Wednesday, July 16, 2014

155. A Summer Miscellany of Mistakes (3)

After publisher's bindings of the ninety-nineties became a vogue among collectors - in the wake of the Aubrey Beardsley exhibition in the Victoria and Albert Museum, curated by Brian Reade, and the publication of John Russell Taylor's guide The Art Nouveau Book in Britain, - both events took place in 1966!, - dealers and bibliophiles were sometimes led astray in the search for new discoveries. A number of books was ascribed to well known or lesser well known artists, although these were in fact designed by unfamiliar artists from that era, artists whose work had not yet been discovered as a subject for art or book historians. 

Exhibition Poster, 'Aubrey Beardsley', 1966 (location: Victoria and Albert Museum, London)
The 1890s saw a great deal of designers working along the lines of the Arts and Crafts and the Art Nouveau, and publishers hired young and anonymous artists to decorate title pages and bindings for books.

If a book was ascribed to Charles Ricketts its price increased, and more so than by an attribution to, let's say, Will Jenkins. Similarly, the names of Beardsley or Talwin Morris would generate more enthusiasm than that of Christopher Dean

If a binding is not signed, an attribution to Ricketts needs documentation, and for that matter, even a signed binding can not do without additional evidence, which can sometimes be found in advertisements, or letters. Contracts and proofs, unfortunately, are rare. 

Taylor himself ascribed a few books to Ricketts that have since been justly attributed to other artists, for example The Poetical Works of James Thomson.

Cloth binding for The Collected Poems of Lord de Tabley (1903)
He also attached Ricketts's name to The Collected Poems of Lord de Tabley, and referred to Ricketts's binding designs for Vale Press books: 'on the cover [...] we encounter the severe, "architectoral" later manner in which abstract pat­terns of straight lines and small circles are broken up by only the smallest tokens of representationalism'.

The attribution was picked up by Clare Warrack and Geoffrey Perkins, whose catalogues should be consulted by everyone interested in the 1890s, as they contain lots of unique items that have not been described elsewhere.

Title page of The Collected Poems of Lord de Tabley (1903)
In their Catalogue 19 (1974) a copy of De Tabley's book was listed as number 124: 'Red cloth gilt', 'Upper cover and spine blocked in gold with a design by Ricketts'. The price was identical to that of a copy of Lord de Tabley's Poems, Dramatic and Lyrical. This 1893 volume had, of course, triggered the attribution (for an illustration, see 'To V.F. from C.R.').

Fourteen years later, in their Catalogue Sixty-Nine (1988) another copy of The Collected Poems of Lord de Tabley was offered as a Ricketts design.

Other dealers, collectors and libraries, did not mention Ricketts as the designer and usually no artist's name is connected to the book's design. A Bookman's Catalogue (about the Norman Colbeck collection, published in 1987), for example, does not mention a designer.

Charles Ricketts's monogram CR on Poems, Dramatic and Lyrical (1893)
The 1893 edition of Poems had been signed with Ricketts's monogram CR in the upper left hand corner of the front cover, but the Collected Poems were not signed by him.

On the title page of The Collected Poems of Lord de Tabley another monogram can be discovered. There is a letter M between the crossing branches in the stylized floral figure.

Detail of title page, The Collected Poems of Lord de Tabley (1903)
The book was published by Chapman & Hall Limited in London in 1903, and the 'M' design could have been designed by an artist that worked regularly for the firm. The binding could still be the work of Ricketts. However, the binding too shows the 'M' monogram. It can be seen in the lower part of the central panel.

Monogram 'M' on the binding of The Collected Poems of Lord de Tabley (1903)
That settles it. But then, who is 'M'? Two years ago, Malcolm Haslam published a book on Arts and Crafts Book Covers to accompany an exhibition at Blackwell, The Arts and Crafts House. One of the artists discussed is William Brown Macdougall, who was born in Glasgow in 1868, moved to London in the nineties, and worked in a style that owed a lot to Aubrey Beardsley and William Morris. A well-known example of his work is Dante Gabriel Rossetti's The Blessed Damozel that he illustrated in 1898 for Duckworth and Co. Macdougall later lived in Essex with his wife, the novelist Margaret Armour. He died in 1936. 

Haslam mentions that he designed 'stamped cloth book covers for Dent, Duckworth, Service & Paton, Chapman & Hall, Kegan Paul, Blackie, Macmillan, and Black'. One of his monograms (Haslam illustrates two of them) is the simple 'M' that also figures on the binding and the title page of The Collected Poems of Lord de Tabley. Why his name went unmentioned in the book is not clear.