Wednesday, March 5, 2014

136. A Collector's Story

This week’s blog is written by Paul Durham (1966), an English collector of the work of Ricketts, and particularly Shannon. Here is his story:

In Search of Ricketts & Shannon

Those of us who collect are sometimes asked why or how we started collecting. It is not always easy to pinpoint the reason, but in my case I can.

As a teenager with time on my hands, I was flicking through a book on art, turning page after page without anything standing out, and then on one page I was confronted with a black and white drawing 'The Dancer’s Reward' by Aubrey Beardsley which stopped me in my tracks. Its stark boldness and all that blood interested me; it was full of strange beauty but at the same time horrific. It was an illustration to Oscar Wilde’s Salome published by Elkin Mathews & John Lane in 1894. My interest in the 1890’s was born. I came to realize that books can be interesting not just for the text within, but also for their illustrations and decoration of the covers.

I bought all 13 volumes of The Yellow Book when I was about 17, and I started to buy Ricketts and Shannon when I was around 19 or 20. (I was born in 1966.)

Beardsley was a dominant force with his notoriety gaining the spotlight and he stood out as a true original. Oscar Wilde shone out and eclipsed all the other writers. His brilliant wit and the story of his downfall enhanced his subsequent reputation. Others would emerge from the fog of time and some would fade back into the gloom taking shadowy roles. However, two individuals continue to jostle for attention and demand to be better known: Charles Ricketts and his partner Charles Shannon.

At first I found it difficult to discover much information about them, but one thing was clear: they were connected with all the important personalities of the decadent movement. Their artistic world and work was one of refinement.

I started to collect, seeking out their work. But at first there were slim pickings; the only books I found were some early commercially produced books, Poems, Lyrical & Dramatic of Lord de Tablay (1893), and In the Key of Blue by John Addington Symonds (1893), both published by Elkin Mathews and John Lane.

Three lithographs by Charles Shannon: ‘The Toilet’ (1895), ‘Salt Water’ (1895) and ‘The Sower & the Reaper’ (1904) 
I had started to hear about the Vale Press but had not yet seen any volumes published by it, only the odd black and white photograph of some. And then by a stroke of good luck I found my first Vale Press book in a book shop in Woodstock, long since closed. I still have it. It is a rather tatty edition of The World at Action by Michael Field (1898), the spine rubbed and split. Just holding it made me feel it was different to the other books I had found. Both the paper and the printing made me aware of the effort and expertise that had gone into the making of this book. I wanted to find more of them, but what was published by the Vale Press was unknown to me so I was working blind. I was able to make a small list of books mentioned or illustrated in other books, but it was not clear to me how many or what they had done. This is where the collector needs help.

I had no clue at the time of existing bibliographies and lists, I had only heard of Ricketts and Shannon in biographies of Oscar Wilde and Beardsley. It was only ever in passing references. I found Darracott’s book The World of Charles Ricketts a bit later on. As now all the early books were hard to get hold of, and bookshops at the time did not want to be helpful, as I was young and a punk.

Therefore, Maureen Watry’s The Vale Press: Charles Ricketts, a Publisher in Earnest (2004), was the first book that enabled me to ascertain what the Vale Press published in full, including the ephemera. Then I found my first lithograph by Shannon at an Antiques fair, ‘The Toilet’ (1895), this was a find, but it would be a long time until I found my next one.

Shannon’s lithographs have been listed by Paul Delaney in his book The Lithographs of Charles Shannon published by Taranman (1978) which gave me pointers firstly to know what to look out for and secondly to assess the date, title and edition number of my latest find. I am glad to say my collection has grown over the years, to some forty five volumes by the Vale press and eight lithographs by Shannon. Among other prints I have two woodcuts by Shannon for Daphnis and Chloe (1893), which I found in a junk shop in 2007: ‘The Topmost Apple’ (woodcut for page 75) and ‘Chloe singing’ (woodcut for page 15). Both are signed by him.

Charles Shannon, two proof woodcut illustrations for Daphnis & Chloe (1893), signed, and a roundel woodcut, ‘The Dovecot’ (1903)
But as a collector I am aware there are gaps in the jigsaw. And the largest of these is the work of Shannon. He has lived far too long in the shadow cast by Ricketts and I should like to know what he did, what he produced.

Little information is available as to what his work is about, the symbolism used. It has always been seen that he played a supporting role to Ricketts, but maybe it is time to re-examine the interaction in the work of the two men. Such a study could flag up missing works, a painting or a set of wood block proof pulls to an illustrated book that was never realized in full, but all now lost to the scholar. Equally a collector could come across a letter slipped in to a book or a dedication inscribed on a flyleaf to a confidante hinting to some unknown deed or lover. So, the academic and the collector working together could one day fill in a gap or two in the puzzle, creating an understanding of the lives of Ricketts and Shannon.

That is why this collector keeps looking, just maybe one day in a box of old picture frames in the sale room or junk shop the portrait of Willie Hughes, commissioned by Oscar Wilde and painted by Ricketts but now lost is waiting to be rediscovered.

Paul Durham