Wednesday, October 31, 2012

66. A Sybil Pye binding

Sybil Pye (1879-1958) took up bookbinding in 1906 and she bound quite a few Vale Press books, using some of the tools that Charles Ricketts, whom she had first met that year, had given to her. Her story is told by Marianne Tidcombe in her excellent book on Women bookbinders 1880-1920 (1996), in which Appendix III reproduces impressions of the 31 tools (leaves, wheat and ornaments) that Ricketts had designed for specially commissioned Vale Press bindings.

A recent list of Sophie Schneideman Rare Books (London), 145 years of fine bindings, includes an early example of Pye's work. This was one of two bindings she made for the Vale Press edition of Thomas Sturge Moore's poem Danaë that was published in 1903. Tidcombe mentions the binding in white pigskin, blind- and gold-tooled, as being done for 'Miss Cooper' (Emma Cooper, one of the women who wrote under the name Michael Field) and another one for 'Miss Withers'. Both were presumably executed around 1906, a few years after the closure of the Vale Press. Sybil Pye did not design publisher's bindings, all her bookbindings are unique pieces.

Sybil Pye, binding for Thomas Sturge Moore, Danaë (1903): front cover [image kindly provided by Sophie Schneideman]
The binding is described in Sophie Schneideman's catalogue: 'full pigskin tooled with Ricketts-style tools in blind with gilt circles, hearts and dots on covers and turn-ins, with leaf pattern and gilt ruling and lettering on the spine, her monogram is in blind on the lower turn-in'. The spine, alas, is 'rather rubbed' and the book has 'some browning throughout', which is not unusual. It is not clear whether this is the Cooper or the Withers copy.

Sybil Pye, binding for Thomas Sturge Moore, Danaë (1903): back cover [image kindly provided by Sophie Schneideman]
There is some confusion over the type Sybil Pye used for the titling on the spine of her bookbindings. Tidcombe (page 148) asserts: 'The letters she used were Vale Capitals designed by Ricketts', but how was that possible? Pye met Ricketts in 1906, two years after the Vale Press was closed down and Ricketts had the type melted down and the punches thrown into the Thames. Tidcombe does not quote a source for her assumption. This needs further investigation. In the meantime, I do not suppose that Pye had access to Vale type capitals for her books.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

65. Alphonse Legros (3)

Earlier, I referred to an exhibition of paintings, drawings and etchings by Alphonse Legros that was held at the Dutch Gallery in London and that was reviewed by Ricketts in The Saturday review of  17 April 1897. The review has not been reprinted.
Catalogue of the Exhibition of pictures, watercolour drawings & etchings of Alphonse Legros (1897) (detail of the title-page)

