Wednesday, January 4, 2012

24. Why Shannon?

The title of this blog has been changed from 'Charles Ricketts' to 'Charles Ricketts & Charles Shannon' - it goes without saying that the name of Charles Shannon keeps popping up in stories about Ricketts. I could have added 'and their circle', as the names of their close friends, such as Michael Field, Lucien Pissarro, Richard Roland Holst, and Oscar Wilde, also frequently appear in these texts, and future entries will as a matter of course mention other friends as well: John Gray, Thomas Sturge Moore, Laurence Binyon, W. Llewellyn Hacon, Charles Holmes, Gordon Bottomley, J.W. Gleeson White, George Bernard Shaw, W.B. Yeats, Selwyn Image - and there are many others.

It is appropriate to dedicate this first instalment of the year 2012, and the first blog under the new title to Ricketts's partner Charles Shannon. The question is: Why Shannon?

Although Charles Shannon was primarily known for his lithographs and paintings, in the eighteen-nineties he showed a versatility that was comparable to that of Ricketts. He was a teacher at the Croydon Art School, he published magazine illustrations in the eighteen-eighties and supplied four illustrations for Oscar Wilde's A House of Pomegranates; together with Ricketts he designed and cut the wood-engravings for Daphnis and Chloe and Hero and Leander, he was an art editor for The Pageant (1896-1897), and he did the ruling for Ricketts's book work (as Ricketts was 'a fool with a ruler').
Cover for the first issue of The Dial (1889)
They started a magazine of their own, The Dial, the first issue of which appeared in August 1889, and announced: 'This number is published by C.H. Shannon, The Vale, King's Road, Chelsea, S.W., from whom copies can be obtained; price seven shillings and sixpence'. Shannon was the publisher, not Ricketts, who was deemed too unpractical for the job. The Dial famously brought them the friendship of Oscar Wilde, who saw to it that Ricketts was to design most of his books, including The Picture of Dorian Gray, Intentions, and The Sphinx, and these designs encouraged his publishers to give more assignments to Ricketts.

Ricketts's versatility is shown in Charles Ricketts, R.A. (1933), which contains illustrations of costume and stage designs (8), woodcuts (10), oil paintings (15), sculptures (7), pen drawings for book illustrations (11), lithographs (2), a bookbinding design, and a locket. A similar book on Shannon in a series of monographs on 'Contemporary British Artists' (1924) had only illustrations of oil paintings (29) and drawings (6). His lithographs, magazine illustrations and woodcuts were not represented, nor were the four binding designs he did for the plays of Oscar Wilde.

Charles Shannon, cover for Oscar Wilde's TheIimportance of Being Earnest (1899)
In 1893 Wilde suggested that Shannon should design the binding for his society comedies, starting with Lady Windermere's Fan. In advertisements these were described as having 'a specially designed Title-page and binding to each volume by Charles Shannon'. Although Shannon had been involved in five book design projects (all in collaboration with Ricketts), Ricketts on the other hand had designed illustrations or covers for sixteen books. The contract that agreed to have the designs done by Shannon, stipulated that two other books should be designed by Charles Ricketts and Aubrey Beardsley who had attracted far more attention as book designers than Shannon. So, why Shannon?

The question has not been raised before, not even in Josephine M. Guy and Ian Small's fascinating Oscar Wilde's Profession (2000), which assembled all details about production, contracts and payments. I think that Wilde made the choice for Shannon, because he did not want the other designers to influence the sales of the plays. Wilde and his publishers intended the books with designs by Ricketts and Beardsley to be exclusive, and the print-runs were accordingly small, while the prices were high. The comedies, however, were intended for a wider audience: the prices were more moderate and the print-runs were doubled. Shannon was, possibly, hired to deliver less eccentric designs.

Charles Shannon, floral design for the cover of Oscar Wilde's Lady Windermere's Fan (1893)
Charles Shannon, mirrored version of the floral design for the cover of Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest (1899)
Wilde went to the house in The Vale to discuss the book design and his thoughts will have been of importance to Shannon, who afterwards wrote to John Lane (probably in July 1893) that 'Oscar called tonight' and agreed to the prices of the ordinary and special editions. For the advertisements Lane could use Shannon's description ('In a binding & title page specially designed by Charles Shannon'), but it was obvious that Wilde influenced the design of the series of comedies, as 'Oscar is averse to the idea of their being all bound in the same cover', and on the other hand, that Shannon would not only become involved in the design of the binding and the title page; he would also supervise the printing. Lane was told, that as soon as the copy was ready, Shannon would take it to 'the Ballantyne' (the printers of Lady Windermere's Fan).(*) In fact, Shannon designed the volume, the dimensions, the page setting and the floral ornaments for the cover, although the contract only mentioned a cover design. Wilde asked John Lane (May 1893) to 'have some pages set up for Shannon to see - or ask him to choose type'. In June he wrote to Charles Ricketts: 'Tell Shannon I am quite charmed with the setting of Lady Windermere - it looks delightful and is exquisitely placed'.(**) We may suppose that the next play, A Woman of No Importance, was also to his liking.
Charles Shannon, floral design for the cover of Oscar Wilde's A Woman of No Importance (1894)
Charles Shannon, floral design for the cover of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband (1899)
Ricketts must have liked them too, but it is unclear to what extent he was involved in the designs, as up to that point, Shannon's book designs had all been done in collaboration with Ricketts. When Ricketts designed the cover for The Pageant - the first issue appeared in December 1895; Wilde had been convicted and sent to prison during the summer - he used the same material, the same colour and the same pattern of small floral designs. This could be interpreted as a statement, either of his authorship of the binding designs for Wilde's plays, or, and this is more likely, as a joint statement by Ricketts and Shannon, which was meant to publicly show their sympathy for Wilde by publishing a magazine that had the same kind of binding design, and the same colour, as the books of Oscar Wilde.

Obviously, Wilde was pleased with the Shannon designs for his plays, which cannot be said of Ricketts's design for The Sphinx or Beardsley's design for Salomé, which he disliked. After his release from prison, he asked Ricketts to design one book cover (again, an exclusive edition, for The Ballad of Reading Goal), which he detested, and he was anxious to have Shannon design the book covers for his last two society comedies, The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband, even though Shannon had designed no other books in the years between 1894 and 1899, as he devoted himself to lithography and painting, and had just embarked on a career as a portrait painter.

(*) James G. Nelson, The Early Nineties. A View from the Bodley Head. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1971, p. 244.
(**) The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde. Edited by Merlin Holland and Rupert Hart-Davis. London, Fourth Estate, 2000, p. 565-566.