Wednesday, August 31, 2011

7. Illustrated initials

Before Charles Ricketts designed  a few (complete and incomplete) series of initials for the Vale Press editions (1896-1904), he not only had been inspired for these by William Morris's initials for the Kelmscott Press, or by initials in early printed books, he had also been testing his capabilities as a designer of initials for commercial magazines.
Initial 'P' (prospectus for the Vale Press edition of William Blake's Poetical Sketches, 1899)
Most Victorian periodicals, including children's monthlies and art magazines, commissioned head- and tailpieces as well as illustrated initials for stories, poems, and articles. There was quite an army of artists involved, and competition was stiff. During the 1880s and 1890s Ricketts was one of them. Although these drawings were considered hackwork, Ricketts was gradually able to distinguish himself from other artists, not only by signing his work with his full name or his initials CR, - he also introduced typical art nouveau style elements.

From Atalanta, vol. III, no. 27 (December 1889), p. [190] 
Some of Ricketts's early illustrated initials are playful or experimental, like the small initials for 'Whittington's advancement' (Atalanta, December 1889), others show a more serious awareness of historical examples, such as the one for an essay by Wilhelmina Munster on 'A Woman's Thoughts upon English Ballad-Singers and English Ballad-Singing', published in The Woman's World, edited by Oscar Wilde (1888).

From The woman's world, vol. I, no. 8 (June 1888), p. 372.
When Ricketts embarked on his publishing activities for the Vale Press, he had had a long training as a draughtsman of initials.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

6. A delicate wraith

In Oscar Wilde. Recollections by Jean Paul Raymond Charles Ricketts wrote about himself as 'an elderly Englishman who, years ago, had known Oscar Wilde'. Thus he introduced himself as a character in a story about the 1890s. 

Later, Michael Lewis MacLennan, the Canadian dramatist, wrote a play about Ricketts and his lifelong companion, Charles Shannon, Last Romantics. It was first presented in February 2003 by the Necessary Angel Theatre Company and The National Arts Centre, Toronto. The description of Ricketts introduces him as:  'stooped, high reedy voice, flamboyant'.

Ricketts has not yet been turned into a character of a novel or a television series, however, he has made something of an appearance in a detective novel, published in 2002 by Orion Books in London: Fiona Mountain's Pale as the Dead.

The story is about a link between the present and the Pre-Raphaelites. The leading character of the novel is Natasha Blake, an 'ancestor detective', whose research, to quote a review, 'takes us from the Cotswolds and Oxford to Highgate Cemetery and back again', focussing on Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal, Rossetti's wife who in 1862 took her own life.

The author has the detective reading a book about the Pre-Raphaelite movement: 'She stood up, went to the bookcase and pulled out The Pre-Raphaelite Dream', a book by William Gaunt, most editions of which have appeared under the original title: The Pre-Raphaelite Tragedy. She found 'two mentions of Lizzie in a chapter entitled "Flower of Death".' One of the illustrations is of Rossetti's painting 'Beate Beatrix'.

'The text below that illustration read: "Her expression varied in shades of sadness, as if a premonition of early death overshadowed her life," wrote Sharp, whilst Ricketts called her "A delicate wraith, a ghost in the house of the living".' (p. 102).

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

5. CR and AE

Volume V of The Oxford History of the Irish Book, edited by Clare Hutton and Patrick Walsh, appeared earlier this year. For this volume, The Irish Book in English 1891-2000, Warwick Gould has written a chapter on Macmillan's Irish list (p. 481-516).

In 1904 George W. Russell (who wrote under the initials 'A.E.') transferred his publications from John Lane to Macmillan: 'Always the holy fool, Russell, without obsequiousness but with an undeniable indirection, got the very best for himself and numerous other Irish writers he recommended to the firm' (p. 492). 

Russell's Collected Poems sold rather well. Between 1913 and 1919 four editions of a thousand copies were printed, issued in dark-blue cloth: 'single gilt border around the front cover, lettering of title and author's name ("A.E.") in black capitals on spine and top board' (p. 493). Gould points out that Russell preferred these austere bindings to those of his fellow Irish writer W.B. Yeats. The Yeats bindings were designed by Thomas Sturge Moore, or by Charles Ricketts, who, for example, designed a decorative blind-stamped cover for the uniform edition of Yeats's collected works in the twenties. The spine design for these collected works was used by Macmillan for another series of books of poetry by John Freeman, Katherine Tynan, James Stephens, Lennox Robinson, and others.

Another design by Ricketts was done for a series of selected poems, the first one being The Golden Treasury of Modern Lyrics, selected and arranged by Laurence Binyon (Macmillan, 1924). This design - a blind-stamped upper board, the spine printed in gold - was later used for Russell's Selected Poems (1935), whether he liked it or not. The front cover had lines, dots, leaves, flowers, and butterflies blind-stamped on blue cloth. The dust-wrapper shows a quote from Russell and a portrait by the Polish painter count Casimir Dunin Markievicz, who lived in Dublin.


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

4. Poems in Prose

The online journal Victorian Network (Summer 2011) has published an essay by Jeremiah Mercurio (University of St. Andrews) on two unpublished drawings by Charles Ricketts. Part of a series of drawings dating from the early nineteen-twenties, they illustrate the Poems in Prose of Oscar Wilde. According to his letters to Gordon Bottomley, Ricketts first made sketches for an intended publication in the early eighteen-nineties. These were never used and were subsequently mislaid. In 1918 Ricketts found a batch of old sketches and drawings and in 1924 he executed eight new drawings 'in my old manner'.

Two of these are discussed by Jeremiah Mercurio in his essay 'Faithful Infidelity. Charles Ricketts' Illustrations for Two of Oscar Wilde's Poems in Prose'. He argues that while Ricketts's illustrations for 'The Disciple' and 'The House of Judgment' reproduce the meanings of the texts they represent, they also 'parody and elaborate on them'. This way, Ricketts was able to declare his 'independence as an illustrator' and 'his autonomy as a thinker'. Ricketts's 'illustrational strategies', according to Mercurio, are designed 'to disprove Wilde's description of visual art as limited compared to language'.

The article in the Victorian Network also illustrates the two drawings, which are kept in the collection of the Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery, Carlisle.

The 'Poems in Prose' have been published in The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Volume I. Poems and Poems in Prose (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000).

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

3. Early Dutch collectors

The history of the private press movement in the Netherlands (1910-2010) was recently the subject of an exhibition and a book. There is also a website, hosted by the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, National Library of the Netherlands: The Ideal Book. The publication contains more information than the website which does not include the chapters about the origin of the term 'private press' or the emergence of the private press movement in countries such as England, Belgium, Germany and the United States. This last chapter mentions a few names of Dutch collectors of private press books, but not much is known about their intentions, the fate of their collections, or their personal life.

There is one J. Visser from Rotterdam, for example, who lent books to the 1904 exhibition at the Plantin Moretus museum in Antwerp where a multitude of modern books was on show. Visser loaned Kelmscott and Vale Press books among others. The collector N.J. Beversen (who also owned a few Ricketts items) provided books by the Doves Press and Essex House Press. Beversen (1860-1932) is better known, he was a classicist and a rector of the Rotterdam grammar school. Edward Koster (1861-1937), another classicist, was a teacher at the Haganum grammar school of The Hague. He possessed books by a variety of private presses, including Ricketts's Vale Press. 

A newspaper clipping brought another collector to my attention: it mentions the property of 'a gentleman at Harlem' (the Dutch city of Haarlem, near Amsterdam). His collection was auctioned by R.W.P. de Vries in Amsterdam on Tuesday 23 February 1926. More than his place of residence is not known. There is no introduction to the catalogue, nor a photograph. Almost two hundred English private press books were on sale. The catalogue lists six pages of Vale Press books, revealing that the collection was almost complete, lacking only a copy of The Blessed Damozel (Rossetti), The Centaur, The Bacchante (GuĂ©rin) and the Catalogue of Mr. Shannon's Lithographs (Ricketts). The newspaper reported that the complete works of Shakespeare in 39 volumes were sold for ten Dutch guilders. All books had the original vellum, paper or buckram bindings. There were no special copies on vellum (such as the one illustrated below), however, this may well have been the largest Vale Press collection in the Netherlands at the time. Unfortunately, the collector is not identified. 
The Vale Press edition of Tennyson's Lyric Poems (1900), one of ten copies on vellum, from the collection of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague. [Photo by Jos Uljee. © Koninklijke Bibliotheek.]