Wednesday, June 27, 2012

48. Ireland where I have never been

I am in Dublin to present a paper at the annual conference of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing (SHARP), and although I will not speak about Ricketts, there are many reasons to write about Ricketts and Ireland. He designed books, costumes and theater sets for the works of three major Irish writers, Oscar Wilde, G.B. Shaw and W.B. Yeats.

Writing about the scenery he designed for Yeats's play Well of the Saints he confessed to another Irish writer, J.M. Synge: 'I wish I had been given the time to reason it out properly. I had to work from Yeats's descriptions of Ireland where I have never been' (letter, c. May 1908). It seems his travels always led him in the opposite direction, to France, Italy, Spain and other continental countries.

That aside, he was not very interested in the Irish cause, and would be bored by Yeats's nationalism, but had sympathy for the Irish stage and when the actors came to London he was in the audience. Yeats became the first playwriter for whom Ricketts designed costumes and Yeats and Ricketts worked together on several occasions.

Cover for W.B. Yeats, Essays (1924), designed by Charles Ricketts
One of his later book designs is for Yeats as well, and it was used for six volumes of the collected works that were published by Macmillan from 1922 onwards. The books were bound in green cloth, with a blindstamped design of architectural elements, roses in the four corners (sometimes wrongly identified as birds), sprays of yew and their berries in the corners of the central panel, which also contained circles and circled dots. The design was also used for the dustwrapper. 
Dustwrapper for W.B. Yeats, Essays (1924), designed by Charles Ricketts
Yeats found the designs 'perfect and serviceable', especially the bookplate-like decoration on the endpapers, depicting 'a unicorn couching on pearls before a fountain, backed by a cave full of stars', as Ricketts wrote to Yeats: 'On the crest of the cave is what I believe to be a hawk contemplating the moon'. These symbols were very dear to Yeats, who had wanted them on the cover, which Ricketts found unsuited for the material: a cover stamped in blind required a formal and abstract treatment, or it would look 'poor and ambitious'. It shows how practical Ricketts was as a designer, and also that his later designs are less crowded and much more clear than his very early designs, although his roses can still be taken for birds and his pearls for pebbles.

Decoration on the endpapers of W.B. Yeats, Essays (1924), designed by Charles Ricketts