Wednesday, January 22, 2020

443. Some Zaehnsdorf Bindings for Vale Press Books

In the 1890s, Charles Ricketts had some of the Vale Press books bound by Rivière and Sons, to a design of his own. He quickly switched to another binder, Zaehnsdorf. He had a copy of The Sonnets of Sir Philip Sidney bound to his own design for the Arts & Crafts exhibition of 1899. 

Often these bindings are not signed, neither by Ricketts, nor by the bookbinder's. The firm was founded by Joseph Zaehnsdorf (1816-1896), who had come to London in 1837. By the time bookbindings for the Vale Press were executed by the firm, it was headed by the son, Joseph William Zaehnsdorf (1853-1930).

Not all Vale Press books in a binding by Zaehnsdorf were designed by Ricketts. Later collectors often brought their books to the firm, and these bindings have traditional designs.

Zaehnsdorff binding stamp in a copy of Fifty Songs by Thomas Campion(Vale Press, 1896)
Recently I found two online images of such bindings on Vale Press books and their design was identical. Both mention the name of Zaehnsdorf on the inside of the front board, and at the back they show a blind stamp that the company used for quality bindings. Frank Broomhead described the blind stamp (in The Zaehnsdorfs (1842-1947). Craft Bookbinders. Pinner, 1986, p. 73):

This mark is a small oval tool apparently used, along with similar stamps, as a quality mark on the superior bindings produced by the firm. It represents the medieval apprentice seated at the sewing frame and is taken from the wood engraving of a binder's shop by Jost Amman, which Zaehnsdorf's used in their advertising and on their stationary [...]

Binding stamps used by Zaehnsdorf
A copy of Fifty Songs by Thomas Campion (1896) was bound in red goatskin leather, a copy of Charles Ricketts's A Catalogue of Mr. Shannon's Lithographs (1902) was bound in brown goatskin leather of the same design.

Zaehnsdorff bindings on Fifty Songs by Thomas Campion 
and A Catalogue of Mr Shannon's Lithographs
Both bindings have gilt linear tooling to covers and gilt title on spine, inner dentelles with foliate gilt tooling and silk endpapers. They may have been made for one and the same collector - but they bear no bookplates - or for an exhibition of Zaehnsdorf's work. The first was for sale at Capricorn Books in Canada, the other one was offered by Roe and Moore in London.

Zaehnsdorff bindings on Fifty Songs by Thomas Campion

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

442. Sybil Pye's Use of Vale Press Type for Bookbindings

In a 2012 blog post I wrote about the lettering on Sybil Pye's bookbindings. Collector Paul Mallett pointed out to me that I haven't written a sequel; so here's to it. 

Lettering on Sybil Pye binding (Daphnis and Chloe, 1893)
William Andrews Clark Library]
Blog 66. A Sybil Pye Binding (October 31, 2012) suggested that the lettering on Pye's binding could not have been Vale Type, although Marianne Tidcombe asserted this in her outstanding Women Bookbinders 1880-1920 (1996, page 148): 'The letters she used were Vale Capitals designed by Ricketts'. Why not? In the first place because the Vale letters didn't exist anymore. All lead type was melted down after the closure of the Vale Press in 1904, and Pye first tried her hand at bookbinding in 1906. Secondly, because those letters were not suitable for use on a bookbinding. The process requires special tools that can withstand the heat required for applying the text on a leather spine. For his own bindings, Ricketts had the titles set in Vale type at Ballantyne's, and then printed them on paper  labels. For his linen, parchment and leather bookbindings, plates were made based on photographs of the printed titles, and these were used as stamps for spine titling.

In her book, Tidcombe, didn't quote a source for her assertion, but Mallett reminded me of a catalogue that includes a statement by Sybil Pye herself about the binding for Apuleius's De Cupidinis et Psyches amoribus fabula anilis (1901): English Bindings 1490-1940 in the Library of J.R. Abbey, edited by G.D. Hobson (London 1940, page 176): 

The three tools used in this binding were cut to my design by Knights & Cottrell. But the letters for the title, also cut by them, were taken from capitals designed by Charles Ricketts for the Vale Press. A number of fine tools, which the artist created for bindings of his own design, were given to me by him, and I have used them on many books. A few that did not go with my style, I have passed on to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where the whole set will eventually be found.

Knights & Cottrell made the tools and based them on photographs after printed Vale Press characters. That explains two points. First of all that the characters are slightly different from the real Vale Press characters and secondly why the titles on Pye's bindings are not always in alignment, as a separate tool was made for each letter, and she had to stamp them one by one on the spines. See, for example, her binding for the Vale Press edition of Thomas Browne's Religio Medici.

