Wednesday, November 18, 2015

225. Charles Ricketts and Oscar Wilde's Woman's World (5)

In the previous episodes of my blog, we have established that Oscar Wilde's and Charles Ricketts's collaboration to The Woman's World (edited by Wilde) were not interrelated, that Ricketts did not have to turn to Wilde to get commissions for the magazine, that Wilde did not generously give Ricketts several important commissions, that the drawings for The Woman's World were not the first commissions Ricketts received from Cassell & Company, that Ricketts did not leave the firm or stopped contributing to the magazine when Wilde ended his editorship and left the firm, and, therefore, that no 'affinity between the two men's artistic visions even before their official partnership began' existed in reality.

The last quote came from Petra Clark's fascinating essay on Ricketts and Wilde in connection with The Woman's World. (See Charles Ricketts and Oscar Wilde's Woman's World (1) for more details.) Despite the fact that there was no early relationship between Ricketts and Wilde, we can see that they were heading in the same direction, and that they were on the same track. It did not take long for Wilde to conclude that Ricketts should design his books, but that decision was prompted by The Dial and not by The Woman's World.

Charles Ricketts, initial for The Woman's World
Ricketts's early drawings have been described as 'hack work', and as Clark points out, this qualification is based on an undeserved dismissal of his skills as a draughtsman. His fusion of Victorian interests with Pre-Raphaelitism, Arts and Crafts ideas, and Symbolist motifs sets his work apart from many anonymous artists. 

Clark writes: 'Like many "hack" artists at the time, Ricketts's work was largely anonymous'. However, when most illustrations in The Woman's World went unacknowledged in the captions, some of these mentioned the artist's names, and the contents pages in the yearly bound up volumes mentioned some of the illustrators as well. The illustrations themselves often contained the artist's initials, and for his earliest commissions Ricketts used his full name: 'C. Ricketts'. By June 1888, Ricketts had changed his signature to a series of monograms with the letters 'C' and 'R', often encapsulated within a small square border. Sometimes his drawings for an article were supplemented with drawings by other, anonymous artists, but even when Ricketts did not use a monogram, it is not that difficult to distinguish his drawings in The Woman's World from those by othersRicketts's drawings betray his affinity with the Aesthetic Movement, and in particular with the work of Pre-Raphaelite artists, whose work he alludes to, such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. His drawings are rich in detail (even if these do not serve the story), full of vivacity, movement, and a feel of modernism, even when the subject is Egyptian or Elizabethan. These drawings also 'exhibit the beginnings of his own style and his idiosyncratic approach to illustration' (as Clark writes).

A striking example of the last quality brings his hack work close to his free work. One of the tailpieces published in The Woman's World (May 1889) closely resembles one that Ricketts used in his own magazine The Dial (August 1889). The boundaries between work in commission and work after his own taste were gradually fading.

Clark reminds us of the general practice of illustrating articles and stories in magazines from the 1860s onwards: illustrations, such as chapter initials and frontispieces, anticipated the events, but during the 1880s and 1890s this 'gave way to increasingly conflicted relationships between word and image in illustrated texts', and an 'ironic' failing to match visual expectations 'seems to have become a preferred tactic for him', that is, Ricketts. Here, Clark follows the findings of other scholars, such as Jeromiah Romano Mercurio and Nicholas Frankel.

Charles Ricketts, initial for 'Boots and Shoes' (The Woman's World, May 1889)
Petra Clark:

'Ricketts's playful perversity is certainly apparent in the case of B. de Montmorency Morrell's May 1889 piece on the stylistic development of footwear entitled "Boots and Shoes". The images Ricketts supplies to accompany the article refer obliquely to the historical overview provided in the text by making visual some of the things to which the author refers, but in a way that must be deciphered. The decorated initial "T" at the start of Morell's article forms part of a frame that reads "Chrispinus Sutor", the Latin for "Crispin shoemaker", referring to the Roman martyrs of a similar name who later became conflated into the patron saint of shoemakers, Saint Crispin. This frame surrounds a central image of a hooded man with a halo (presumably an interpretation of Saint Crispin), who seems to be fitting an angel with a shoe. Ricketts clearly enjoyed fashioning these sorts of somewhat tongue-in-cheek medieval "illuminations", since he created a similar initial inscribed "Orpheus" in his headpiece for Wilhelmina Munster's June 1888 article "A Woman's Thoughts upon English Ballad Singers and English Ballad Singing". The tailpiece at the end of the "Boots and Shoes"article also calls for a slightly different interpretive approach; it transcends a merely illustrative function in relation to the text as shoes are not really the focus at all - only two or three pairs are even visible. Its image of four couples dancing seems innocuous enough until one more closely examines their dress and notices that the dancers are chronologically mismatched: their clothes all derive from different historical periods, ranging from a fourteenth-century lady wearing one of the "towering peaked and horned headdresses" referred to by the author of the article, to a shepherdess-like "merveilleuse" of the late eighteenth century, who sports an ostentatious bonnet and excess drapery.'

Charles Ricketts, tailpiece for 'Boots and Shoes' (The Woman's World, May 1889)
These comments by Clark are based on a thorough examination of the drawings in relation to the text, and as such add to our knowledge of Ricketts's motives, his working methods and his development as an artist.

Ricketts's 'playful irrelevance or irreverence towards the narrative' has been labelled 'collaborative resistance' (by David Peters Corbett) and 'faithful infidelity' by Jeremiah Mercurio. His drawings 'do not lend themselves to easy "reading"', as he intended them to be 'art'. We are fortunate to see that scholars like Petra Clark research Ricketts's work and publish their findings.

Charles Ricketts, illustration for 'Boots and Shoes' (The Woman's World, May 1889)

Charles Ricketts, illustration for 'Boots and Shoes' (The Woman's World, May 1889)

Charles Ricketts, illustration for 'Boots and Shoes' (The Woman's World, May 1889)

Illustration (anonymous, not by Charles Ricketts) for 'Boots and Shoes' (The Woman's World, May 1889)