Wednesday, February 19, 2014

134. The cover design of James Thomson's 'Poetical Works'

This week an inquiry was made about James Thomson's Poetical Works, published by Reeves and Turner in 1895. In my exhibition publication A New Checklist of Books Designed by Charles Ricketts & Charles Shannon (1996), I listed the cover design in 'Appendix 2. Books attributed to Ricketts, but not in fact designed by him'.

The question was raised by Simon Wilson:

[...] I was puzzled by the entry in Appendix 2 of the checklist where you say the Thomson Poetical Works (two vols incidentally) is not by Ricketts. As you can see the CR monogram is very clear in the lower left corner of the cover design. So what is going on? You cite information from Carl Woodring, to whom respect, but surely the monogram is definitive proof?' 

Monogram on the front cover of James Thomson, Poetical Works (1895) [image: collection Simon and Alessandra Wilson]
As I promised Simon, here is my answer.

The cover design was not mentioned in the advertisements for the book, see for example The Academy (26 January 1895): 'Now ready, price 12 s. 6d. The Poetical Works of James Thomson ("B.V."). The City of Dreadful Night, Vane's Story, Weddah and Om-El-Bonain, Voice from the Nile and Poetical Remains. By James Thomson ("B.V."). Edited by Bertram Dobell. With a Memoir of the Author. 2 vols., crown 8vo.' This was followed by a quotation from John Addington Symons's Memoirs, and by the publisher's address. Ricketts's name as a designer was frequently used by publishers for their advertisements, but not in this case.

The Publishers' Circular of the same day mentioned some more details: '2 vols. post 8vo. pp. 828, 12s. 6d.', but no specifics on the cover's design.

For a long time, nothing happened. Then, in 1966, John Russell Taylor published The Art Nouveau Book in Britain, his pioneering and highly acclaimed study on Art Nouveau book design, which became a guide for collectors worldwide. It was reprinted more than a decade later. In his chapter about Charles Ricketts, the cover for Thomson's Poetical Works was said to be by Ricketts, although the handwritten title in the upper left corner and the waves in the background do not seem to be examples of Ricketts's Art Nouveau styleTaylor used an illustration to point to the chronological puzzle that was posed by this design: 

'for the cover [...], where considering the subject-matter of the contents a morbid, decadent style would be thoroughly justified, Ricketts reverts unpredictably to a simple, artless, almost 1850-ish brand of Pre-Raphaelitism.'

This was quoted by other scholars. Giles Barber, in his defining article on the Rossettian influence on book covers in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, 'Rossetti, Ricketts, and Some English Publishers' Bindings of the Nineties' (The Library, December 1970), wrote about the design: 'At complete variance with The Sphinx he [Ricketts] could produce, in 1895, for The poetical works of James Thomson [...] a cover more reminiscent of the most Pre-Raphaelite of Rossetti's drawings'. 

Two years later, George Perkins, working for the Zurich based antiquarian firm L'Art Ancien, produced a new tool for the ardent collector, A Collection of Books Designed by Charles Ricketts (1972). The collection was sold to John Paul Getty Jr. (1932-2003), whose book collection is now in Wormsley. In the L'Art Ancien catalogue, the binding for The Poetical Works of James Thomson was listed in the section 'Books designed by Ricketts not present in the collection'.

James Thomson, Poetical Works (1895) [image: collection Simon and Alessandra Wilson]
In 1973, a leaflet with 'Corrigenda & addenda' was issued by L'Art Ancien, de-attributing the design, without mentioning the name of another designer. Perkins acknowledged Carl Woodring for the information about Thomson's poems.

In 1996, in my checklist, I quoted Perkins and, indirectly, Woodring.

Carl Woodring, in a letter dated 5 May 1997, wrote to the Dutch Ricketts & Shannon collector Ton Leenhouts about his de-attribution, and professed that, in turn, he owed his information to another collector and professor:

'Charles Gullans of UCLA first identified for me the initials, taken by Taylor to be CR, as GR for George Rhead'.

That would explain why the monogram in the design is not typical for Ricketts, who used other monograms in the nineties; Ricketts never let the bow of the 'c' intrude into the letter 'r'. It also explains away this unchronological design in Ricketts's career, and by naming Rhead explains its Pre-Raphaelitism. 

George Woolliscroft Rhead, design for plants
The 'monogram is definitive proof', as Simon Wilson argued, and he is absolutely right. If we look at the work of George Woolliscroft-Rhead (1855-1920), we come upon the exact same monogram from the early eighties to the Great War. See, for instance, his book on Modern Practical Design (London, Batsford, 1912), which is available on the Internet Archive. The title page was designed by the author, and signed GR in the decorative flowers and branches underneath the title shield. Other illustrations, for Alfred Tennyson's Idylls of the King (1898), and Studies in Plant Form (1903), display an identical monogram as the one used for the cover of Thomson's poems.

Several monograms used by G. Woolliscroft Rhead

The binding design of The Poetical Works of James Thomson should, therefore, definitely be attributed to George Woolliscroft Rhead. Charles Ricketts had nothing to do with it.

[Many thanks to Simon Wilson for making the observation.]