Sybil Pye, binding for Vale Press edition of Thomas Browne,
Religio Medici (1902, binding: 1940)
Tidcombe also pointed out that Pye didn't use Arabic numerals, but preferred to 'form dates with roman numerals'. She had no choice, because Ricketts hadn't designed any numbers for the Vale Type. 

Conclusion: Pye didn't use Vale Type for her bindings, but used specially cut tools of which the design was based on the Vale Type.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

441. An Encyclopaedic Manifesto

The private presses of the 1890s wanted to secure a place of their own in the publishing world and marked their territory with manifestos on the 'revival of printing' and with bibliographies of their own publications. William Morris as well as Charles Ricketts and Lucien Pissarro did so, and others would succeed them.

Ricketts's manifestos appeared shortly after each other: in March 1898 Charles Ricketts's and Lucien Pissarro's De la typographie et de l'harmonie de la page imprimée. William Morris et son influence sur les arts et métiers appeared; in June 1899 A Defence of the Revival of Printing followed. Finally, in 1904 Ricketts published the bibliography of his Vale Press, preceded by an essay that can once again be read as a manifesto.

Charles Ricketts, 'Book-Printing' (1902)

A lesser-known essay by Ricketts is actually also a manifesto, although it is disguised as a lemma in an encyclopaedia. This is the lemma 'Book-Printing' written by Ricketts for the tenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica from 1902. Although the Vale Press was in its final phase, it would remain active for at least another year.

And although readers would expect a contribution on the art of printing in general, and even though the editors had asked Ricketts for such a contribution shortly after lemmata on 'Bookbinding' and 'Book-Plates', he delivered an article with a much limited scope, focusing on the 'revival of printing', starting with Morris's Kelmscott Press, continuing on the Vale Press and ending with a short list of other presses in America and England (including the Doves Press). 

Ricketts did not focus on the latest technical developments, but on the recent rise of private presses run by artists and especially on the idea that a book should be designed by one artist, in other words: a graphic designer.

Ricketts seized the opportunity to consolidate his position by naming his own Vale Press second and spending almost as many words on it as he did on the Kelmscott Press. Moreover, this essay did not appear as an article in a fancy magazine, or as a newspaper article to be quickly forgotten, but as an official lemma in the most important English encyclopaedia. His vision was now laid down for eternity in a publication considered extremely reliable.

Because this manifesto is less well known than the others, the complete text follows here.