In 1859, M. Legros painted "L'ex Voto" and "L'Angélus." In the waning of subsequent years and of many fashions in art, we find his work, with added powers of realization and control, characterized to-day by the same dignity of outlook that made it remarkable thirty-eight years ago. To men who, like Baudelaire, were the first to hail experiments in painting that have since distinguished schools, the work of Legros appealed with a definitive aspect of reticent mastery, at that time rare in art. To-day, in the Babel of methods and aims his pictures remain as a survival from a finer epoch. As is the case with most enduring work, their force has long been felt; but from habit their appeal to old admirers would seem to have slackened with the approach of the first grey hairs and the falling away of some cultured illusions. The appreciation of his work, like the qualities that work embodies, would seem to belong to an epoch of greater enthusiasm and refinement, such as we find incarnated in those collections, now, unfortunately, for the most part dispersed, in which were to be found pictures by Rossetti, Watts, Burne-Jones and Whistler - collections that cannot be formed again. So much for the conditions under which M. Legros's public appearances have become more and more rare, till the fortunate coincidence of this small, but representative, show at Mr. Van Wisselingh's with the purchase of an important picture for the nation has at last given us an opportunity of seeing some of his work in its many phases.
Catalogue of the Exhibition of pictures, watercolour drawings & etchings of Alphonse Legros (1897) (detail of title-page, note the raised space between '14' and 'Brook Street')
We miss, it is true, an adaquate collection of the portraits, by virtue of which M. Legros takes rank among the great portraitists of the world. There are charming drawings of children's heads, but no portion of that gallery of the notable men of our time which can be compared in its own way - that is to say, within the conditions of line work - with the series painted by Mr Watts. With a disdain for that casual aspect of things which keeps the modern realist busy upon the solution of problems that are unnesessary, M. Legros has sought, even in the deliberate choice of such conventional mediums as etching and silverpoint, for the serious forces that underlie the peculiarities of complexion or lighting, and so has noted the mansuetude of Newman, the intense inward disillusion of Manning as intimately as the elemental energies of Carlyle or Berlioz. This collection contains several landscapes, remarkable for a sense of structure in the rendering of ground and trees - along grey roads, beneath the rising of a hill, nestles the quiet of old houses becoming absorbed by the ground; here, the majesty of ancestral trees strikes across the stress and movement of the sky; there, we have the action of repose of figures, thrown into those "antique" gestures that hang about the washing of linen, the hewing of wood, or the rest of the wayfarer. By lovers of the rosy, the sentimental, a touch of sadness will be felt beneath the steady vision of growth and change that we admire in the art of Alphonse Legros. If at times he notes the desolation of the season, or those tragic vicissitudes of the storm and the quarry, we must remember that no sane or quite sincere view of nature should disregard the other side of things - an over-insistence upon sorrow may sometimes, have been a weakness in the great art of Eugène Delacroix, a total disregard of it is often an element of weakness in the best English art.
Alphonse Legros, 'Cardinal Manning' (photograph by George P. Landow)
In the picture "Femmes en Prière," now the property of the nation, we will note a total absence of false sentiment. A row of women at prayer - such is the subject. These women have come to the church to think about their troubles, to find consolation; perhaps merely for the cool and quiet of the walls; and, by their sides are the bundles and umbrellas of the market place. Think of the rendering of a like matter by a common artist. The too-pretty peasant girl, sop for the male susceptibilities, and the "human" interest for those touching home instincts of ladies - a child gazing at a careful sunbeam that cheers with its spilth of pink the natural quiet of the place. M. Legros has pleased himself with a set of hands which are delicate portraits that alone would point to a real study of Holbein. His picture touches one with its quiet and sincerity. There are delightful things for the art lover, common things but charming; the homely plaid upon a scart reminds one that Titian found a small check quite fine enough for the significance of the supper at Emmaus.

Some drawings  of a Progress of Death are at once spontaneous in handling and also in conception. Death forgets his nature (or, perhaps, remembers it) in love, and with youth - Death becomes an enchanter in the music of church service. Here we would instance one marvellously tender drawing, a musician playing to a crowd, that in its admirable rendering of poise and gesture, and in some kindred undercurrent of thought, would seem to belong to this set of Death and the passing of things.

If, glancing round the walls, one is tempted to define the peculiar excellence of the work shown here, an essential quality forces itself upon our attention that makes a difference between the incalculably rich in art and the very poor - the difference between Puvis and Burne-Jones on the one hand and workers with loud recent reputations on the other. That quality is design - design underlying the initial impulse. These designs were remarkable, worth the doing, before they were actually carried out, and the gifts of a rare temperament have been controlled to retain and enhance them. Mr. R.A.M. Stevenson, in his sympathetic note to the Catalogue, quotes le père Corot in support of those powers of memory, that independence of models which separates the master from the workman. This should be insisted upon, for in showing this independence M. Legros has only followed what has been the almost universal practice of artists from Giotto to Tiepolo.

A Burgundian by birth, M. Legros adds to a study of great students in art, such as Raphael, Mantegna, and Poussin, that native raciness of observation found in the realistic sculptors of Burgundy and the mediaeval painter Foucquet. In Burgundy the Roman brick is still turned up in the hoeing of the old vine soil, and, like that of his compatriot, M. Puvis de Chavannes, the work of M. Legros is tinged with an element of breeding, an element of antique taste, the heritage of a race that was civilized more than a thousand years ago. With much that is excellent in French art he combines the faculties of the sculptor, and so we find here medals that would have charmed Matteo da Pasti, and a torso that might have been found at Arles, Nîmes, or Vaucluse. We are told that sculpture can no longer find room in our spaceless houses, yet these medals that might go down to our children as evidences of our own refinement may be held in the hollow of a hand, the frail torso could be niched anywhere.

