Wednesday, May 29, 2013

96. The Laurence Hodson sale

Bloomsbury in London offered in auction the collection of books of Laurence W. Hodson (1863-1933), a wealthy West Midlands brewery owner, collector and philanthropist. He was a friend, patron and admirer of William Morris, and commissioned many works to refurbish his family home, Compton Hall, in 1895. A founder of Birmingham University, he also was chairman of the Wolverhampton Art and Industrial Exhibition (1902), where works of Ricketts and Shannon were on view alongside other works of art. 

His collection of interior designs was auctioned in February. The April sale included works of the Kelmscott and Vale Presses.

Binding by Charles Ricketts for Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese (Vale Press, 1897)
Now that the sale is over, it is time to summarize the results, and the contents of the collection. There were early works by Ricketts and Shannon (The Dial, A House of Pomegranates, and the early Vale Press related Daphnis and Chloe and Hero and Leander), autograph letters by Ricketts and Shannon, and a series of fifteen lithographs by the latter.

The Vale Press books were described in lot 88 to 157, including both a vellum and a paper copy of many titles. There were 29 volumes printed on vellum, of which twenty-one copies were bound in leather after a special design by Ricketts. Eleven of these were bound in red leather, and ten in green. Seven volumes were bound, as issued, in white vellum. There were 86 volumes printed on paper. Of these, only two were specially bound after a design by Ricketts, both in white pigskin: a copy of John Suckling's Poems (1896) and Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Sonnets (1907). 

Opening the Vale Press book case, Hodson's first impression was more colourful (red, green, white) than that of most Vale Press collectors.

For the bindings of the vellum copies Ricketts started with red leather, but between 1899 and 1902 Hodson received copies in green leather. From that time on he settled for the original vellum bindings that were provided by the Vale Press for all vellum copies. The specially designed copies have the HR monogram (for Hacon and Ricketts) on the inside upper or lower cover. Most of these also feature the LH monogram of the collector on the upper cover. 

Monogram LH for Laurence Hodson (on a binding designed by Charles Ricketts)
A later binding, in green, has another monogram, with large, intertwined initials, designed by Ricketts.
Monogram LHO for Laurence Hodson (on a binding designed by Charles Ricketts)

Most specially commissioned bindings show the rectangular designs that we know of Ricketts, but included in the sale were two exceptional designs. One, for Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The Blessed Damozel, had a pattern of barley, cornflower, and leaves.

Charles Ricketts, binding (detail) for a vellum copy of The Blessed Damozel (Vale Press, 1898)
Another binding had a pattern of the LH monogram and an image of a bird and a leaf. This was executed in gold on a green leather binding for a vellum copy of Cellini's autobiography in two volumes.

Charles Ricketts, binding (detail) for a vellum copy of The Life of Benvenuto Cellini (Vale Press, 1900)
The results for the vellum copies and for the special bindings were, as could probably be expected, with prices between £2000 and £11,000. The highest price was paid for the two volume set of Keats's poems. The Rossetti went for £8,500, as did the Cellini edition. Remarkably, the Tennyson set of two volumes - In Memoriam and Lyric Poems, both issued in 1900 - were separated over two lots (128 and 130), and while the first one was sold for £2,000, the second one remained unsold at auction. However, both volumes have now been offered for sale by Blackwell Rare Books (for £9,500).

A vellum copy, in a special green binding, of The Rubayat of Omar Khayyam (1901) contained a preparatory ink drawing for the binding design, and some rubbings of the tools: the monogram and bird/leaf image. This book, and many others, were shown by Hodson in the Wolverhampton Exhibition of 1902.

The ordinary paper copies, were sold for lower prices, between £140 and £500. Fourteen lots remained unsold. 

An exceptional collection was thus dispersed - one hundred years after the collector had amassed it. The Vale Press books alone fetched the amount of £93,680.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

95. The bookplate for Gleeson White

The letters of John Gray to Félix Fénéon, which I reviewed last week (blog 94: A French correspondence), contain an interesting revelation about the bookplate that Ricketts designed for Gleeson White.

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 drawing by Ricketts, reproduced twice from the same process block. 
Charles Ricketts, 'Two blocks from the same original', in:  Practical Designing (1893, p. [180])
The drawing was reproduced in photo-lithography, and Gleeson White used the difference in the technical execution as an example of reduction in size of illustrations: 'The two blocks [...] show that the drawing must not always be held responsible for failure; as the first was reproduced by the same makers as the second'. The second one was 'a fairly accurate reduction keeping the correct colour and effect', while in the first one the whole image had become greyer.

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' 
Interestingly, the bookplate has a line to that effect with the typical lettering of Ricketts, see for example the dot on the 'i' in White's name, which resembles an eye. The flower between 'Ex Libris' and the name is reminiscent of Ricketts's design for Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). The 'Ex Libris' line is lacking in the reproduction in Gleeson White's book of 1893.

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's book was published in February 1892. There is one other reproduction of the bookplate in the same year, in a book that Egerton Castle published in December 1892:  English Book-Plates. Castle quoted Ricketts's explanation of the bookplate's symbols, and also printed White's own comment. Castle introduced the image as 'the extraordinary-looking design made by Mr. Charles Ricketts for Mr. Gleeson White'. This reproduction has both the 'Ex Libris' line and the roman date. And it has the rewritten title 'Igdrasil' (not in Ricketts's hand). This version was also reproduced in Walter Hamilton's Dated Book-Plates of 1895. Curiously, the books about bookplates did not use the original block of the actual bookplate by Ricketts, but a later version. Several questions remain unanswered: who rewrote the title, who added the date? Perhaps, White used the original drawing for the reproduction, and not the printed specimen. The drawing may have been dated. However, it does not explain why the title was tampered with. 

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.

[Revised, 30 January 2022.]

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

94. A French correspondence

The French publisher Du Lérot, éditeur, in Tusson, Charante, has published the letters of Félix Fénéon and John Gray in a small edition of 200 copies. The book, edited by Maurice Imbert and printed in 2010, reproduces on the cover a sketch by Gray of two students of the Scots College in Rome.
Cover of Félix Fénéon & John Gray, Correspondance (2010)
Félix Fénéon (1861-1941) was one of the early French contacts of John Gray, who approached him in the summer of 1890. Fénéon was 29 at the time, Gray only 24. However, Gray had already published an essay and a story in Ricketts and Shannon's journal The Dial in 1889, and he was about to publish a poem and an obituary during the following two months. Fénéon wrote about Gray to Francis Viélé-Griffin (1864-1937), editor of Les Entretiens Politiqies et Littéraires, and Gray was invited to contribute articles for the magazine. However, illness prevented his writing any pieces for it. 

Ricketts was also asked to contribute some of the woodcuts he had published in the first issue of The Dial, and he promised to do special drawings for Les Entretiens, but nothing came of this. Gray and Fénéon stayed in contact until 1913 (at least). Their letters have been kept in the John Rylands Library in Manchester (Fénéon's part of the correspondence) and in the Jean Paulhan foundation at IMEC (the letters by Gray), and are here published in full for the first time. Included are two pieces that Gray wrote for Fénéon's Revue Blanche, published in June 1897 and May 1898: a story and an obituary of Aubrey Beardsley (an English translation of the latter was edited by the Tragara Press in 1980).

Ricketts and Shannon were a lot on the mind of Gray in these years, who considered himself part of the 'Valistes', a name they invented to imitate the feeling of a school of artists that could rival with the modern movements in France. Gray suggested (16 April 1891) that the name was some sort of a joke, but he was dead serious about his future prospects as a writer, as we have seen. He tried to get published in France and in Holland, and he used his French contacts for a better knowledge of modern French poetry. He would become one of the earliest translators of Verlaine and Rimbaud in England.

Félix Fénéon
We know nothing about the young John Gray and the way he met the artists Ricketts and Shannon, and although these early letters do not reveal that much about their collaboration, their publication is a welcome addition to the Gray library. It still is an enigma how Ricketts and Shannon met John Gray, who quickly teamed up with them and Reginald Savage to write the texts for the first issue of The Dial. They must have been very fond of him. When the editor of the correspondence maintains that John Gray was 'le co-fondateur' of The Dial, we have to say that this is highly unlikely, and, certainly, there is no proof for it. The only named publisher of that first issue was Charles Shannon, while the editors were Shannon and Ricketts. It is a slip of the pen that I, perhaps, should not have mentioned, as I am pleased to see these letters of Fénéon and Gray in print. Price: €25.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

93. Did not sleep last night

During the First World War Charles Ricketts was, as we have seen in blog number 89 (A costume correspondence), engaged in charity activities, and he wrote letters and post cards to several friends who were in the trenches in Flanders or France. His diary frequently mentions or describes disturbing events, such as air raids on London, or casualties at the front, or elsewhere.