Book-Printing. - The latest development in printing, in which each component of a book is controlled by a sense of harmony and beauty, owes its conception and realization to William Morris, and takes definite form in the founts and books of the Kelmscott Press. Previous efforts by Morris himself, Mr Daniel of Oxford, and others, count only as experiments towards a tasteful use of materials to hand. The great originality of the Kelmscott books lies, not merely in the order and design shown in their "build" and decoration, but in the vivifying of each part from type to paper by a high order of design and execution. Herein they differed in 1891 in all essentials, and in many new particulars, from all other modern books both in aim and aspect.
    The Kelmscott Press is distinguished by the use of three founts designed by William Morris. The Troye and Chaucer founts, both of them Gothic, named after books in which they first appeared, are best fitted for ornamental mediaeval works. These books owe their chief interest to the bold handsome decoration by Mr Morris, and to woodcuts after designs by Sir Edward Burne-Jones; one of the most noteworthy examples is the "Chaucer," of a page of which we are, by the special permission of William Morris's trustees, enabled to give a reduced facsimile (p. 307). In Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon we note the partial failure of this order of type to fit the character of a modern book. In the Golden or Roman fount lie the strength and future of the Kelmscott Press as an influence on type. The Golden Type is without the exaggerated contraction of form laterally, the exaggerated use of thick and thin strokes, or the vicious stroke-terminations common to modern founts. It is a type of full body, designed in careful relation to the up-and-down strokes, and resting upon solid serifs, as with Jenson, for instance, but in detail more allied to fine penmanship or even black letter. The character of the decoration in the Kelmscott pages is stamped with the vigour which one expects from a designer of Morris's importance. Usually on a black ground, the forms combine a northern character in thistle leaf and composite flower, with a fluency of curve comparable to the famous borders of Ratdolt of Venice.
    The Vale books, often classed by writers and collectors with the Kelmscott, may be counted with them so far as they also are singular in being controlled by one designer, from the important matter of type, decoration, and illustration, to that of "build" and press-work. The first Vale book in which each of these conditions was achieved is Milton's Minor Poems (1896). In this the Roman type, known as the Vale fount, designed by Charles Ricketts, differs from the Venetian and Kelmscott founts by a greater roundness or fulness of body, and in a modification of details by the conditions of type-making. The second fount used in the Vale issues, first employed in The Plays of Shakespeare (1896) [i.e. 1900], is less round in body, more traditional in detail, and lighter in effect. To be mentioned with the foregoing are some half-dozen books, printed by L. Pissarro in the Vale fount at his press, "The Eragny Press," with woodcuts decorations. They are unique in the revival of printing by the occasional use of colour and gold.
    No other books have hitherto combined the conditions specified of new type, woodcut decoration, original woodcuts, and personal control. Two American founts, adapted from Morris, are tentatively used by publishers. Mons. Grasset, in France, has designed an eclectic fount, but none of these can be associated with a special press or series of notable books. Recently, however, Messrs. Sanderson and Walker have recut Jenson's fount and established the Doves Press, conspicuous for its taste and technical excellence.
    A certain number of technical conditions had to be faced in the revival of printing for the first time in late years, i.e., the printing of woodcuts on hand-made paper, and the printing of borders and initials in the body of the text; both in pitch and in sustained evenness of tone the Kelmscott Press (notably in the Chaucer) remains unsurpassed. The inking-up process employed to achieve the above conditions is a very gradual one. The paper chosen for its regular thickness is, moreover, slightly damped, to avoid a gritty aspect in the blacks; hence the delicate embossed appearance of the pages, and the absence of all overloading with ink. In the manipulation of English or "Roman" vellum the consistency of the inks used is even greater, the vellum, of course, not being damped. The so-called "Roman" vellum is made at Brentford. The vellum used for the Kelmscott Chaucer was damped.
   Authorities. - Articles on the revival have appeared in the Athenaeum, the Saturday Review, Magazine of Art, The Studio, and the Contemporary Review. More detailed and more accurate information will be found in A Note by William Morris on his Aims in founding the Kelmscott Press. Kelmscott Press, 1898. - Floury. De la typographie et de l'harmonie de la page imprimée. Paris. - Hacon and Ricketts, A Defence of the Revival of Printing. - See also article, Morris, William. (C.Ri.)
[The New Volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica constituting in combination with the existing volume of the ninth edition The Tenth Edition of that work, and also supplying a new, distinctive, and independent Library of Reference dealing with recent events and developments. The second of the new volumes, being Volume XXVI of the complete work.(Edinburgh & London, 1902, page 306]
[Courtesy of John Aplin].

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

440. Ricketts in Academia

Charles Ricketts's oeuvre continues to attract the attention of scholars, whether because of his book designs for Oscar Wilde, his costumes for plays by Yeats, or as an example of a partner in a (partly) homosexual household in Edwardian England, his name appears in indexes and his letters and essays are quoted.

One of the newer monographs - published last year - discusses the relations between decadence and modernism and 'radically heterogeneous moments of literary dynamism': Decadence in the Age of Modernism is edited by Kate Hext and Alex Murray, and Ricketts is already quoted in the introduction on page 3.

The book includes an excellent and inspiring article by Ellis Hanson on 'The Queer Drift of Firbank', an essay that immediately takes you to Firbank's work to reread chapters. That was my intention anyway, after I recently visited his grave in a cemetery in Rome, and I wasn't disappointed.

Ricketts is dealt with in chapter two of  Decadence in the Age of Modernism, an analysis of the various performances of Wilde's Salome, as the introduction points out:

Aubrey Beardsley, Salome and the head of Iokanaan (detail)
Ellen Cromwell focuses on the halting and derided appearance of Iokanaan's severed head in productions of Wilde's Salome between 1896 and 1908. As Crowell explains, the naturalistic appearance of the severed head was controversial in large part because of its contrast with the symbolist aesthetic that defined both these early productions and the simile-laden dialogue of Wilde's play. In examining this appearance, she argues that Salome brings naturalism and symbolism together in a rejection of nineteenth-century realism, rooted in the text of Wilde's play but only realized in production.
(p. 21)

This chapter is titled: 'The Ugly Things of Salome' (pp. 47-70), and Ellen Crowell is referring to the severed head of Iokanaan to be shown at the end of the play:

Even when a production garnered general praise for all other production aspects - acting, lighting, sets, costumes, choreography, musical accompaniment - the prop heads designed for productions of Salome in the early modernist period inspired merciless mockery.
(p. 49).

