In January 1837 a new face appeared shyly at the table reserved for gentleman commoners in the great hall of Christ Church. The diffident freshman wore the silk-gown and velvet cap with gold tassel of his aristocratic peers, but this tall, thin figure was no nobleman. He was the only child of a prosperous sherry merchant, John James Ruskin, who wanted the best for his son, and who could afford to pay for it by sending him to the richest and most aristocratic of the Oxford colleges. John Ruskin was at Christ Church as a 'reading man', with a view to going into the Church, but by buying a place among the twenty or so gentleman-commoners, his father had avoided the requirement for him to take the entrance examination that the 200 Christ Church commoners would have been obliged to sit.
Ruskin's parents watched over him with anxious love, so closely that when John went into his first college rooms in Peckwater, his mother moved into lodgings nearby at 90, High Street. His father would join them for the weekend from his London offices or his long sales trips around the great houses of England. Thus Ruskin lived a family life as well as a college life throughout his undergraduate years. His unusual situation, as a social and intellectual outsider amongst his fellows, was noted at the time by one of the College Tutors, Henry Liddell, who was to play an important part in Ruskin's later Oxford career (4).
He is a very strange fellow, always dressing in a greatcoat with a brown velvet collar, and a large neckcloth tied over his mouth, and living quite in his own way among the odd set of hunting and sporting men that gentleman commoners usually are. . . . I am glad to say they do not bully him, as I should have been afraid they would. 1
Ruskin did not entirely escape the ragging -- or the drinking -- that his public-schooleducated contemporaries regarded as normal, but he put up with it. In his memoirs he says he was greeted 'as a good-humoured and inoffensive little cur, contemptuously, yet kindly' ( W 35. 195). This in spite of having made the mistake of writing a Saturday essay good enough to be read aloud by its author in Hall, an act of 'grossest Lèse-majesté against the order of gentleman-commoners' that he did not repeat ( W 35. 196). Though no longer in the depths of its 18th-century corruption, Oxford was still in an unreformed state, and in an angry and reproachful letter written in 1862 Ruskin rebuked his father for the pleasure his parents had taken in seeing him associating with the aristocracy: