Wednesday, July 9, 2014

154. A Summer Miscellany of Mistakes (2)

In June 1894 Oscar Wilde's poem The Sphinx was published, decorated by Charles Ricketts. The text was reprinted with other poems in several editions, but Ricketts's drawings were not reprinted during his lifetime. Only the cover illustration was (poorly) reproduced on the cover of a 1910 reprint that was issued again in 1918. Both editions were published by John Lane, The Bodley Head.

Title page (fragment) of Oscar Wilde, The Sphinx, illustrated by Alastair (London, New York, John Lane, 1920)
In 1920 another artist illustrated The Sphinx for the same publisher, the incomparable Alastair, or Hans-Henning von Voigt (1887-1969), who performed as a dancer and a pianist, and became a translator out of necessity, but was a celebrated artist in his heyday. His drawings were likened to those of Aubrey Beardsley, and were published by John Lane, Georg Müller Verlag, Les Éditions G. Crès et Cie, the Avalun-Verlag, publishing firms in London, Munich, Paris, and Vienna, but also by the New York firm of Alfred A. Knopf, and the expatriate firm of Harry Crosby in Paris, The Black Sun Press.

Oscar Wilde, The Sphinx: frontispiece by Alastair (London, New York, John Lane, 1920)
The illustrations for this edition were printed in black and blue (usually Alastair's drawings were reproduced in orange and black), and show his concern for intricate detail and evil or destitute facial expressions. Horror, in his drawings, is never far away from luxury.

The edition run was 1000 copies. Auction catalogues regularly include a copy of this edition. And every now and then the book is associated with Charles Ricketts, in which case the cover design is ascribed to him.

Oscar Wilde, The Sphinx: cover design by Alastair (London, New York, John Lane, 1920)
Some examples of this incorrect attribution to Ricketts can be found  in recent auction catalogues. 

In May 2012 the Dutch auction house of Bubb Kuyper sold a copy of the book (lot 2768) for which the description reads: '[Alastair]. Wilde, O. The Sphinx. London/ New York, J. Lane, 1920, 36p., 12 plates and 13 capitals by ALASTAIR, all printed in black and blue, printed in 1000 copies, orig. gilt dec. cl. by C. RICKETTS, t.e.g., 4to. - Some sl. foxing. Otherwise fine. = Peppin/ Micklethwaite p.310 (under Hans Henning Voigt) and Houfe p.486': "(...) his colour illustrations have more the feel of the contemporary Russian school of ballet designers".'

Toovey's, located in Washington, UK, also sold a copy of the book in their auction on 10 July 2012, lot 3245. The description included the following: '12 plates and 13 decorative initials by Alastair printed in black and blue. (Occasional light browning or spotting.) Original decorated cloth blocked in blue and gilt to a design by Charles Ricketts, t.e.g. (somewhat soiled)'.

Earlier, on 23 October 2010, the Berlin auction house Galerie Bassenge described as lot 2508 another copy of the book: 'Alastair. - Wilde, Oscar. The Sphinx. 1 Bl., 34 S., Mit 13 farbigen Initialen und 10 (2 als fl. Vorsätze) mit Türkis kolorierten Tafeln von Alastair. 30 x 22 cm. In Golddruck illustr. OLeinenband (Einbandillustration von Charles Ricketts; etwas unfrisch). London und New York, J. Lane, 1920'. 

Many more examples, earlier and later, could be quoted, but these suffice to indicate that it is a widespread error, the source of which can be found in the preliminaries of the book itself. Why would Ricketts be mentioned in relation to this book?

Publisher's note in Oscar Wilde, The Sphinx (London, New York, John Lane, 1920)
In the front of the book is a publisher's note, listing four works under the heading 'By Oscar Wilde' and one under the heading 'By Alastair'. The last Wilde title is The Sphinx, having 'a Cover-design by Charles Ricketts and a Preface by Robert Ross'. 

Robert Ross, 'Note', in Oscar Wilde, The Sphinx (London, New York, John Lane, 1920) 
The 1920 edition, illustrated by Alastair, contains this 'Note' by Robert Ross, which was a standard insertion on behalf of the copyright owner. It seems, that the combination of the Ross note and the publisher's advertisement for an edition with a Ricketts cover led book dealers to believe that the Alastair edition had a cover design by Ricketts. In fact, the advertisement is for the 1918 reissue of The Sphinx that had no illustrations other than the reproduction of the original 1894 cover.

The 1920 cover, with a bold looking sphinx, is of course drawn by Alastair. There is no signature. Ricketts was not involved in the design of this edition. 

[A copy of Alastair's Sphinx is made available by Nicholas Frankel on OpenStax.]