Charles Ricketts, design for Oscar Wilde's Salome (1896)
[location: Courtauld Institute, London]
Ricketts has made designs for Salome several times. A stage design dates back to around 1896, but that remained unexecuted. In 1906 there was a performance in London for which Ricketts enjoyed visiting the mysterious, messy studio of the theatrical property man. This 1906 performance for which he provided costumes and stage designs was successful, only the head of Iokanaan was severely criticised. Max Beerbohm thought it was a stylistic break in a symbolist play. Ellen Crowell doesn't agree:

As an early aesthetic experiment in deliberate tedium, dullness, and irritation, Salome works by not working, and by making us think about how it is not working. With its final tableau compounded of equal parts "enervation and shock," Wilde's decadent experiment in meta-response may have been lost on his early modernist audiences. But in the work of later twentieth-century artists, including Bertolt Brecht, Gertrude Stein, Samuel Beckett, Andy Warhol, and John Cage, we again find artists pursuing productive aesthetic failure as catalyst for the creation of new generic forms.
(p. 67)

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

439. Ricketts's Costumes, but When and Where?

After Ricketts's death, Thomas Sturge Moore and Gordon Bottomley (among others) tried to take stock of the artist's work. Bottomley tried to establish for which stage performances Ricketts had designed sets and costumes. In a letter from Sturge Moore to Bottomley (probably received by the latter on 25 May 1932) Moore admits that his memories of some performances are not clear.

Charles Ricketts, design (1915) for The Three Women
in W.B. Yeats, On Baile's Strand

T.S. Moore wrote in answer to some of Bottomley's querries:

I also saw the King’s Baile’s Strand at the Avenue Theatre I think, which was nearly entirely by C.R. with I fancy a painted scene[,] but my memory is not good. Anyway there was some extraordinary and very pleasing colour grouping. I cannot understand my memory for my one dim dim recollection is of an outdoor seaside scene[,] and the whole of the play takes place in an interior[:] was it perhaps not Baile’s Strand but another play and if so which? I remember the kind of greens and browns and the effect of the costumes[,] but nothing else. You see I had seen the play before[,] whichever it was[,] and was noting chiefly the picture. Was it perhaps Synge’s Deirdre? I think it must have been. But things I see only once I never remember well.
[Transcribed by, and courtesy of, John Aplin]

The two plays were on the repertoire at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin and were performed by the Irish Players. Every year they made a tour to London, where Ricketts and Shannon attended the performances and apparently Moore as well. One play was by W.B Yeats, On Baile's Strand (first performed in 1904) and the other was by J.M. Synge, Deirdre of the Sorrows (1910). But Ricketts did not design the costumes for the first performances, but for a later tour, which in some reference works is dated May-June 1915. Ifan Kyrle Fletcher published a 'Chronological List of Charles Ricketts's Productions' in Theatre Notebook, Autumn 1967, mentioning May-June 1915 for the re-enactments of these two plays and a third of Synge, The Well of the Saints. Some of the costumes for these are illustrated and commented on by Richard Allen Cave in Charles Ricketts' Stage Designs (1987). Eric Binnie also discusses the performances in The Theatrical Designs of Charles Ricketts (1985) and he quotes Ricketts's diary about the rehearsals.

However, the dates are nowhere specified. Luckily there is 'The British Newspapers Archive' and with a thorough search the dates of the tour of the Irish Theatre can be found. Their London season started on May 10 and ended on June 5, 1915.

The Globe, 5 June 1915, page 2
The performances did not take place in the Avenue Theatre as Moore thought, but in the Little Theatre. The season consisted of four weeks with different plays on the repertoire each week. The program with the plays of Synge and Yeats was the last of the four and ran from Monday, May 31 until Saturday, June 5.

The Stage, 27 May 1915, page 19
They were performed on Friday and Saturday (on the last day there was both a matinee and an evening performance).

Charles Ricketts, design (1915) for Deirdre in J.M. Synge, Deirdre of the Sorrows

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

438. A Ricketts Quote on YouTube

Videos on YouTube featuring Charles Ricketts are rare, but there are a few. Relatively new is a quote from Ricketts in a short movie about Oscar Wilde, part of a series of Daily Quotes.

Charles Ricketts in Best 20 Quotes about Oscar Wilde (2019)

The video is called Best 20 Quotes about Oscar Wilde and was posted in August 2019. Against a backdrop of meaningless and royalty-free music, we see a procession of quotations appear on screen, one after the other, most of Wilde's own by the way, while the images are incomprehensible and unrelated to the content. First we see the head of a woman with long brown hair, then a landscape with farms and trees, a purple field, snow on the side of a road, a slope on the shore of a lake and finally a cloudy sky above the sea.

A number of Wilde's wisdoms are followed by statements by others about him. This is a colourful company: G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Parker, Gyles Brandreth, Robbie Ross, David Levithan, and Charles Ricketts. His quote about Wilde comes into the picture after 3 minutes 44 seconds before disappearing at 4.04.

