Gleeson White was born as Joseph William White in 1851, but he dropped his first names (they were identical to his father's) and added his mother's maiden name Gleeson. He moved from England to New York, where he edited the Art Amateur (1891-1892), then returned to London where he founded the journal The Studio (1893), which he also edited for about a year. He edited other journals as well (The Pageant, for example, for which Charles Shannon was the art editor). He died, after contracting typhoid fever, in 1898, at the age of 47.
In 1893 he published Practical Designing. A Handbook on the Preparation of Working Drawings. In it he reproduced a woodcut by Ricketts, reproduced twice from the same process block.
|Charles Ricketts, 'Two blocks from the same original', in: Practical Designing (1893, p. )|
The complicated design of 'Igdrasil', the tree of life, was used by Gleeson White as a bookplate, and he had two different sizes of it. Both sizes seem to have been printed, not from the original block, but from a process-block. But the version that was used by White differed from the one that he illustrated in Practical Designing.
|Charles Ricketts, 'Ex Libris Gleeson White'|
There are two other remarkable differences. Firstly, the bookplate has no date, while the process-block illustration has a date in roman numerals: 1890. Secondly, the name 'Igdrasil' in the bookplate has been written in Ricketts's script, with a reversed 'd' and 'r', a typical mistake for a woodcutter. The same mistake was made in Ricketts's monogram, which is also in reverse. For the reproduction in Practical Designing the monogram was still mirrored, but the title 'Igdrasil' had been rewritten, probably by the engraver of the process block.
Gleeson White did not write that it was a bookplate, and some have argued that the image had originally been designed for the cover of the magazine Igdrasil, that was announced by the Magazine of Art, in June 1890, as the new magazine of the Ruskin Reading Guild. Had Ricketts been invited to design a cover for this? Perhaps, but the suggestion that he adapted the design for White's bookplate a few years later is now contradicted by a letter of John Gray.
At the time, there was some confusion, and, indeed, the notion of a magazine was apparently diffused by Ricketts himself: 'Mr. Ricketts has chosen to lend me, as representative of his work, this design of his for the cover of Igdrasil', wrote Charles Harper in English Pen Artists of To-Day (1892). Harper's version of the image has no 'Ex Libris' line, but has the original Ricketts title of Igdrasil with the reversed 'd' and 'r'. It also lacks the date.
|Charles Ricketts, 'Book-plate of Gleeson White', in: Egerton Castle, English Book-Plates (1892, p. 170)|
Harper and, later, Walter von Zur Westen (in his book Exlibris (Bucheignerzeichen), published in 1901) faithfully reproduced Ricketts's bookplate as it was done for White, including the 'Ex Libris' line, omitting the year, and having the title in Ricketts's characteristic script.
Apart from the confusion over the reproductions, the changed title and the omission of the year, there is the question of dating the design. It was first published in 1892, as we have seen, by Castle and Harper. The Castle reproduction has the date 'mdcccxc' and this suggests that the design was done in 1890. The Harper reproduction has no date. This dating problem is related to the question of the original purpose of the design: was it a bookplate or a cover design. Maureen Watry (The Vale Press, 2004, p. 57) supposed that 'at some point during 1892 Ricketts's design, with the addition of his hand-drawn lettering, was adopted by White for use as a bookplate'.
But, perhaps, Ricketts was simply mistaken, when he told Harper that the design was done for the magazine Igdrasil. Two years had passed since he designed it, and these were very busy years filled with successful assignments, but also with abandoned projects. On the other hand, it could have been Harper who was mistaken, and simply assumed that Ricketts had designed it for this magazine.
From the correspondence of Gray and Fénéon we now know that, originally, in 1890, the design was done as a bookplate for Gleeson White. Gray wrote a first letter on 22 October 1890, enclosing a lithograph by Shannon and 'Deux bois de Ricketts le plus grand une enseigne (?) de livre le petit pour le papier lettre': a bookplate and a letterhead. The smaller one was also a bookplate. That Gray was talking about 'Igdrasil' became clear in a second letter of 20 November 1890. He wrote that the mystifying subject of the image originated from Nordic sagas, and that it was designed to ornate the books of Gleeson White: 'Il est destiné à orner les livres dans la collection d'un nommé Gleeson White, je suppose qu'on a cet habitude en France aussi'.
Then follows a long and detailed description of the image, done by heart:
A la partie inferieure le Chaos, tournant et s'agitant, ou l'on voit des cristaux, et des pierres durs dans ces volutes, à droite et à gauche le nuit et le jour, deux frères sous la même couverture. Du Chaos se leve l'arbre de vie avec ses branches fructifiants de toutes les formes de la vie animale et végétale des corails, des cactés, des porcs-épics etc; - je ne garde pas très justement le souvenir. Du coeur de chaos toute la longue de l'arbre monte une flamme dans lequel on trouve l'homme né dans cette flamme le suprême animal, végétable si vous voulez je n'en sais pas trop quelque part au milieu du dessin un arc-en-ciel. Voilà que je vous fatique de ce pénible inventaire.'
Ricketts's own description (quoted by Castle) reads as follows:
The tree of Creation (Igdrasil) [...] springs from a swirl of water and flame which breaks into little gems; the flame, continuing, flows through the trunk of the tree, which branches on each side into composite boughs suggesting the different plant kingdoms. This central flame envelopes the figure of man, placed in the mids of the tree in the action of awakening. The fruit on the eastern end of each bough represent in embryo the fish and water fowl, the reptile and creeping insects, the larger animals, and finally the creatures with wings. The rainbow shooting through the centre composition signifies the atmosphere; the two figures under one cloak in the lower part of the design represent night and day, i.e. the planets.
Castle doubted the relevance of the symbolism in a bookplate, but he also quoted Gleeson White, who reassured him that Igdrasil 'has always been a favourite symbol for Literature'.
Comparing the two descriptions, of Gray in 1890, and of Ricketts in 1892, we have to conclude that Gray had had a thorough look at the bookplate that he send on to his new friend in France. More importantly, his letter decides the debate about a possible other purpose for the design. From the start, it had been intended as a bookplate for Gleeson White.