Wednesday, August 2, 2017

314. The 2017 Alphabet: L

L is for All.

All bought from Pertinax?

Charles Ricketts, initials in Michael Field, The World at Auction (1898) 
In 1898 the Vale Press published a new play by Katherine Bradley (1846-1914) and Edith Cooper (1862-1913), writers collaborating under the name of 'Michael Field'. For this book, The World at Auction, Michael Field wanted to have an image of Pylades on the title page:

Let your title-page be as it is, but opposite to it there must be Pylades. His is the one figure that appears in each play of the Trilogy. So – if you would have us kind to those vengeful doves – by all that is slim & fleet & long & supple, dream that dream of Fortune & the dancer, just as you saw it, dream it into lines, into existence.(*)

Ricketts didn't deliver that image. He opted for masks, Fortuna, and an illustrated initial 'A' that depicted three mythological half human-half goats. Two of these fauns are enjoying the grapes, one has fallen asleep.

The play was the first of their so-called Roman trilogy to be published. According to the historical chronology it would turn out to be the second episode about the decadence of Rome that the Fields likened to the London of their own times.

Ana Parejo Vadillo, who published several essays about these plays (**), remarked that the central question in The World at Auction 'is what happens to art when consumption replaces all forms of social relations and interactions. Or, to put it another way, what happens to beauty in a culture where everything, including the metropolis, is for sale.' The storyline serves two narratives: one focusses on society, the sale of the late emperor's possessions, including the Praetorian Guard that had assassinated him. A certain Pertinax - mentioned in line one - tries to find buyers for this auction. Implied is that the whole state, Rome, is for sale. The second narrative is about art and love. The new owner of the Guard is the merchant Didius Julianus, whose daughter Clara buys the love of Pyladus, a court dancer and pantomime. In the end she wants to control all his movements, forbidding him to play in public, and intending to reproduce 'his dancing figure in marble, motionless statues', as Vadillo states. He refuses. 

The opening page that Ricketts designed for the play is full of classical references. The initial 'A' with the three fauns alludes to Dionysos, and thus to the figure of the Dionysiac artist Pyladus. The longitudinal sections to the left and right contain images of pomegranates, garlands, pylons, an incense burner, a horn of plenty, and a sphinx. A pair of  interlocked rings refer to the two women authors, while the horn of plenty and some other images refer to the story of the play, and to Fortuna, the goddess of fortune and fate.

There are fifteen lines of texts, divided by the initial 'A'. It was designed for this play, and has never been used again by Ricketts. The same goes for the initial 'L' that, printed in red, fills the space next to the large 'A'. 

Charles Ricketts, two initials 'L'
in Michael Field, The World at Auction (1898)
In her book about the Vale Press Maureen Watry listed these initials 'L' as one: L2. This is incorrect. The initial is not printed twice. Ricketts actually designed two similar, but different initials, with curves and dots. The upper one has a dot in the bottom right corner, the lower one has a curve; but in fact, all these small decorations are variations.

Ricketts had them printed in red. Some ornaments, another small initial 'A' (also specially designed for the book), and the introductory text on this page were also printed in red to counterbalance the heavy black wood-engravings.

Ricketts loved to design the Michael Field books, and went to great length to accommodate their wishes, while, at the same time, he succeeded in expressing his artistic freedom as an artist, and a designer. His designs are never decorations, they are comments. 

The four initials on the opening page, the large 'A', the small 'A', and the two different 'L' engravings, were not only especially designed for this play, but their exceptionality was revered, as they were never used again.

(*) Quoted from Michael Field, ‘Works and Days’, BL Add MS 46786, fols. 46v [entry by Edith Cooper], see Ana Parejo Vadillo, '"The hot-house of decadent chronicle": Michael Field, Nietzsche and the Dance of Modern Poetic Drama', in: Woman. A Cultural Review, 26 (2015) 3, pp. 195-220.

(**) See Ana Parejo Vadillo, 'Outmoded Dramas: History and Modernity in Michael Field's Aesthetic Plays', in: Michael Field and Their World. Edited by Margaret D. Stetz and Cheryl A. Wilson. High Wycombe, The Rivendale Press, 2007, pp. 237-249.