When in Reading Gaol he told me that the warders in the dock had been gentle and kind, but the visit of the chaplain in his first prison began with these words: 'Mr. Wilde, did you have prayers in your house?' 'I am sorry... I fear not.' 'You see where you are now![']

Charles Ricketts, Oscar Wilde. Recollections (1932)
The quote comes from Oscar Wilde. Recollections by Jean Paul Raymond & Charles Ricketts (1932), a posthumous publication in which the passage is presented as a conversation (on page 22). Ricketts said about Wilde that he was 'the kindest and most childlike nature' he had ever met.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

437. The Picture of A Headcap

The terminology of the auction houses does not always coincide with that of the bibliographer or the collector. One tries to sell an object, the other to describe it, the third to admire it. Auction houses therefore do not always describe defects in books clearly or consistently, so as not to distract too much attention from the desirability of an object, especially when its price runs into the thousands. In that case, damage (no matter how small) has the greatest impact on the price.

In my opinion it is unwise to buy a defective or poor copy of a desirable book, because it is precisely the unevenness that is most noticeable with each inspection of the book. The price slowly disappears from your memory (although you sometimes realize that instead of buying a book, you can also have your entire house painted); but a worn spine will stare at you forever.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, cover design by Charles Ricketts (1891):
deluxe copy no 136
At the auction of the collection Ribes, a copy of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray will be sold, a deluxe copy, signed by Wilde: number 136 of the 250 (there were also 1000 unsigned copies in a smaller size).

All copies of this edition are fragile. The deckled edges are often worn, the spine can come loose, or the book may have been re-bound at the behest of previous collectors or bookdealers and in those cases Ricketts's design is completely lost.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, cover design by Charles Ricketts (1891):
deluxe copy no 136 (detail)
The description of the auction house is extremely cautious about the faults: 'Coiffes restaurées'. That is: the headcap has been restored.

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, cover design by Charles Ricketts (1891):
deluxe copy no 136 (detail)
An image clearly shows that there is more going on. The joint is completely covered with a strip of linen; part of the front cover seems to be missing. It is a poorly restored copy of which the spine has probably become completely loose and several pieces of the boards are missing, affecting the overall design. 

But the price of a deluxe copy of this book has been high for years; even a bad copy is still estimated at thousands of euros. In the past, such a bad copy wouldn't have reached Sotheby's rooms.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

436. Charles Ricketts Drawn by Charles Shannon

Charles Ricketts often served as a model for Charles Shannon, and is portrayed in oil paintings, lithographs and a single caricature by the artist. Among the lesser known works is an etching that probably dates from the late 1890s. 

Charles Shannon, Portrait of Charles Ricketts (c 1896)
[Image: British Museum, London,
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license]
This copy of the drypoint on thin cream paper from the collection of the British Museum (museum number: 1949,0411.449) seems to be a unique print. It is quite small: 14,9 x 9,9 cm. In it, Ricketts is standing, holding a large sheet, probably a lithograph or a drawing.

The print came from the art collection of Howard Bliss (1894-1977), and, was acquired by the British Museum from art historian Campbell Dodgson on 6 December 1944 for £3.10.0. It is signed in pencil by Shannon.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

435. The Dial as An Audio Book

There will be an audio book of the first issue of the magazine The Dial from 1889! The texts are read out by volunteers for a website that offers audio books in open access. A great initiative. I heard about it because one of the readers asked me who the authors were of the unsigned contributions in the magazine. The names are needed to correctly categorise the recordings.
The Dial (1889)
Rob Marland is a contributor to, the public domain audiobook website, and he is coordinating a group recording of the first issue of The Dial. On the website you can already click on different parts to listen to them - all you have to do is enter the name of Ricketts in the advanced search box. At the moment, four articles and stories can be listened to as spoken text.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

434. Dante, War and Ricketts

The Book of Italy appeared during World War I, in 1916, and its chief aim was to help the Italian soldiers' and sailors' families in the United Kingdom, and the Italian Red Cross, as editor Raffaello Piccoli wrote in the preface.

At the time of publication Piccoli was lecturer in Italian at the University of Cambridge (later he became professor). After the War he would become a visiting professor at Northampton and Chicago, and became a professor of English Literature at the university of Naples where he was born in 1886. In the course of his life he would meet authors such as T.S. Eliot, and philosophers including Ludwig Wittgenstein. Among the magazines that published his articles was the Burlington Magazine of Art. [A portrait of him was published on Literary Magdalene, 2016.] He was an opponent of fascism. His obituary appeared in The Times, two days after he had died in Davos on 21 January 1933. He had been in ill health for some years.

