Wednesday, November 28, 2012

70. The colour of In the key of blue

Last week Paul Rassam inquired 'whether there was a reliable source for the story about the trial binding of In the key of blue'.

What is the story? Late December 1892 a new book by John Addington Symonds, In the key of blue and other prose essays was issued under the joint imprint of Elkin Mathews & John Lane, London, and Macmillan & Company in New York. Symonds (born 1840) died a few months later, on 19 April 1893, and was buried in Rome.
Charles Ricketts, cover design for J.A. Symonds, In the key of blue and other prose essays, first edition, bound in tan cloth (1893)
Charles Ricketts had been commissioned to design In the key of blue, and he delivered a cover that incorporated floral motives. The prospectus did not specify these floral decorations, but mentioned the name of the designer: 'The title-page and binding designed by C.S. Ricketts'. An early advertisement, listed in List of books in belles lettres, issued by Mathews and Lane and dated '1892-93' described it in more detail: 'with Cover (Hyacinths and Laurel) designed by C.S. Ricketts'. In a later advertisement, in Elkin Mathews & John Lane's list of new and forthcoming books, dated 1893, the 'hyacinths' were exchanged for 'blue-bells'. As hyacinths and blue-bells are common names for the same flower, this exchange seems to be meaningless. Symonds's bibliographer, Percy L. Babington, quoted the earlier description of the design in his Bibliography of the writings of John Addington Symonds (1925), as did James G. Nelson in his study of The early nineties (1971, p. 74), while Alfred L. Bush, in Wilde and the nineties opted for 'lily-of-the valley' (1966, p. 64).

Apart from the ordinary edition that was bound in 'smooth cream' or 'tan' coloured cloth, the publishers advertised a deluxe edition of 50 copies, bound in full vellum, which had the same design. However, the 'story' about the colour of the cover for In the key of blue has to do with a so-called 'trial issue', which was issued in blue cloth.

The press notices at the time of publication did not mention a blue edition, although some reviewers suggested that blue would have been a more suitable colour for a book that had the colour blue in its title. The Saturday review (14 January 1893) wrote: 'The book has a pretty decorative design of hyacinth and laurel on the cover, which is not blue.'

Babington, however, asserted that there were copies in blue cloth: 'A few copies were bound in light blue cloth, and the late Mr. Mathews informed me that the whole of the ordinary issue was to have been so bound, but that Mr. Ricketts came in and objected, making a jest about "Ricketts' Blue", and therefore the cream was substituted. Copies in blue cloth were very few, and fetch considerably more than others.'
Charles Ricketts, cover design for J.A. Symonds, In the key of blue and other prose essays, first edition, bound in blue cloth (1893)
A reliable story? It was recorded more than 30 years after the publication of In the key of blue, while Mathews's words were not written down. Ricketts never commented on the issue. And there are other issues to be dealt with. Is it true that the whole edition was to be bound in blue? Why would Ricketts have objected to a blue cover?

'Ricketts's Blue', of course, was a joke for a popular laundering aid, used for whitening, called Reckitts's blue.

Advertisement for Reckett's blue (© Frank H. Jump, 1997)

The name of 'Reckitt's blue' was frequently misspelled as 'Ricketts's blue'. I found some examples in Dutch newspapers, and others in British newspapers. Ricketts may have protested against it for several reasons. The popularity of Reckitts's blue and the likeness of the binding to the light blue colour might have reminded him of the jokes that could be made, and, what is more, had been made in the past, notably by the eminent jester James McNeill Whistler. Whistler's target had been the art critic Harry Quilter in whose magazine The universal review Shannon and Ricketts published illustrations in 1889. 

In The gentle art of making enemies (1890) Whistler wrote about Quilter as an artist 'with bird's-eye belcher of Reckitt's blue' (p. 72-73), while one of his books on art was described by Whistler: 'I saw it - a book in blue - his own, and Reckitt's - all bold with brazen letters: "Giotto by 'arry"' (p. 123). Ricketts would have remembered these phrases, and probably preferred to avoid such witticisms at his own expense.

There may have been another reason for Ricketts's protest, an artistic one. Ricketts may have asked for a cream coloured cloth, to match the vellum edition. This way, the design was more subtle, as the design in gold blends with the pale colour of the cloth. On a blue cover the gold is less subtle and can even be seen as obtrusive. Blue was not a favourite colour of Ricketts. Most of the cloths that were used for bindings with a design by him were cream, or green, or purple, and this was the only blue one.

Were there any trial bindings to comment upon? Usually there were, and in this case we know more about it from the correspondence of the author, John Addington Symonds. In September 1892 he reported to have corrected the proofs. In October 1892 he wrote to the publisher, Elkin Mathews, that he had not yet seen a design for the cover or the title-page, but by December 1892 he had: 'Book cover received. Think it admirable in design; but in colour should have preferred a ground of greyish blue with the pattern in Silver or dull gold. Could some copies be sent out in that way?' 

Later that month (20 December 1892) he wrote to tell Mathews that he was charmed by the book: 'It satisfies my every sense of what is desirable is design, binding, typography, and paper', and: 'Will you tell Mr Ricketts how greatly I admire the cover. The colour is quite right, the design lovely.'

What colour was he referring to? In another letter, dated 10 January 1893, Symonds wrote to Gleeson White: 'I wish my own work in In the key of blue were worthy of the charming cover and excellent typography. Please tell Mr. Ricketts how very much I admire his design. It is a pity, I think, that some copies have not been issued in blue.'

From this it seems possible to deduct that Ricketts had asked for a cream coloured cloth for a subtle treatment of his design, for which he apparently had not chosen to use blue or gold or silver. The author, however, took his title more literally and asked for a 'greyish blue' cover with the design stamped in gold or silver, a wish that was granted. Probably, the author received more blue than cream coloured presentation copies, as his remark about 'some copies [that] have not been issued in blue' seems to indicate. However, I have not seen a dedication copy to proof this assumption. Other presentation copies, for the press, had the cream binding, as the piece in The Saturday review testifies.

Was there a trial issue, bound in blue cloth, as opposed to the ordinary edition, bound in cream cloth? I do not think so. I have to assume that, to please the author, some copies were bound in blue cloth, while the bulk of the edition was bound in cream cloth. These copies were released simultaneously.

This, however, is not the final word. The story continues, another time, as there were more blue copies to follow and the design was to be altered for later editions.