Ricketts published four plays by 'Michael Field' (his friends Edith Cooper and Katherine Bradley), the first of which was Fair Rosamund. This was not a new text, it had originally been issued (twice) in 1884, but for the Vale Press edition the authors revised the text before and during printing, demanding more proofs than Ricketts cared to give them. As they had published a dozen books and he was only a 'young' publisher, they insisted on deciding how many proofs were necessary, and wanted to have a say in the design of the book. Ricketts's revenge was to be secretive about the cover, and when they asked if they would like it, he responded: 'I shall be immensely wounded & unforgiving, if you do not'. (*)
The authors received a copy on 14 April 1897, and a month later their diary carried this note: 'It is partly green as the summer peascod with creamy rose-trellis, the roses crowned with briar-thorns & under them fat doves transfixed with arrows as thoroughly as St. Sebastian'. This was another instance of Ricketts's revenge; he had consciously fattened the doves, while he usually did the opposite: he was famous for his elongated art nouveau figures. 'The half-binding is of mist-like blue, flecked with leaves & shapes in brownish purple - the most restless effect ever produced by a volume. The green is sharp, the design complex. The whole binding seems the result of the first spasm of the Spring that is to release Oscar on the imagination of Ricketts'. [Oscar Wilde was released from prison on 19 May 1897.] The diary entry continued: 'But the doves! - sentimental, revolting... We suffer inexpressibly. The relation of cover & book does not exist; there is nothing of our beloved Rosamund in this Valentine symbol, so obvious, so unlovely'. (**)
|'Bird, arrow, and rose', patterned paper for Michael Field, Fair Rosamund (1897)|
While the authors denied a link between the text and the patterned paper for the binding, several scholars have pointed out that Ricketts carefully took elements from the story for his imagery. Susan Ashbrook, for example, contended: 'The decorations of the binding include a diagonally repeating motif of a dove with a Plantaganet crown over its head, pierced through the breast by an arrow, against a trellis of roses. The symbolism is clearly that of innocence destroyed through love, with the arrow doing double-duty as a symbol of love and death. The rose is an obvious allusion to Rosamund. At the close of the play the king says to the dead body of his mistress: "A Rosa Mundi, thou | That were to the king a tender sweet brier-rose, | They've shed thy petals".'
|Patterned paper for the spine of Michael Field, Fair Rosamund (1897)|
Legend has it that Rosamund Clifford, a mistress of King Henry II (1133-1189), had to hide in a hunting lodge at Woodstock, which was surrounded by a maze, or with roses, as she was threatened by the Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine. There are many stories surrounding Rosamund's hiding place and her death, but no indisputable facts are available. Rosamund was known as The Fair Rosamund or The Rose of the World, and became the subject of many poems and stories.
|Patterned paper for the boards of Michael Field, Fair Rosamund (1897)|
Ricketts signed the paper with his monogram CR on the rump of one of the doves (it was repeated on the back cover), clearly establishing the design as his own, regardless of the author's opinion. It should be noted that there are two patterned papers, one for the spine, and one for the boards. The first design of petals and dots alternated with roses and leaves is printed in red on blue paper. The second paper is printed in green on buff coloured paper; this is a complicated design, with several diagonals: the arrows pointing to the left cross the trellis going from left to right. The doves are fixed to the lines of the trellis - forming an angle of 60 degrees. However, the doves form a pattern of their own on a line that forms an angle of 30 degrees. The roses, also, have been clustered along these lines in different angles.
|Dove, signed 'CR', patterned paper for Michael Field, Fair Rosamund (1897) [detail]|
A combination of two patterned papers, printed in red and green, was also applied for a later Vale Press edition: The Rowley poems of Thomas Chatterton (1898).
(*) Diary of Michael Field, 18 February 1897.
(**) Ivor C. Treby, The Michael Field catalogue. A book of lists. London, De Blackland Press, 1998, p. 34; Diary of Michael Field, 23 March 1897, quoted after Paul Delaney, 'Book Design. A nineteenth-century revival', in: The connoisseur, August 1978, p. 282-289.
(***) Susan Ashbrook: The private press movement in Britain 1890-1914. Boston, Boston University Graduate School, 1991, p. 154.