Charles Ricketts, 'Dante at the Tomb of Pope Anastasio',
in The Book of Italy (1916)
As a connoisseur of both English and Italian culture, Piccoli was the obvious person to act as an editor, although he was quite young at the time (around 30 years old). During the war, he left England for Italy to take part in the fights at the front; he was subsequently wounded, and held prisoner in a concentration camp. 

The Book of Italy was published in April 2016 in two editions, one in blue cloth (7s 6d) and 'a fine edition' bound in white vellum (21s). The volume brings together various contributions from authors, critics, musicians and artists and contains a reprint of a woodcut by Charles Shannon ('Fruit Pickers', from 1898) and a reproduction of a drawing by Charles Ricketts.

Ricketts's illustration is a drawing heightened in watercolour. The location of the original is unknown to me and unfortunately it has been reproduced in black and white (in half-tone) in The Book of Italy. It was given a prominent place, facing the first text on page 1. However, the place of honour was for a work by John Sargent, 'Head of a Neopolitan Boy', which was reproduced in colour as a frontispiece (there were seven colour illustrations).

Ricketts's contribution is called: 'Dante at the door of the tomb of Pope Anastasio (Inferno, Canto XI)'. The reference is to lines 7-9 of Canto XI:

In su l'estremità d'un' altra ripa,
  Che facevan gran pietre rotte in cerchio,
  Venimmo sopra più crudele stipa;

E quivi per l'orribile soperchio
  Del puzzo, che il profondo abisso gitta,
  Ci raccostammo dietro ad un coperchio

D'un grande avello, ov' io vidi una scritta
  Che diceva: "Anastasio papa guardo,
  Lo qual trasse Fotin della via dritta."

In this canto (a translation is available online) Dante and Virgil lingered awhile between the tombs and Virgil explains to Dante (and the reader) how the deeper layers of hell are classified. They see an inscription indicating that this is the resting place of Pope Anastasius, who was led astray from the right path by Photinus. Anastasius and Photinus lived during the fifth century, and played their part in the Acacian Schism between the Eastern and Western Christian Churches.

Virgil then says that they should slowly start the descent into hell, so that they can get used to the appalling stench. Ricketts may have chosen this passage to indicate that the war would bring even more misery. But he may also have wanted to refer to the schism in contemporary European culture, where the West was at war with the East and the North with the South.

Charles Ricketts, 'Dante at the Tomb of Pope Anastasio' (detail),
in The Book of Italy (1916)
From below not only flames and dirty vapours rise, but also a steady wind, given the billowing mantle of Virgil, whose young face, like Dante's, is directed towards the name Anastasio. Ricketts misspelt the name, he left out an 'a': 'ANAS | TSIO'.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

433. The Portrait(s) of W.H.

This week's blog is a guest blog written by Geoff Dibb, events secretary of the Oscar Wilde Society. In 2013, his study of Wilde's UK lectures was published by the Society: Oscar Wilde, A Vagabond with a Mission. Last week's blog contained a scoop: the first publication of Ricketts's sketch of Mr. W.H. In the text below, Dibb compares this sketch with Wilde's descriptions.

The Portrait(s) of Mr. W.H.

The Portrait of Mr. W.H. is an intriguing and delightful essay by Oscar Wilde, part fiction, part literary criticism of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Much detail was given about it in this blog in 2014 (153. The Portrait of Mr W.H.) However, here I intend to look in detail at Wilde's descriptions of the eponymous portrait(s) and the painting which Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon prepared for Wilde.

The Portrait of Mr. W.H. has been published in two forms: as an article in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine in July 1889 which Wilde then re-worked and extended to book length. He laboured over it for years but the book was not published and the manuscript disappeared after the chaos of his trials in 1895. A book length manuscript of Wilde's was found and published in 1921. I have serious doubts that this book contained Wilde's final efforts and will touch on this later.

Dedication in Shakespeare's Sonnets
(designed by Charles Ricketts, Vale Press, 1899)

In both the magazine and book editions the main characters are trying to prove the theory that the Mr. W.H. mentioned in the dedication to the 1609 volume of the Sonnets is a beautiful young actor called William Hughes (or any variant or spelling of this name). When they fail to find proof that there was an Elizabethan actor in Shakespeare's company of that name, the originator of this theory, Cyril Graham, then finds an Elizabethan portrait of 'Master Will. Hewes' in Warwickshire. Or, rather, he pretends to have done so because, eventually, this portrait of Mr. W.H. is found to be a forgery by an artist called Edward Merton. Despite this the un-named Narrator is inspired and continues to study the Sonnets and search for evidence. I am not going to describe the fascinating storyline but I am going to look carefully at this forged portrait and its various incarnations, literary and artistic.

