskin’s decision to establish a tea-shop in the first place. He explains how Ruskin, who had been on a tour of Italy and Switzerland, made his way back to England with Rose’s letters in his pocket and dreams forming in his head. In one of her notes she wrote playfully, “Its teatime—I should like to pour out your tea” (Hilton 289). The scholar Mark Frost, who has presented the most complete account of the project given hitherto, points out that Ruskin wrote in his diary of a “Tea Shop” as early as 1872, but Ruskin did not at that time pursue it (Frost 80). In May 1873 Ruskin wrote in Fors of tea as one of those “good thing[s]” which commend themselves to “true and beneficent trade” (Ruskin 27:535, the others being spices, rice, maize and figs).
But Rose apparently rekindled Ruskin’s musings about opening about a tea-shop and gave the project added meaning and urgency. Ruskin, Hilton points out, thought he could “take up that tea business in an exemplary—and profitable manner” as he wrote to Joan Severn on 4 October 1874, “to show that I’m a business man!”
Rose would have the shop, and after Ruskin’s death she would be known as “Mrs R[ose] R[uskin], Tea Importer” (qtd Hilton 290; Frost 81). According to Hilton, Ruskin drove Rose to Paddington Street on 14 November 1874 to have tea at the shop with “Lucy” (i.e. Louisa) Tovey.
Hilton revealingly roots the project both in Ruskin’s future domestic hopes to which Rose was so vital, and his nostalgic yearning for his old family life at Denmark Hill. By introducing Rose to the Toveys and involving her in the tea-shop he could tie the these worlds together. In Hilton’s suggestive phrase, Ruskin “wished her to become embedded, as it were, in the history and mythology of the Ruskin family” (Hilton 290).
It would be curiously appropriate if ill-health caused the Toveys to leave off managing Ruskin’s tea-shop around the time Rose died. Rose’s death finally broke the bond that Ruskin had hoped the tea-shop would help forge between Rose and himself, Rose and the Ruskin household, the domestic and the professional, the past, present and future. Though the tea-shop continued under the mysterious Mr Forsyth, it quite literally died a death.
IN ITS END IS ITS BEGINNING: WHY MARYLEBONE?
Ruskin finally disposed of the tea-shop in June 1876 by placing it in the care of his friend, former drawing pupil and partner in social housing, Octavia Hill. He wrote to her on 24 June:
“I was greatly delighted by your long kind letter; and it is much more than a delight to me, and it is a most weighty assistance in my purposes, that you can take this house and put it to use.” (Maurice 341)
That the property should pass to Octavia Hill could scarcely be more appropriate. There can be little doubt that Ruskin chose Marylebone as the location for his tea-shop experiment in large part because of its proximity to the social housing project Octavia had established in the district with his financial assistance and blessing.
Wishing to help Octavia in her mission to improve the lives of the poor, Ruskin used money inherited from his father to purchase two blocks of houses in Marlyebone in the 1860s. In 1865 he purchased a 56-year lease on three cottages in Paradise Place (now Garbutt Place) at a cost of £750; and, in 1866, he purchased for £2,800 the freehold of five properties in Freshwater Place (demolished to make way for Horner Row), plus a house backing on to the block at 207 Old Maylebone Road. Ruskin entrusted them all to Octavia who developed the pioneering form of personal landlordism that was the hallmark of her approach.
That these purchases had been made with money earned by Ruskin’s father is also significant. John James Ruskin spent his life in trade working diligently as a sherry importer. Ruskin proudly had it inscribed on his father’s tombstone in Shirley churchyard that “He was an entirely honest merchant”. John James was the model of an ideal tradesman that Ruskin had in mind when he set up the tea-shop.
Whether Octavia Hill retained the business or simply took on the property and repurposed it is unclear. Ruskin’s role as tea-man certainly lasted no more than 21 months. The venture had been beset by difficulties, but he had provided further employment for two respected and trusted former servants. Above all, he had put his money where his mouth was. He had challenged his contemporaries to follow his example.
And as we sup our own cup of tea or coffee we would do well to contemplate the challenge Ruskin also sets us. We should ask ourselves how far our own ideas of politics and economics facilitate honest purchasing and honourable selling. How far do our choices as consumers, producers and suppliers living in the twenty-first century meet our mutual obligation to the community and to society at large?
- G. Collingwood, The Life of John Ruskin (London: Methuen & Co. Ltd, 1911)
Stuart Eagles, After Ruskin: The Social and Political Legacies of a Victorian Prophet (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)
Mark Frost, The Lost Companions and John Ruskin’s Guild of St George (London: Anthem Press, 2014)
Timothy Hilton, John Ruskin: The Later Years (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2000)
- Edward Maurice(ed.), The Life of Octavia Hill as Told in her Letters (London: Macmillan & Co. Ltd, 1913)
John Ruskin, The Works of John Ruskin (ed. E. T. Cook & Alexander Wedderburn) (London: George Allen, 1903-12)
Margaret Spence (ed.) Dearest Mama Talbot, London: Allen & Unwin, 1966
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