Sydney Carlyle Cockerell’s artistic interests and social ideas were first shaped by John Ruskin. Having read his hero’s works since the age of fourteen, he confessed: ‘Ruskin was by far the most powerful influence on my early life.’ Ruskin’s socio-political writings ‘entranced’ the young Cockerell who witnessed the ‘misery… of the poor people’ and their ‘depths of degradation’ while working for the family coal business in the 1880s. Ruskin’s art historical studies had an equally powerful impact. Cockerell developed a passion for medieval illuminated manuscripts, Renaissance paintings, especially by the Venetian School, Turner’s watercolours, and the works of the Pre-Raphaelites, a passion that would inform his acquisitions for the Fitzwilliam Museum.
Cockerell’s relationship with Ruskin was nurtured by a shared interest in Gothic architecture and visits to French cathedrals. After the first direct contact in 1885, the young disciple wrote to his hero in 1886, sending him a collection of shells and telling him about his visit to Rouen Cathedral the previous year. This led to correspondence about art and ethics, the confession that Cockerell was only nineteen, ‘not a venerable conchologist, bald, bearded and spectacled’, and the mock-relief reply of the sixty-seven-year old Ruskin: ‘I am so glad you are young. I had a notion somehow you had been collecting shells since before the deluge.’ After a chance encounter in Abbeville in 1888, Cockerell and Ruskin travelled together to Beauvais. Ruskin regaled his companion with lectures on Gothic cathedrals and wrote back home: ‘Carlyle carries my umbrella for me as if he were attending the Emperor of Japan’. Cockerell remembered the days in Beauvais as ‘the happiest of my whole life.’