poster for Mrs ruskin, warehouse Theatre

final rehearsals: Mrs. Ruskin

Why Effie Ruskin May Have Been Called 'The Countess'
by Kim Morrissey

     One of the mysteries surrounding the Ruskins appears to be why Effie Ruskin was called 'The Countess' during her 1853 Scottish holiday in the Trossachs with her husband John Ruskin, and the Pre-Raphaelite painter, John Everett Millais (and his brother William). There have been various descriptions of the amusements of John and Effie Ruskin and William and John Everett Millais while they stayed at  Brig o' Turk, near Glenfinlas, in particular, they were fond of playing of Battledore and Shuttlecocks. When I first read Mary Lutyens account of the game, in Millais and the Ruskins1 I had not seen the highland sketch book of John Everett Millais, Rainy Days at Brig o' Turk, 2 edited by Mary Lutyens and Malcolm Warner in 1983. In the earlier book, Lutyens writes:

"Millais and Ruskin had tremendous combats at Battledore and Shuttlecock. Millais took three pages to describe to Collins one such battle, 'hitting with such rapidity that we hit each other before being able to parry like fencing'. He referred to Ruskin as 'the Herne Hill Gamecock' and to himself as 'the Jersey Stunner'. Only the announcement of 'grub' by Crawley saved the Gamecock from defeat on this occasion".

     Lutyens phrase 'tremendous combats' suggests a competitive game, and in many descriptions of the game, it is described as a fore-runner of badminton. The Millais sketch3 showed two people going for the shuttlecock at the same time, over the edge of a table, with two others standing by, one obviously holding a raquet, suggested there was no net, and that four could play as well as two. In the  workshops during the final rehearsals for my play Mrs. Ruskin, directed by Jacqui Somerville, it became obvious that the object of the game is not to make your opponents miss the shot, but to return it. The object of the game is to keep the shuttlecock in the air. In that sense, it is a much less competitive game than similar games such as badminton, ping pong and table tennis.
    This sense of  all the players wanting to achieve high humbers in playing the game was confirmed by the Amy Lowell poem (circa 1916) "Battledore and Shuttlecock" 4 in which the players reach very high numbers before the shuttlecock 'hits the path.'

"Ninety-nine," Stella's battledore springs to the impact.
Plunk! Like the snap of a taut string.
"Oh! Minna!"
The shuttlecock drops zigzagedly,
Out of orbit,
Hits the path,
And rolls over quite still.
Dead white feathers,
With a weight at the end. 5

The jokey nicknames for the men ("The Herne Hill Gamecock" for John Ruskin and "The Jersey Stunner" for John Everett Millais) and a game which relies on counting to high numbers  suggests that Effie Ruskin's honorary title, 'The Countess' comes, not from a need to elevate her status, but is an affectionate description of one of her roles in the game of Battledore and Shuttlecock.

1. Lutyens, Mary, Millais and the Ruskins (London: John Murray) 1967 p72.
2. eds. Lutyens, Mary and Warner, Malcolm, Rainy Days At Brig o' Turk: The Highland Sketchbooks of John Everett Millais 1853 (Westerham: Dalrymple Press) 1983
3 ibid. page 38-39
4.Lowell, Amy "Battledore and Shuttlecock" from Men, Women and Ghosta, quoted on the website :
5. ibid.

Mrs Ruskin première : Warehouse Theatre, East Croydon UK September  12th - October 5, 2003


MRS RUSKIN by Kim Morrissey. Caution: this play is fully protected under the copyright laws of Canada and all other countries of The Copyright Union, and is subject to royalty. Those interested in production rights are requested to apply to Playwrights Guild of Canada, Mailing Address 215 Spadina Ave.Suite #210 Toronto, Ontario, Canada, M5T 2C7 telephone (416) 703-0201; fax (416) 703-0059. e-mail: