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.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

69. Scale patterns

The decorative scale pattern dates back to ancient civilizations. Examples can be seen in any museum, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Scale pattern on a terracotta painted oil flask, ca. 640-625 BC (© The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
The scale pattern occurs in several versions. On a terracotta painted oil flask, an aryballos from the seventh century BC, the scale pattern comes with dots in the centre. Others have a blank space, signs or stripes in the middle. The dotted pattern has been used for pottery in Greece since around 2500 BC.

It has been a common decorative pattern to the present day. On our recent trip to Athens we saw a modern carpet with the scale pattern in the Nikos Chatzikyriakos Gikas museum. On the top floors, where one finds the artist's library and his studio, the carpet adorns one of the rooms that are left in the original state.

Carpet, Nikos Chatzikyriakos Gikas Museum, Athens
The dotted scale pattern has also been applied on bookbindings. Charles Ricketts used it for several designs for commercial publishers in the early twentieth century. One of his lesser known designs was for a short-lived series of anthologies for John Lane (between 1907 and 1910). At the bottom of the front cover three sets of dotted scales are seen, probably representing earth - this is part of a stylized wheat pattern.
Charles Ricketts, binding for Golden thoughts from the Gospels (1907) [detail]
Ricketts used this pattern - sometimes upside down - for several books, the collected works of W.B. Yeats among them. The pattern can easily be identified on the dust wrappers for these volumes, where it is located in an architectural form, a pediment, used on all four sides of the central panel with concentric circles.
Charles Ricketts, design for the binding and dust wrapper of W.B. Yeats, Essays (1924) [detail]
To fill in the spaces left between the round forms of the scales and the straight, triangular lines of the pediments, Ricketts has added two extra dots outside the scale forms, thus illustrating that the use of an ancient pattern needs revision and original adaptations for reuse.

Charles Ricketts, design for the binding and dust wrapper of W.B. Yeats, Essays (1924) [detail]

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

68. A Greek pomegranate

Among the grave steles in the National Archaeological Museum of Athens is a wonderful marble one, registered as Inv.No.733. It is a marble stele, found in Larisa in 1882, 113 cm in height. We made a photograph of it, only to lose our camera the next day. However, on Flickr an image of it has been posted by Unforth.
Marble stele, c. 440 BC, National Archaeological Museum, Athens [© All rights reserved by unforth, posted on Flickr]
The stele has been described by Nikolaos Kaltsas in his book Sculpture in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens (2002) (see p. 99, no. 175): 'It depicts a female figure, the dead Polyxenaia, standing and facing right with her left knee bent. She wears a chiton and a himation that also covers her head. Both garments hang in heavy, straight, severe pleats. In her right hand she holds a pomegranate, while with her left she “unveils herself”, drawing back the himation from the head. Thessalian work dating from about 440 BC.'

The name of the dead woman is written in Greek characters on the left side of the stele, and translated as 'Polyxene' on the display in the museum (the catalogue has: Polexenaia).

Grave stele of Polyxene, National Archaeological Museum, Athens (detail of a photo by Ark in Time, posted on Flickr)
The figure of Polyxene or Polyxenaia is almost 2500 years old. Such images do sometimes recur in other artefacts of a different era, or they have the ability to remind you of familiar images. While I was looking at the grave stele in Athens, earlier this month, my mind wondered and I recalled a drawing by Charles Ricketts for A house of pomegranates by Oscar Wilde (1891).
Charles Ricketts, illustration for Oscar Wilde, A house of pomegranates (1891)
In this book the figure of a pomegranate picker reappears after each story, and towards the end of the book her basket of pomegranates is filled. Of course, there is no real connection between the Greek stele and the Ricketts drawing, apart from the pomegranate, and the use of an ancient symbol. In Greece the pomegranate was known as 'the fruit of the dead'.
Charles Ricketts, illustration for Oscar Wilde, A house of pomegranates (1891)

D.G. Rossetti, 'Persephone' (1874)
Ricketts must have been familiar with Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting of Persephone, holding a pomegranate and symbolizing the seasons. In other cultures the fruit was regarded a symbol of prosperity and fertility, and Ricketts probably had these significances in mind when he drew the figure of the pomegranate gatherer for Wilde's book.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

67. Ricketts in the Front Row

The last few weeks we were in Greece to visit my brother and his family, and while we toured the Attic sunny landscape, finding our way to the Artemis Brauron sanctuary and museum, or to the amphitheatre near Lavrion, ending our tour on Cape Sounion for the temple of Poseidon, we remembered that Ricketts and Shannon visited Greece only once, just over a century earlier.

Our stay at an apartment in Athens, where we fell in love with the cat of the mansion, was mainly dedicated to old stones, although we spend some time in exhibitions about twenty-century Greek culture (see next week's blog). 

Ricketts wrote about his stay in Athens and a photograph of him, sitting next to the seat of the high priest in the Theatre of Dionysos, is reproduced by Paul Delaney in his edition of Ricketts's Pages from a diary in Greece (1978), as well as in his biography (1990).

Charles Ricketts in the Theatre of Dionysos, Athens, front row, next to the seat of the High Priest (1911) [detail]
In February 1911, when there were 'parches of snow in the hollows of the scattered stones', while now, in October, there were only dry blades of grass, Ricketts described the south slope of the Acropolis:

We approach the lesser shrines on the flanks of the Acropolis. We can hear the cries of children at play near the Theatre of Dionysos.

Nowadays, these children should have paid for entering the gates surrounding these 'lesser' shrines, but still, one can hear children's voices, coming from a school building in a street nearby.

Ricketts continued:

we now stand on the marble floor of the orchestra between the proscenium (the gift of Nero) and the tiers of stone seats which were here when the plays of Sophocles and Euripides were new. The place is almost sacred to the imaginative memory. How small it seems to us with our vast modern opera houses and stages; yet this was deemed sufficient in times of genius; a lesser stage than this one was the pedestal for the tragedies of Aeschylus; in this circle were chanted the sorrows of "Oedipus at Colonus" and the agony of Phaedra; it is here that the triumphant laughter of Aristophanes rang out!

Delaney, in a footnote, remarked that the 'masterpieces of fifth century drama were performed in fact before tiers of seats constructed with earth and wood; the theatre of Dionysos was rebuilt in stone c. 330 B.C. The present stage and proscenium probably date from the reign of Nero (54-68 A.D.). The auditorium was altered under Hadrian, Emperor, 117-38 A.D.'

The seat of the high priest (with the wing-like arm-rests) and to the left of that the marble chair that Ricketts occupied for his portrait picture

There is a little snow on the proscenium; I brush away a handful of half-frozen water from the seat of the High Priest; for years the winter was bitten into this throne, which is a miracle of art. On this, the panel of Persians and gryphons may recall some actual Asian work, captured from Xerxes, formerly placed on this spot as a trophy when the theatre and its seats were of wood and not of marble as to-day.
The vestiges of the auditorium end abruptly; the grass has spread among the last seats and pedestals, placed here in the time of Hadrian, and on the naked rock our feet constantly touch splinters of marble and flakes of black pottery drifted here through centuries of ruin wrought by man and time.

We did not find any pieces of pottery; they have all found there way to museum collections, and we could not walk onto the proscenium of the theatre, which is fenced off from the public and constantly guarded by a group of attendants. Ricketts could approach the marble seats in the front row and sit down in the one next to that of the high priest. That is no longer possible.

Your blogger, in the Theatre of Dionysos, Athens, somewhere in the umpteenth row behind the seat of the high priest
The front row with the seat of the high priest, Theatre of Dionysos, Athens, 30 October 2012