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John Ruskin

​John Ruskin

The British film Effie Gray (2014) written by Emma Thompson tells the story of Effie Gray and her disastrous marriage to John Ruskin, the art critic. In the summer of 1853 John and Effie Ruskin went on holiday to Scotland accompanied by a young artist, John Everett Millais - Effie and Millais fell in love. Bridget Howlett tells the story of Effie’s journey to escape her loveless marriage through an annulment in the church courts, and how this is recorded in detail in the records held by LMA.

Effie Gray and John Ruskin

Euphemia Chalmers Gray (known as Effie) was 19 when she married John Ruskin who was 29. They had known each other since childhood, but relations between their families had become strained when Effie’s father lost money in unwise speculation in railway shares. Mr and Mrs Ruskin did not attend their son’s wedding which took place in April 1848 at the bride’s home in Perth. John and Effie spent their honeymoon in the Highlands of Scotland and the Lake District, but despite sharing the same bed, John failed to consummate the marriage. He later claimed that Effie’s body disgusted him. He came to consider her frivolous and immature and he neglected her for his research into art history. Effie became increasingly unhappy and frustrated.

In the summer of 1853 John and Effie Ruskin went on holiday to Scotland accompanied by a young artist, John Everett Millais, who painted a portrait of Ruskin standing in a waterfall. Effie and Millais fell in love, but Effie could see no escape from her loveless marriage which would not lead to social exclusion and impoverished disgrace. The church courts could grant a divorce from ‘bed and board’ on grounds of adultery or adultery and cruelty, but this did not free either party to remarry. Before 1858 the only way to divorce and be able to remarry was to obtain a private Act of Parliament. Not only was this astronomically expensive, but it was only men whose wives had committed adultery who succeeded in obtaining a divorce by Act of Parliament. Two women petitioned Parliament for divorce in the 1840s, but their petitions were rejected.

Effie turned to her older friend, Lady Eastlake, for help. She thought a solution was possible and advised Effie to tell her parents the truth about her marriage. Effie persuaded her father to come secretly to London to consult lawyers. A church court could annul a marriage on the grounds of non-consummation due to impotency, though this would require humiliating medical examinations. As John and Effie lived at Herne Hill which was then in Surrey, the appropriate church court was the Commissary Court of Surrey whose records are held by London Metropolitan Archives. They include an assignation book (DW/AB/020) which records the date and place assigned for the each stage of the court proceedings. For instance, the entry for 30 May 1854 records the appointment of two Doctors in Medicine to inspect Effie’s person “and examine her parts of generation and to report in writing whether she is or not a Virgin” and “to inspect the person of John Ruskin the other party in this cause and to examine particularly the state and condition of his parts of generation and whether he is capable of preforming the act of generation and if he be incapable of so doing whether such his impotency can be remedied so as to enable him to perform the act of generation.”

Some uncatalogued papers relating to matrimonial causes heard by the Commissary Court of Surrey can be found amongst the Diocese of Winchester Office Papers (DW/OP/1684-1857), but the papers in the cause Gray falsely called Ruskin v. Ruskin are not amongst them. They were in fact deposited with the records of the Registry of the Diocese of London (LMA reference DL/A/F/048/MS11930). A note on the envelope in which they are stored states “Surrey Registry. Ruskin Nullity 1854. These have all always been kept away from other Papers as Private. 29-7-39”. They include reports on the intimate medical examination undergone by Effie which proved that she was still a virgin and Effie’s deposition describing her marriage. She stated that “He used to tell me that he would marry me (that is consummate his marriage with me) when I was twenty five. He had a great dislike to children and he gave that as one reason for his abstaining from marrying me (consummating the marriage).” However “I was living with him occupying the same Bed with him for near upon a year after I had attained the age of twenty five years of age but it was the same after that as before – he never consummated or attempted to consummate his marriage with me.”

John Millais

​John Millais

​John Ruskin refused to submit to a medical examination or to contest the case and the marriage was duly annulled. The following year Effie married Millais and went on to have eight children. John Ruskin never remarried.

It is the Consistory Court of London rather than the Commissary Court of Surrey whose records also held by LMA under reference DL/C/A, which document many sensational marriage break downs of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Before obtaining a divorce by Act of Parliament aggrieved husbands were expected to obtain a divorce in the church courts. By the 1820s between one half and two thirds of all matrimonial causes in the Province of Canterbury were heard by the Consistory Court of London rather than in local courts. Wealthy litigants preferred to satisfy the brief residency requirement (21 days) so they could use the expertise of lawyers based in London specialising in matrimonial causes.

Many aristocrats appear in the records of the Consistory Court of London, their daily lives and amorous liaisons described in great detail by their servants. Litigants include Mary Eleanor Bowes, Countess of Strathmore, escaping from her brutal second husband, Lord Grosvenor seeking divorce from his wife, Lady Grosvenor, for adultery with the King’s brother, the Duke of Cumberland, Elizabeth Chudleigh, Duchess of Kingston or Countess of Bristol (depending on which of her marriages was valid), Lord and Lady Ellenborough, and Lola Montez alias Eliza James, alias the Countess of Landsfeld, mistress of King Ludwig I of Bavaria. The records also include the nullity cause brought by the Irish heiress, Dorothea Kingsman formerly Maunsell, against her husband, the Italian castrato opera singer, Ferdinando Tenducci, in 1775. Sometimes incriminatory letters exchanged by lovers in matrimonial causes were retained by the court, for example those between Lady Ligonier and her lover, the Italian poet Count Alfieri (who later eloped with the wife of Bonnie Prince Charlie).

For the period before about 1820, the records are divided between several series, notably the ‘Exhibits’ (which have been catalogued in detail) and bound volumes, such as the Allegations, Libels and Sentences Books and the Deposition Books (for which our catalogue does not give the names of the parties in the causes recorded in each volume). After 1820 the records are in loose bundles of papers most of which have recently been catalogued. Another 24 boxes still remain unlisted, but we do have an annotated copy of a contemporary index which can be used to try to identify the uncatalogued cause papers.

For further general information about the records, please refer to LMA’s online catalogue. If you have any queries, email LMA Enquiries

04 February 2015
Last Modified:
26 April 2019