A contemporary of Manet, Faintin, and Degas, owing to a great precocity his début as an artist belongs to the year in which Millet exhibited "Les Glâneuses" and Courbet began to attract attention. Though in the course of years, like Puvis de Chavannes, he might have achieved a tardy reputation in France, it is in England that he has chosen to remain, and it is here that he won the friendship and admiration of such men as Watts and Rossetti.
                                                                                     Charles Ricketts

Charles Ricketts, 'Legros', in: The Saturday review, 17 April 1897, p. 406-407 [review of an exhibition at the Dutch Gallery, London, April-May 1897].
Catalogue of the Exhibition of pictures, watercolour drawings & etchings of Alphonse Legros (1897) (page xiii)

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

64. Twelve (no: eleven) woodcuts

Bassenge Buchauktionen in Berlin-Grunewald issues hefty catalogues of books, prints, art, manuscript material and objects since its foundation in 1953. The catalogue of Moderne Literatur & Kunstdokumentation has been published in conjunction with the hundredth auction on 20 October 2012.

Title-page of Twelve woodcuts in black and color (1891-1893)
In it, a copy of the rare portfolio with woodcuts by Lucien Pissarro is described as number 3534, Twelve woodcuts in black and colors, also known as the First portfolio. Work on this was begun in 1891 and Ricketts and Shannon decided with Pissarro to issue the portfolio as a Vale edition. Pissarro wrote to his father Camille (14 January 1892) that only 12 copies would be printed. During 1892 he printed the colour woodcuts (which went back to designs that he made in the previous year) and it seems that the portfolio was issued a year later, in January or February 1893, although its title-page has '1891'. Art dealer P. Durand-Ruel (according to a letter from Camille to Lucien Pissarro, 27 February 1893) prefered the landscapes to the figures and argued that the price was prohibitive (6 guineas). The Dutch art critic and artist Jan Veth wrote about the portfolio on 5 March 1893, and especially liked the colouring of 'First steps', depicting a girl leading a younger girl. This woodcut was printed in deep brown and hand-coloured in pink, blue, red, yellow, and green.

Lucien Pissarro, 'First steps' (woodcut)
Pissarro also added highlights in bronze powder (looking like gold) on several woodcuts, such as 'April' and 'Le tennis'.
Lucien Pissarro, 'April'
The Berlin set - estimated price 5000 - is not complete. It lacks the woodcut 'Le tennis'. Remarkably, the same set was auctioned at Haarlem in May of this year at Bubb Kuyper Auctions. However, the set remained unsold with an estimate of 5000 to 7000. The same set had been auctioned almost ten years earlier at Van Gendt Book Auctions in Amsterdam (Print auction No. 87, 19 June 2001), when it sold for 4200 Dutch guilders (approximately 2000) to a Dutch collector. The set may have been in Dutch collections before that 2001 auction, as it was listed in catalogues of the art dealer Van Wisselingh between 1895 and 1904. The price at the time was 100 Dutch guilders.

A complete set of this portfolio was listed by Sims Reed in 2002 and 2003 for £16.000.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

