Wednesday, April 25, 2012

39. Charles Ricketts and The Burlington magazine

This week's contribution to the blog has been written by Barbara Pezzini, index editor of The Burlington magazine.

Charles Ricketts and The Burlington magazine

Between 1904 and 1909 Charles Ricketts wrote twenty articles for The Burlington magazine, starting in June 1904 with a brief, dismissive review of a book on Velazquez by W. Wilberforce and A.R. Gilbert, to conclude in 1909 with a long eulogy in memory of his recently deceased friend, the painter Charles Conder. These two pieces are representative of Ricketts's writings for the Burlington, which span between old-masters and modern art and endeavour to construct a dialogue between them. Ricketts was interested in and equally able to engage with artists as diverse as Dalou, Pisanello, Conder, Meunier and Velàzquez. A successful painter himself who collected and studied ancient art, Ricketts's passion for old-masters paintings and his preference for a style of art which still followed the ancient figurative canon has been so far interpreted as a late product of a Victorian Aestheticism - Ricketts himself described his works as by 'an undiscovered master of the nineteenth century' (*).

But there are more timely aspects in Ricketts's writing and the fact that he chose to contribute to The Burlington magazine is significant, as this newly founded journal had a novel approach, for Britain, to art history. Since its first issue in March 1903, the Burlington proclaimed its interest for ancient art and the most current subjects of art historical debate: Italian and Northern European art, especially the late medieval and early Renaissance artists then known as 'primitives'. The Burlington introduced document-based, historicist art writing indebted to formalist 'new criticism', German scholarship and Morellian connoisseurship.

This was based on the works of the Italian scholar Giovanni Morelli who had developed a 'system' to identify the authors of works of art based on the analysis of small pictorial details such as nails, ears or folds in the drapery. The focus in the Burlington was to reconsider artists, such as Leonardo and Botticelli, treated as emotional cult figures by the poetic criticism of the aestheticist movement, with a new formalist and documentary methodology and taking full advantage of the new comparative possibilities offered by photographic reproductions of works of art. For Ricketts, the main method of study of ancient art was a detailed formal analysis which would lead to its attribution. In a letter of September 1906 (The Burlington magazine, September 1906, p. 426) Ricketts recurs to the very contemporary vocabulary of Morellian analysis to confute an attribution to Hubert van Eyck as he invites the viewer to examine 'the hands, the feet, the folds of the drapery' of this painting (Stigmatization of Saint Francis, now attributed to Jan van Eyck).

'Stigmatization of Saint Francis', photograph as published in The Burlington magazine (work now attributed to Jan van Eyck, Philadelphia Museum of Art)
This philological approach found its parallel in contemporary art practice: there was a similar interest in renewing art through the investigation of its primary sources and the rediscovery of long lost techniques, as expressed in the work of Christiana Herringham, her translation of Cennino Cennini and her revival of the ancient technique of tempera. Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon too had similar aims in their revival of painting. Likewise, in Ricketts's writings on contemporary art modern masters were inserted in a chronological formalist reading of art history and compared to ancient artists.

For instance, the sculptor Constantin Meunier is seen as similar to those 'sober craftsmen who carved the Labours and the Months in Gothic cathedrals' and carrying the same 'male energies as Donatello' (The Burlington magazine, June 1905, p. 182). A similar need to understand the formal components and subjects of ancient art and transform them in a contemporary emotional statement can be seen in his series of the passion of Christ of 1902-1905. In his 'Descent from the Cross', the colouring, foreshortening and grouping recall clearly Italian Venetian art, but the lack of eye contact, absence of facial expression, the highly idealised, gloomy landscape create an atmosphere of reverie closer to early twentieth-century sensibility.

Charles Ricketts, 'Descent from the Cross' (William Morris Gallery, London) (another work of this series in The Tate, London)
Ricketts ceased to write for the Burlington following his disagreement with Roger Fry, one of the magazine's most influential founders, when Fry assumed the joint editorship of the magazine with Lionel Cust in 1909. As Fry wrote to R.C. Trevelyan: 'Ricketts has resigned from the Burlington Consulting Committee because I am editor! Isn't he funny? I hope I may persuade him to relent; not that he is important but I have a foolish liking for him' (**)

Famously Kenneth Clark had described Fry and Ricketts as critics belonging to two opposite schools (***), but for a few years shortly after 1900 Fry and Ricketts had much in common and were active in the same milieu. They exhibited their work in the same gallery, Carfax and Co., wrote for the same journal, The Burlington magazine, and their writings on art had much in common too. Fry and Ricketts both favoured the period between 1400 and 1700, Italian art in particular, and both had an understanding of the importance of the art of the past for the present, that Ricketts poetically defined as 'nothing beautiful and welcome in human endeavour is without ascendancy in the best of our experience, which we call the art of the past' (The Burlington magazine, April 1909, p. 8).

This common ground was to find a fraction since Fry had embraced the art of Cézanne and Post-Impressionism, favouring a visual vocabulary of formal primitivism that still recourred to ancient art but avoided the old-master inspired subjects, composition and subtle tonal colourism still preferred by Ricketts. Fry's support for Cézanne was 'The last straw', Ricketts wrote: 'There are frigid forms of mental prostitution which no lover of the old masters and fine moderns ought to abide' (****). Ricketts was never to write for the Burlington again.
(*) J.G.P. Delaney, Charles Ricketts. A biography. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1990, p. 142-143.
(**) Letters of Roger Fry. Denys Sutton (Ed.). London,  Chatto and Windus, 1972, vol. 1, p. 309.
(***) Kenneth Clark, 'Foreword', in: Stephen Calloway, Charles Ricketts. Subtle and fantastic decorator. London, Thames and Hudson, 1979, p. 6.
(****) Delaney, p. 246 (letter to Sidney Cockerell, 6 January 1910).

A list of articles and letters by Ricketts in The Burlington magazine, compiled by Barbara Pezzini, will be published in next week's blog.
See also the website of The Burlington magazine.