Wednesday, April 24, 2013

91. Letters to Cecil French

The Houghton Library acquired a group of letters and postcards by Ricketts and Shannon to Cecil French. The library's blog posted this message on 5 April (my colleague Marja Smolenaars drew my attention to the Harvard blog):

Last month Houghton Library acquired a small group of letters and postcards from Charles Ricketts (1866-1931) & Charles Shannon (1863-1937) to the Irish artist and collector Cecil French (1879-1953). These letters were acquired with the Louis Appell Jr. Fund for British Civilization because they are full of current affairs, news and gossip in the world of British art. These letters are now Houghton Library MS Eng 1738.

Ricketts and Shannon were artists and designers and founders of the Vale Press, one of the English private presses inspired by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press; Shannon’s portrait of William Butler Yeats hangs in the Houghton Library Reading Room.

Charles Ricketts, letter to Cecil French, 1923 (MS Eng 1738, © Houghton Library, Harvard University)
Cecil French from Dublin was trained as an artist at the Royal Academy Schools in London, but after a few years he decided that as an artist he could not compete with his Renaissance examples, and he became an art collector. His collection of more than 150 paintings went to the British Museum, The William Morris Gallery, and other institutions.
Portrait of Cecil French by William Shackleton, 1923 (from  Beyond Burne-Jones, The Cecil French Bequest Gallery)
He wrote a few essays about Ricketts, Shannon and their circle. His article 'The wood-engravings of Charles Ricketts' was published in The Print Collector’s Quarterly in July 1927.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

90. Twelve Woodcuts by Lucien Pissarro (again)

Last year Bassenge Buchauktionen in Berlin-Grunewald offered for sale a portfolio with eleven out of Twelve Woodcuts by Lucien Pissarro. This set remained unsold for the estimate of €5000; the aftersale price was reduced to €4000, but now it has a slightly higher estimate of €4500. The problem with this copy is its incompleteness; it lacks one of the more outstanding woodcuts by Pissarro, namely 'Le tennis'.

My blog 64 Twelve (no: eleven) woodcuts traced the provenance of this set to a Dutch collection.
Lucien Pissarro, 'Floréal', woodcut from Twelve Woodcuts (1893)
Although incomplete, it is still a rarity, as the publishers - Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon - issued only twelve sets of the engravings. This copy will be auctioned on 20 April  and has been described as lot number 3581 in the catalogue, Moderne Literatur & Kunstdokumentation (which includes lots 3001 to 3859).

Note (23 April 2013): the lot has been sold for €3.500.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

89. A Costume Correspondence

In a recent issue of Theatre Design & Technology (volume 49, Number 1, winter 2013), Margaret Mitchell published an article on 'A costume correspondence. The theatrical war effort of Charles Ricketts'. The text is available online on the Willard F. Bellman Digital Archives of TD&T

Margaret Mitchell is a costume and scenic designer and a professor of theatre arts at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio, Texas, and her article is based on documents in the collection of the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio. The Robert L.B. Tobin Theatre Arts Collection of the museum contains a box of letters and drawings by Ricketts to Penelope Wheeler, an actress, who (with Lena Ashwell) co-organized a war-time tour for wounded British and French soldiers and their medical staff.

Ricketts designed costumes for three Shakespeare plays, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of Venice, and Two Gentlemen of Verona, although the last play was never produced. The shows were staged in Le Havre in 1918. Ricketts started working on the designs in September 1917, and he had to design no less than fifty dresses. For economic reasons he designed interchanging parts for about twenty of those.

Sir Andrew Aguecheek has a doublet embroidered with grapes, squirrels, and butterflies; the Prince jewelled gloves. Shylock is terrific, Portia has a dress covered with mermaids, Jessica wears the Oriental garb of the Jewesses in Bellini and Carpaccio, I have introduced the striped dress of the Mass of Bolsena and Titian's Paduan frescoes, some persons have arabesques on their tights and gold wings on their hats. (Self-Portrait, 1939, p. 302-303)

Shannon agreed that these designs were among his best, but neither Ricketts nor Shannon saw any of the performances.

Charles Ricketts, letter to Penelope Wheeleer (Mc Nay Art Museum, San Antonio, Texas)

The article describes the London costume trade and the changes it underwent during the First World War, when certain fabrics were hard to come by, costs were higher than before, and concerns over wigs and beards added to the difficulties. Margaret Mitchell writes:

Ricketts had four months to design and supervise the creation of the costumes. In addition to fabric shortages, money problems, and general wartime concerns and stresses, an incomplete cast during the building of the costumes forced Ricketts to design costumes that could be fit to a range of sizes and physical shapes. His letters indicate that he did not understand who would be playing some of the male roles or supernumeraries.

In December 1917, Ricketts wrote to Penelope Wheeler:

I have stencilled about 100 yards of stuff and I am in advanced state of senile decay.

Although Ricketts probably worked for no fee, seeing his effort as a way of supporting wartime charity, he insisted that the seamstresses were paid. In the first week of January 1918 the costumes were ready, and after Wheeler had inspected them at her home, they were packed and shipped to France. Ricketts wrote long notes for alterations, and instructions for the actors.

Among instructions for bow tying and jewelry wearing, Ricketts explains problems with the construction. He gives advice for makeup and hairdressing, and he also tries to troubleshoot fitting problems. He indicates a few surprises; he sent extra tights and extra green satin fabric for sashes, as well as a costume for a supernumerary not yet cast: "I have included a costume for a black page for Portia. I imagine you can steal or borrow a French child for the purpose."

After the war, the costumes were reused for other plays and performances. A summary of the importance of these wartime letters about costumes is given at the end of Margaret Mitchell's article:

The letters from Charles Ricketts to Penelope Wheeler provide a vivid window into the past. His handwriting gives us the pictures: the middle-ages designer is bent over the 100 yards of stenciling late at night; the designed furniture satin is not to be had; the manager/star does not provide enough money; the situation requires complicated touring logistics; the designer encounters the obstacles of inflation; stressed collaborators slam the door in the designer's face; the designer depends on the underpaid, overworked miracle worker who has it in her hands and mind to achieve the impossible; the designer is overcommitted, and swirling around him are lost friends, financial troubles, and a violent world in conflict facing an unknown future. Even so, Ricketts insists on the perfect hem, the precise height of the feather, the exacting spangle pattern, and the emotional and physical communion of actor and costume.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

88. The Great Worm revisited

John Gray's story 'The Great Worm' was published in the first number of The Dial, issued by Shannon and Ricketts from their house in The Vale. The short story describes the worm (in the last paragraph he is also called a dragon) as 'an unaffected beast', with 'four short crooked legs and two little wings', coloured 'white and gold', and having 'an exceedingly long tongue'.

This description is followed by a long scene in which the worm enters a city, and while he is examined in turn by a doorkeeper, a horseman, an officer, a surgeon-major, a philosopher, and a medical officer, the worm announces that he has come to enlist in the royal armies of the prince who rules the city. He is appointed a general. The next scene is shorter and describes how the worm, followed by the army, re-establishes the prince as the ruler in all his dominions. A longer scene follows, in which they reach a city that looks green, but turns blue. This city seems to be uninhabited, until a 'figure of silent whiteness' comes towards the worm and gives him a lily. He wears it to his heart, and during the night he is in agony, asking himself: 'Why am I a worm?'

Ah! it was too horrible; he remembered that he had been human.

The lily has taken root on his breast, and a few days later - they have resumed their journey - the worm dies. The story is followed by a short 'epilogue':

A poet lay in a white garden of lilies, shaping the images of his fancy, as the river ran through his trailing hair.
But in his garden a long worm shook himself after sleep; forgotten his face like a pearl, his beautiful eyes like a snake's, his breathing hair - all. He had complete reminiscences of a worm, and sought the deserts and ravines the dragon loves.

Illustration to 'The Great Worm', etched by Charles Ricketts (plate AE, in: The Dial, No. 1, 1889)
In blog number 84, 'A new interpretation of The Great Worm', I quoted earlier comments, and mentioned that Petra Clark of the University of Delaware published an article about this story in English Literature in Transition, 1880-1930 (volume 56, number 1, 2013). 