63. Alphonse Legros (2)

Charles Ricketts engraved three wood-cuts after drawings by Alphonse Legros. They were exhibited during 'The first exhibition of original wood engraving' at the Dutch Gallery in 14, Brook Street, London in 1898.
The first exhibition of original wood engraving (London, The Dutch Gallery, 1898, p. v: detail)
The three woodcuts were also listed in A catalogue of paintings, drawings, etchings and lithographs by Professor Alphonse Legros (1837-1911) from the collection of Frank E. Bliss, Esq. (1922) as items 342-343. The first one (342), 'Une messe macabre or Death in the Chantry', was called 'La mort musicienne' in the Dutch Gallery catalogue of 1898. In the background a skeleton is conducting the congregation, while another skeleton plays the organ to the left. The music has made the audience jumpy. 
Charles Ricketts, 'Une messe macabre' (or Death in the Chantry), woodcut after a drawing by Alphonse Legros
The other two (listed together as 343) are 'Death the wooer' (earlier title: 'Death the persuader') and 'Young girl and death' (also known as 'Jeune fille et la mort'). The former of these was reproduced on the cover of the 1922 catalogue; the latter was printed in Léonce Bénédite's Alphonse Legros (Paris, Librairie Paul Ollendorff, 1900, facing p. 20) and an illustration of that image can be found on: Adventures in the print trade (2008). Both woodcuts show a young woman and a skeleton. In 'Death the wooer' the woman is seen from the front. Death has stripped her of her robe, and is offering a money-bag. In 'Young girl and death' we see them from behind and the skeleton has become her lover.
Charles Ricketts, 'Death the wooer', woodcut after a drawing by Alphonse Legros
Charles Ricketts, 'Young girl and death', woodcut after a drawing by Alphonse Legros
The inclusion of the three woodcuts after drawings by Legros in the 1898 exhibition of original wood engraving, an initiative of the Vale Press coterie, was an attempt to link the efforts of a younger generation - T.S. Moore, C.H. Shannon, C. Ricketts, R. Savage, L. Pissarro and William Nicholson - to those of the generation of J.F. Millet and Alphonse Legros. A year earlier, the Dutch Gallery had shown an exhibition of paintings, drawings and etchings by Legros, which was reviewed by Ricketts in The Saturday Review.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

62. Extra illustrated

The catalogue for sale 2289 of the New York based Swann Auction Galleries describes a complete set of the Vale Shakespeare, which will be auctioned on 11 October. The headline in the catalogue promises a unique copy:

Copy Number One, The very uncommon extra illustrated edition.

This set comprises the 37 volumes of the Vale Press edition of Shakespeare, which was issued in 1900-1903, in 'full turquoise morocco' bindings, displaying 'hand tooled wavy gilt surrounding a red inlaid flower design in gilt-ruled borders'. The illustration shows how lavishly the bindings have been decorated. It is not mentioned that for this set the original buckram bindings, with a blind-stamped design by Charles Ricketts, who designed the series from cover to cover, have been discarded.

The Vale Shakespeare edition (1900-1903) as offered by Swann Auction Galleries, 2012
The set has been extra illustrated with original watercolour frontispieces, with Grolier plates, Boydell plates and handcoloured Pillé plates, according to the catalogue, and also with 'original drawings of Shakespearian characters in watercolour'.

Title page of Shakespeare, The life of Timon of Athens (Vale Press, 1900), an extra illustrated copy
None of these additional drawings or prints are by Ricketts, however, the description, by stating that this is the 'uncommon extra illustrated edition', suggests that it was his own intention to add these to the volumes, and this extra illustrated copy is a special Vale Press edition. The book contains an extra limitation page, announcing:

The Vale Press edition of the works of Shakespeare is limited to 300 copies. This is copy number one.

This page is not set in the Avon type, which was used exclusively for the edition, nor in one of the other two types that were designed by Ricketts for the Vale Press. The limitation page is certainly not an initiative of the Vale Press, but probably the work of a collector or dealer. John Lane, who distributed copies in the United States, never advertised such an edition. Whoever was responsible followed the fashion of the times, first by having the complete set rebound in leather, secondly by adding all these plates, and thirdly by adding these bogus limitation pages. There is no number one, we can only say that there was a collector who wanted to be a Number One Collector.

Inserted limitation page in Shakespeare, The life of Timon of Athens (Vale Press, 1900)
The idea was to create a luxurious, personal and unique copy, and if this meant that the unity of the book's design was distorted, who cared? The collector clearly did not share Ricketts's ideals and opinions on book design. He inserted the limitation page where Ricketts had intended two opposing pages to form a whole.
Original opening pages in Shakespeare, The life of Timon of Athens (Vale Press, 1900)
This is not a Vale Press book along Ricketts's lines anymore, but has become a Victorianized edition, and, as such, it is a memento of a certain collector's tradition, though not a representative of the private press revolution that involved the Vale Press in setting an example for commercial presses. Here we see the collector as a traditionalist, destroying the aspirations of a more modern movement in book design.