This eponymous portrait is described in detail three times in the magazine article. Its first appearance is quite early in the text:

... a full-length portrait of a young man in late Sixteenth-century costume, standing by a table, with his right hand resting on an open book. He seemed about seventeen years of age… [he wears a] black velvet doublet with its fantastically gilded points, and … two masks of Tragedy and Comedy… hung somewhat formally from the marble pedestal ...
[the ellipses are mine]

The book on which his right hand rests is open at the dedicatory page in Shakespeare's Sonnets. The portrait is next described when we are told about it being supposedly 'found' by Cyril Graham:

Here was an authentic portrait of Mr. W.H., with his hand resting on the dedicatory page of the Sonnets, and on the frame itself could be faintly seen the name of the young man written in black uncial letters on a faded gold ground, "Master Will. Hews."

And lastly, in the magazine edition, Merton, who forged the portrait, is found and his preliminary sketch is discovered:

... a drawing of the picture of Mr. W.H. ... It was almost a facsimile - the only difference being that the two masks of Tragedy and Comedy were not suspended from the marble table as they are in the picture, but were lying on the floor at the young man's feet.

Soon after publication of the magazine, Wilde began to extend the article to book length and, in the autumn of 1889, he met Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon for the first time. He told them about his theory of Mr. W.H. and invited Ricketts around to his home in Tite Street where he read the whole thing to him, presumably from an extended manuscript at this point. He then asked him to produce a portrait of Mr. W.H. - in the style of Clouet - which could be used as the frontispiece of the projected book. Wilde must have either written Ricketts a description of the portrait or given him the magazine article. Ricketts recalled:

Within a fortnight I had painted the small portrait of Mr. W.H. upon a decaying piece of oak and framed it in a fragment of worm-eaten moulding, which my friend Shannon pieced together.

Wilde wrote the very next day:

It is not a forgery at all; it is an authentic Clouet of the highest artistic value. It is absurd of you and Shannon to try and take me in! 

Wilde was engrossed in this subject and continued to work on it but, when his trials began, it was dropped by his publisher who supposedly returned the manuscript to Tite Street. Shortly afterwards Wilde became bankrupt and a chaotic auction of his and his family's belongings took place in Tite Street. The auction catalogue includes no reference to this manuscript but does have:

125 An old oil painting of Will Hewes, framed

which was sold but eventually it, too, disappeared and has never re-appeared, which is a great pity. However, in November 1912 Ricketts did a thumbnail sketch of the portrait which we can now see:

Charles Ricketts, portrait sketch of Mr. W.H.
[image: William Andrews Clark Library, Los Angeles,
with permission of Leonie Sturge Moore and Charmian O'Neil]
[darkened and cropped by Geoff Dibb]

This is, undoubtedly, a very sketchy sketch of the oil painting and Ricketts drew it 23 years after he painted the original. Because of this passage of time it may not be a completely accurate reproduction but he did paint the original and his recollections are generally accurate. In any case, it is all we have.

We can make out some details which accord with Wilde's description of the portrait: it is a full length portrait of a man standing with his right leg advanced, his right arm is resting on a table or plinth (on which I can be persuaded is a book), his outfit (it looks to be sixteenth century) is darkly hatched to represent his 'black velvet doublet' and there is a rough indication of a worm-eaten frame. This is all fine but, top left, there is an object which looks to be an elaborate scroll or plaque which generally would have contained some details about the subject of the portrait. If sixteenth-century portraits include any information about the subject, it is a name and possibly age and date, usually written along the top of the picture or to the side of the portrait itself, or a coat of arms is painted. The use of a scroll to contain details, whilst known, is not common at this period. 

As I have already noted, in the magazine edition description of the portrait, Wilde writes that the sitter's name is on the frame:

... written in black uncial letters on a faded gold ground, "Master Will. Hews."

But, in drafting his book edition, this is changed by Wilde to:

... on the corner of the picture could be faintly seen the name of the young man himself written in gold uncial letters on the faded bleu de paon ground, "Master Will. Hews."

The name has moved from being on the frame to on the corner of the picture. I do accept that there is no mention in the text of a scroll bearing his name, and indeed, Wilde has previously described the background of the portrait as being peacock-blue, so his conception is of the name on the painted background. However, for whatever reason, the Ricketts sketch does show a scroll in the corner of the picture.

The most significant other change is in the third occurrence of the portrait where Merton's preliminary drawing is discovered:

It was almost a facsimile, - the only difference being that the two masks of Tragedy and Comedy were not suspended from the marble table as they are in the picture, but were lying on the floor at the young man's feet

It was almost a facsimile, — the only difference being that the two masks of Tragedy and Comedy were not lying on the floor at the young man's feet, as they were in the picture, but were suspended by gilt ribands.

