The circumstances in which John James Ruskin arranged for the publication of Modern Painters I on commission terms in April 1843 are described in The House of Smith Elder, Printed For Private Circulation, London, 1923. It had originally been offered to John Murray, but as he refused to read it in manuscript it was immediately offered to Elder, who had already brought out two long poems-his first to be published-by the Christ Church undergraduate 'J.R.' in the literary album Friendship's Offering, 1840. The publication commenced an association of thirty years, during which period Smith, Elder were to produce all Ruskin's books.
The title was determined by the publishers, as Ruskin's originally was to have been 'Turner and the Ancients'. Five hundred copies of the first edition were printed, of which only one hundred and five were sold in the first year. But the house's confidence grew, and fifteen hundred copies of Modern Painters II were printed in 1846, while The Seven Lamps of Architecture, (1849) was to be Ruskin's earliest book to sell well in its first edition.
All lifetime editions of Modern Painters I are listed and described in the Bibliographical Note given in Works, 3.lvii-lxiii (partially given in Bibliographical Note from Works), which is accurate in its listings though the nature and extent of revision between editions should be supplemented, and sometimes corrected, by reference to the notes on the full collations made for each edition. Full collations have been made between the following editions: First/Second, First/Third, Third/Fourth, Fourth/ Fifth, Fifth/Sixth, Fifth/Autograph, Sixth/Seventh, Autograph/Complete, and Complete/Library. A complete set of all these collations, in chronological sequence, is represented in Complete Collations, and individual descriptions of all main editions may be reached in Bibliographical Description of Modern Painters I, 1843; Bibliographical Description of Modern Painters I, 1844; Bibliographical Description of Modern Painters I, 1846; Bibliographical Description of Modern Painters I, 1848; Bibliographical Description of Modern Painters I 1851; Bibliographical Description of Modern Painters I, 1857; Bibliographical Description of Modern Painters I, 1867; Bibliographical Description of Modern Painters I, 1873; and Bibliographical Description of Modern Painters I, 1888.
Facsimiles of all the principal editions-the First, Third, Fifth, New or so-called Autograph (1873), and Collected (1888) -are issued within this edition, so that they may be read either locally or in extenso, though all hypertextual annotation is keyed to the Third alone, and collations specific to each page, containing all variants and revisions, may be reached locally from each page of that facsimile. In that sense alone does that edition appear to have the status of a main text.