Wednesday, February 26, 2014

135. Ricketts in a Cathedral

When Eric Binnie published his book on The Theatrical Designs of Charles Ricketts in 1984, he listed three designs for The Coming of Christ by John Masefield, which was performed in Canterbury Cathedral on 28 and 29 May 1928: a costume for a Roman soldier (in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum), a design for Gaspar and one for an angel, both held by the Bell Estate, the executors of the Bishop Bell and Mrs Bell of Chichester.

George Bell (1883-1958) had married Henriette Livingstone in 1918, and was appointed Bishop of Chichester in 1929, but from 1925 to 1928 he had been Dean of Canterbury, which explains how he came into the possession of two of Ricketts's designs. He initiated the Canterbury Festival of the Arts, the first of which was the Masefield play in the summer of 1928, and the most famous one was T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral in June 1935.

Ricketts worked with colour schemes, as he recorded, and for The Coming of Christ he dressed Christ in white and red, the Virgin Mary in Gentian blue, the warriors in 'steel and blood', and the archangels in gold. The girl-angels were, like Mary, dressed in Gentian blue.


Charles Ricketts, costume design for 'Angel in the Myrrh' (1928) [Chris Beetles Gallery, London]
One of the costume designs has turned up for sale in London, where Chris Beetles Gallery offers it for £6,500.00. It is inscribed with the title (below the mount), and measures 12x12½ inches.

The 1928 performances by amateurs from Canterbury were well attended. A newspaper reported that beforehand 6,000 applications for tickets had been made (Dover Espress, 25 May 1928), as word was out that the play contained some revolutionary speeches. Indeed, some shepherds engaged in a debate of a communistic and atheist character. Masefield, confronted with protests, said: 'How do you expect shepherds to talk? I would have them talk something livelier than sheep' (Derby Daily Telegraph, 24 May 1928).

On both days, Whit Monday and Whit Tuesday, the play was performed before two audiences of 1,500 each, one in the late afternoon and one in the evening. A review was published in several newspapers, showing that the critic was in awe of the costume designs:

The rich colours of the costumes, blending effectively with the background of the choir screen, in front of the nave steps where the performance took place, made a magnificent spectacle. [...] The costumes, designed by Mr. Charles Ricketts, R.A., were made by Canterbury women, and the accessories by students at the Canterbury School of Art.'

Later, the play was performed by the Citizen House Players of Bath at the Wellington Town Hall (Monday 21 January 1929), using Ricketts's costumes. The music, as in the earlier performances, was by Gustav Holst.

Eric Binnie, The Theatrical Designs of Charles Ricketts. Ann Arbor, MI, Umi Research Press, 1985, p. 149, 151.
Joseph Darracott, The World of Charles Ricketts. London, Eyre Methuen, 1980, p. 175-178.
J.G. P. Delaney, Charles Ricketts. A Biography. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1990, p. 366.