What can we make of this significant change, moving the masks of comedy and tragedy from being suspended to lying on the floor? If the masks were suspended from the table in Ricketts's sketch of his portrait, then they would be obvious and just a little below the table top. They definitely are not there. Has Ricketts omitted this key detail or could there possibly be a mask lying on the floor at the young man's feet indicated by a semi-circular shape alongside Will Hewes' right foot?

I have a photographic reproduction of the manuscript which was published as the book in 1921 and this page is interesting: Wilde has pasted page 9 of the magazine article onto a larger sheet and has made changes to the magazine text shown below (struck through text is where Wilde has crossed words out and bold text is Wilde's new insertion):

... and on the frame itself corner of the picture could be faintly seen the name of the young man ... 

When it comes to the two masks Wilde has made a first set of changes:

... the two masks of Tragedy and Comedy were not suspended from the marble table pedestal as they are in the picture, but were lying placed on the floor at the young man's feet.

So at this earliest stage of correction, Wilde is improving his text, not altering his description. But then, with a very different pen, he scores through five lines of the sentence after ... the two masks of Tragedy and Comedy and a new section is written at the top of the page and inserted:

were not lying on the floor at the young man's feet, as they are in the picture, but were suspended by gilt ribands

I think we are seeing different corrections at different times, here. The earlier insertions (pedestal and placed) may have been made by Wilde to improve his text but this wholesale change in the position of the two masks must have been made later, after he received Ricketts's portrait and realised its error.

I have to admit that the sketch by Ricketts is not unambiguous when it comes to details. But Wilde must have had a reason to change his descriptions and I conclude that, although Wilde was overjoyed with Ricketts's portrait, it must not have reproduced these particular details accurately and, rather than ask Ricketts to paint another - clearly an unacceptable option - he edited what he hoped to be the text of his book to match the painting. After all, the text and the painting had to correlate because it was planned to be the book's frontispiece. 

Whilst this 'two masks' text is changed at this point in the manuscript, Wilde did not make the same change to the text at the beginning of the story and, therefore, the book edition descriptions published in 1921 differ. It may be that at that point, Wilde felt he had increased his text sufficiently to have created the draft of his book and sent it to be typed. After that he then worked on this typescript. This is commonly how he did work, editing typescripts and sometimes producing several as he redrafted his text. Perhaps it was a later, more complete and corrected text which was submitted to his publishers and this was returned to Tite Street and lost in the chaos of 1895.


I believe Wilde did alter the text of The Portrait of Mr. W.H. to accord with Ricketts's painting. I also believe that the text of the book-length version Wilde submitted to his publisher - probably in typescript - was lost in 1895 and the manuscript which was published in 1921 is an earlier draft.

The intriguing portraits of Mr. W.H. are both literary and actual: eventually there were six in total. The magazine edition had both the portrait (masks suspended) and Merton's original drawing of it (masks on the floor); the book edition (the typescript that I speculate existed but is now lost) had a different portrait (masks on the floor) and a different original drawing by Merton (masks suspended); Ricketts actually painted a forgery of an imaginary forgery (with masks on the floor) and, eventually, because this was lost, he sketched the portrait we have before us now (masks not suspended.)


On page 9 of the manuscript, following the amended description of the portrait, Wilde inserted a sentence for his book edition which wonderfully encapsulates the fiction, forgery and facts that constitute The Portrait of Mr. W.H.: 

It is quite clear from Sonnet XLVII that Shakespeare had a portrait of Mr. W.H. in his possession, and it seemed to me more than probable that here we had the very 'painted banquet' on which he invited his eye to feast, the actual picture that awoke his heart 'to heart's and eye's delight'.

This is Wilde's chronologically impossible fancy: Shakespeare's sonnets worshipping the 'Fair Youth' could have been written at any date from 1585 to the end of the century, but the seventeen year-old boy of the portrait is pointing at the dedicatory page which did not exist until publication in 1609. The portrait had to be painted after the Sonnets were published and, therefore, this young man cannot be Mr. W.H. and Shakespeare cannot have feasted his eyes upon it. After 1609, the 'Fair Youth' would not have been seventeen but aged anywhere between twenty-seven and his early forties.
     Geoff Dibb

Oscar Wilde, 'The Portrait of Mr. W.H.', in: Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, vol. CXLVI (July-December 1889), pp. 1-21.
The Portrait of Mr. W.H. As Written by Oscar Wilde. New York, Mitchell Kennerley, 1921.
Jean Paul Raymond & Charles Ricketts, Oscar Wilde Recollections. [London], The Nonesuch Press, 1932, pp. 28, 35-36.