His diary note for May 8, 1915, reads:

Did not sleep last night, thinking of Lusitania and poor Lane, who, to-day, is among the missing. Have been depressed and disturbed with burst of anger - near to tears at the thought of the danger to Venice. How will the world be able to look itself in the face when the war ends?

The New York Times reported the fate of the Lusitania
The Lusitania had sunk the day before in the waters of the Irish channel. A U-boat had fired torpedos, and there were two explosions noted by the captain before the ship went down in about 20 minutes. Sir Hugh Lane - born in 1875 and knighted at 33 - was among the casualties. Lane was an art dealer and collector, whose collection of impressionist paintings is now, for the greater part, housed in the Dublin City Gallery. He grew up in England, but regularly visited the house of his aunt Lady Gregory in Ireland. 

The threat to Venice that Ricketts reported was related to the Treaty of London, which had been signed on 26 April 1915. Italy joined the side of Allied countries hoping to gain parts of the Austrian-Hungarian empire close to Northern Italy. At the Italian Front battles were fought between 1915 and 1918. Strategic bombings by the Empire were few, but Ricketts's fears were not unfounded, as two frescoes by Tiepolo in the Chiesa degli Scalzi were damaged by bombs. The remains are now in the Gallerie dell'Accademia.

Lane was 'a very old friend' of Ricketts and Shannon (as Ricketts wrote to Rik Roland Holst in June 1915), but the friendship had only started in 1904, when Shannon was invited by Lane to participate in an exhibition in St Louis, Missouri. The exhibition was cancelled, and Shannon's paintings went to the Guildhall in London for an exhibition of Irish artists, after he had been assured by family members that there was a drop of Irish blood in his veins. Ricketts had no Irish roots whatsoever. Lane brought them buyers for their paintings. 'The Parable of the Vineyard', a painting by Ricketts that he donated to the gallery that Lane was planning at the time, is now in the Dublin City Gallery.

Charles Ricketts, 'The Parable of the Vineyard', oil on canvas,  c. 1912 (Photo: © Dublin City Gallery)
On 13 May 1915 Ricketts wrote in his diary that he noticed that thoughts about Lane and his tragic death were slipping into the past. But a short while later, other events brought them back to the foreground, when he had to report 'sad deaths among young soldier friends', such as Cyril Holland, the eldest son of Oscar Wilde, 'who was charming', and who died on 9 May 1915.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

92. With the back to the viewer

A letter from the American artist Edward Gorey to Peter F. Neumeyer in Floating Worlds (published by Pomegranate in San Francisco, 2011) reminded me of Ricketts. I came upon this passage:

[Thank you] for the Gerard ter Borch "Cavalier". It put me in mind of a slightly curious idea I had for a visual anthology in which all the subjects would have their backs to the viewer; I have several Japanese prints of poets, and at least one of a puppy in this position, and I'm sure a quite respectable book could be got together from all times and places. What it would all be in aid of is another question (p. 130)

Gerard ter Borch, 'Man on Horsback, seen from behind' (drawing, 1625) (Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam)
In Floating Worlds a picture of the painting in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts shows a man on horseback, seen from behind. A sketch for this painting is in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which after a long restoration project has recently reopened its doors to the public.

Ricketts's final illustration for Oscar Wilde's The Sphinx (1894) contains an unusual image of Christ. The original drawing for this illustration is in the Manchester City Galleries.

Charles Ricketts, 'Christ Crucified', original drawing (Manchester City Galleries)
Charles Ricketts, 'Christ Crucified', in Oscar Wilde, The Sphinx (1894)  (image from Connexions)
In Ricketts's image we see Christ crucified, but he has his back to the viewer, which is highly unusual. Although the crucifixion scene is surely one of the most depicted biblical scenes in the history of Western art, I haven't been able to find another image of it in this manner. Ricketts has stylized the scene, omitting the cross, so as to show the full back of Christ. The drawing illustrates the last lines of Wilde's poem:

Whose pallid burden, sick with pain, watches the world with wearied eyes,
And weeps for every soul that dies, and weeps for every soul in vain.

The Ricketts illustration could have been part of Edward Gorey's visual anthology.