Gray's story was profusely illustrated by Charles Ricketts, with a vignette/initial at the beginning, a tailpiece at the end, an original colour lithograph, and an etching (reproduced in photography). However, it should be noted that there is a second contribution in this issue of The Dial in which a worm is one of the characters. This is a parody of a Wagner opera, called 'The Cup of Happiness'. For this Ricketts did a woodcut of a lady with a wormlike dragon, comprising an initial 'T'.
Illustration to 'The Cup of  Happiness', by Charles Ricketts (The Dial, No. 1, 1889, p. 27)
This is relevant, because it follows that Ricketts and Gray were working on a story about a worm simultaneously. We must question whether the illustrations for Gray's story were done before, during, or after Gray had submitted his story to Shannon and Ricketts. In the magazine this story and its illustrations are presented as a coherent cooperation. Surely, Ricketts must have read Gray's story before he could design the initial V and the tailpiece. But for the larger illustrations - the etching and the lithograph - we cannot be absolutely certain. It is, however, unlikely but not impossible, that Gray and Ricketts discussed the story and illustrations, while they were at work on them. In order to interpret the story, one has to find clues that may or may not be affirmed by the illustrations. Petra Clark avoids the pitfalls of interpreting an illustrated story:

Here, Ricketts's illustrations do not merely 'illustrate' Gray's story; instead, the aspects of "The Great Worm" that Ricketts chooses to portray tell us much about the ideas he wishes to comment upon, as does his exercise of editorial control in deciding where to place those images. Appearing as they do, in unexpected locations throughout the first number, his illustrations therefore "color" the reading of the content as a whole. These illustrations also force readers to see the Worm as Ricketts does - many pages before they encounter the story itself - since the first representation of this figure serves as the color frontispiece. (p. 35)

The colour lithograph depicts the lady with the lily opposite the white and golden worm in a green mountainous landscape (see blog 84).

Yet it is hard to [...] ignore the overtly phallic shape of the Worm's body or his cheeky grin (p. 36)

The story and the illustrations complement and contradict one another, says Clark, and they

engage in the discourses of gender, sexuality and aestheticism that characterize the Dial in general. (p. 37)

Clark points out that the epilogue is a small but important segment:

Here the poet and the story he crafts about the Worm become conflated: the poet imagines the Great Worm in particular and has the memories of a worm in general, insinuating that he is somehow implicitly tied to his artistic imaginings. (p. 39)

In both illustrations [the initial and the lithograph] the Worm rears its head as though in a state of arousal produced by the voluptuous nude woman before him. When this imagery of arousal is translated into the Epilogue, the poet's sexual excitement would instead be seen to stem from the "images of his fancy" that he has shaped, as though artistic creation is stimulating to the artist's "masculinity" in more ways than one. By linking the story's Worm and the Epilogue's poet in these ways, Gray simultaneously emphasizes the quixotic effeteness and the virile productive power of the Worm/poet as an artist, while Ricketts's illustrations of the Great Worm further poke fun at these contradictory attributes of the male artist. (p. 39-40)

Clark points out that during the Aesthetic Movement, Britain's imperial strength was at its summit, glorifying virility, and bringing about a 'cult of masculinity'. The Worm's volunteering for service may be seen as an act of manliness. Clark also points out that Ricketts omits certain aspects from his images, thus isolating the lady with the lily and the worm:

In both images, the Worm and the woman therefore come face each other in a much more dramatic and erotic fashion than the equivalent scene in Gray's story might suggest. (p. 46)

Clark links the lily to a symbolism of homosexuality.

One might once again refer to the fact that, after the Worm's death, the tale turns to the suspiciously languid figure of the poet of the Epilogue. The emphasis, then, is less on death than on "orgasmic ecstasy" (p. 48)

The conclusion is that

one of the extra-artistic aims of the Dial is to reimagine aesthetic or even homosexual masculinity as an alternative to the "heteronormative, masculine image of the artist," but not to take itself too seriously in the process. (p. 48)

A few loose ends in Petra Clarks interpretation should be pointed out. Firstly, Clark mentions that Ricketts did three illustrations for the story, and she ignores the tailpiece that illustrates the important Epilogue.

Tailpiece for 'The Great Worm', by Charles Ricketts (The Dial, No. 1, 1889, p. 18)
The reclining female figure once again contradicts the masculinity of the poet in the epilogue.

Another point is the appearance of the poet laureate in the story. After the worm has accepted the post of general, and after he has been examined by the medical officer, there is a short scene in which the poet comes to the fore:

This would have ended the formalities, had not the court poet found an opportunity to commence reciting the worm's military antecedents.
- Is that that man again? asked the prince; I abolish the office. The laureate ceased.

The poet laureate at the time was, of course, Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose poems had glorified the Victorian ideals, famously in 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'. Tennyson was at the end of his life when Gray wrote his story; he would die in 1892. It is not completely clear why Gray inserted this passage about the poet laureate in a story that equaled the worm to a poet. However, the poet laureate glorifies militarism, and is immediately sacked. He is the kind of poet that Gray did not want to be.