Wednesday, February 24, 2016

239. Vale Press Vine Borders (2)

Last week, vine borders designed by William Morris and Charles Ricketts were shown. In a vellum copy of the Vale Press edition of Michael Field's play Julia Domna, antiquarian book dealer Ed Nudelman found a drawing for a vine border.

The sketches - there are three small drawings - cannot be ascribed to Ricketts, for several reasons.

Anonymous design for a vine border
The designs are unsigned, and the assumption that Ricketts is connected to these sketches, is solely based on the fact that these drawings have been found in a Vale Press book. The copy of that book comes from the collection of Laurence Hodson, and Hodson commissioned special bindings, and other art works from many artists during the 1890s. However, the auction catalogue of his collection does not mention these sketches in the description of this copy.

The handwritten notes include instructions for the block maker or printer, indicating which part of the border should be connected to another part of the drawing. The three drawings cannot form a border, some parts are lacking, and it is unclear which parts should be fitted together to form a complete border that can enclose an illustration or a page of text on four sides.

Ricketts never made separate drawings for the four sides of a border, there was only one complete drawing for each border. An example is published in Self-Portrait (1939). This design was made for the two volumes of Tennyson's poems that appeared in December 1900.

Charles Ricketts, design for the Vale Press edition of
Alfred Lord Tennyson's poems (two volumes, 1900)

This example, and another one, are part of the Gordon Bottomley collection in Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery in Carlisle.

An important difference between the drawings by Ricketts and the anonymous sketches is the pattern of horizontal and vertical lines that seem to indicate that these sketches are made by a pupil and not by an esteemed artist. The pattern is not meant for reproduction purposes, and in fact, the drawings are too small for that. Drawings for reproduction in books are usually larger than the intended format after reproduction. The lines must have been drawn by a pupil who carefully tried to copy an example. It explains the handwritten note underneath: '1st attempt'. He needed more than one go.

The grid could also mean that this was a design that was to be reproduced in another medium, in which case it would be enlarged, for example for a tapestry, a curtain, or a painting. However, in that case, it would have been unlikely for an artist to draw such small sketches.

Anonymous design for a vine border (detail)
Looking closely at one of the drawings (see above), we observe a few other distinctive qualities that make it the work of a student. 

Firstly, the lines that form the stems of the vine are somewhat clumsily drawn, especially the awkward and stiff curves to the left of the design that lack the reassured fluency of the professional draughtsman.

And there is another remarkable feature of the design. If we look again at Ricketts's borders (see last week's blog), and those of Morris too, for that matter, we see that they carefully position the grapes of the vine to the left or to the right side of the border, in order to obtain a variety in colour and density. Here, however, the student has positioned the grapes at the centre of the drawing. The result is surely less lively than an artist would want it to be.

Next week, more about Ricketts's vine borders.