Wednesday, October 21, 2015

221. Charles Ricketts and Oscar Wilde's Woman's World (1)

PhD candidate Petra Clark (University of Delaware) recently published an article in the September issue of the Journal of Victorian Culture: '"Cleverly Drawn": Oscar Wilde, Charles Ricketts, and the Art of the Woman's World'. It was accompanied by a blogpost on the Journal of Victorian Culture Online from where the article can be downloaded.

The Woman’s World (1887-1890) was the successor of The Lady's World; Wilde was asked to become its editor, and subsequently suggested some changes such as a new title. Wilde did not write many pieces for the magazine himself, his job was to solicit new texts. 

Petra Clark argues that Charles Ricketts approached Wilde while he was editor of the magazine in order to get commissions for drawings, and that his early drawings for this magazine quickly became more than 'hackwork', as he introduced new art nouveau styled elements that transcended the message his illustrations were supposed to convey to the readers. Ricketts got some orders for large format drawings that fitted his growing specialism: costume, especially Elizabethan dresses and surroundings.

Charles Ricketts, header for 'The Latest Fashion' (The Woman's World, December 1889)
Petra Clark writes: 

Despite their subjects being dictated by the articles for which they were commissioned, many of Ricketts’s illustrations are nonetheless highly personalized, even going so far as to suggest his relationship with other artists.
One such interaction that particularly stood out was Ricketts’s with Gustave Fraipont. Fraipont was a Belgian-born French artist who contributed illustrations to a number of magazines during this period, and created many headers for the Woman’s World over the course of its run, particularly for the 'The Latest Fashions' and 'Paris Fashions' sections of each monthly instalment. Fraipont’s header designs for earlier issues emphasized feminine accessories such as fans, lace, powder puffs, and ribbons. At some point during 1889, Ricketts seems to have been given the 'The Latest Fashions' headers to do, which is where things get interesting. Ricketts too draws the same sort of items as Fraipont, but adds in mischievous putti who gambol across the header and, more often than not, disrupt the order of the toilette with their own uses for these items.
Such plump imps were a common element in Renaissance and Baroque art, so employed here, they at once invoke high art as well as the sentimental, while undermining both. It is unclear whether Ricketts was mocking such figures that may have appeared in pre-existing designs by Fraipont, or if he just found the putti a convenient vehicle to playfully engage with the work of the older artist. In any case, Fraipont’s subsequent headers for 'Paris Fashions' began to feature his own putti, though it is likewise difficult to know why: possibly he decided to fight putti with putti, or he recognized the appeal of Ricketts’s designs and sought to assimilate them into his own. These dozen or so putti headers become more and more ridiculous as each artist took his turn, finally reaching a fever-pitch of absurdity and excess before dying down.

Next week I will publish some footnotes to this article, commenting upon the way these early commissions for The Woman's World came about, and how the relationship between the firm of Cassell, the publisher of The Woman's World, and the artist Ricketts evolved, and how Oscar Wilde as an editor may have played a role.

The problem of each article on Ricketts's early works lies in the absence of archives (the Cassell archive was destroyed, no early letters between Ricketts and Wilde have survived), and therefore conjecture must be called in to fill in the gaps. Clark hands us some material to further our thoughts about Ricketts's early commissions, although I think that Wilde's role is needlessly overrated, and that we have to turn to our knowledge of the daily practice of running a magazine to get some answers. As I see it, there is no reason to assume that Ricketts had sent his drawings to Wilde.