Wednesday, September 6, 2017

319. Celebrating the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection

On 17 and 18 March this year, a conference at the University of Delaware celebrated the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection in Newark. Alas, I couldn't attend the conference at the time. However, the talks have been recorded. Here is a link to the university's repository. The importance of the Mark Samuel Lasner collection is immense. I had the pleasure of visiting the library some years ago, see my 2013 blog No. 82.

Oscar Wilde, A House of Pomegranates (1891): cover design by Charles Ricketts
One of the talks at the conference was given by Joseph Bristow, professor of English at UCLA. His talk focussed on Wilde's fairy tales from the first book editions in the 1880s and 1890s until about 30 years after the death of the author in 1900.

Here is a link to his presentation: 'Oscar Wilde, the Fairy Tale, and the Illustrated Book, 1888-1928'.

Listening to the audio presentation, a few comments touched base. The early editions of the fairy tales were, perhaps, intended for an audience of children, but they expressed a sexual undertone and demonstrated an adult 'impression of desire', as Bristow had it. Wilde's works were associated with insubordinate desire during his lifetime, years before he was convicted of 'gross indecency'.

Oscar Wilde, A House of Pomegranates (1891): cover design by Charles Ricketts (detail)
Bristow's talk mentioned the 1891 edition of Oscar Wilde's A House of Pomegranates, designed by Ricketts, and illustrated by Ricketts and Charles Shannon. The symbolism of the cover design that was criticized harshly by contemporary critics, was explained by Bristow as a sort of summary of the stories in the book. The peacock, the basket containing pomegranates, and the fountain, are related to themes in the stories. He wasn't the first to point this out, of course.

Oscar Wilde,
A House of Pomegranates(1891): cover design by Charles Ricketts
Bristow went on to argue that the artist was attached to his independence, and didn't merely illustrate the stories. This too, has become commonplace among Wilde and Ricketts commentators.

Interestingly, his main point was about the much discussed title page of A House of Pomegranates. In his view, this page addressed the issue of sexual desire in a way that the author hadn't done himself. However, this was exactly as his art was seen by his contemporaries, as belonging to the French decadent movement.

Oscar Wilde, A House of Pomegranates (1891):
title page designed by Charles Ricketts (detail)
Comments from other Wilde and Ricketts critics spring to mind.

The illustration is complicated by the two figures depicted in it. There is a woman at her embroidery, but she is asleep. In 1970, Michael Brooks wrote: 'Ricketts’ Pre-Raphaelite maiden [...] lives only partly in the world of real time and real objects; her thoughts are in some infinitely distant, infinitely more enchanting universe.' The same goes for the other figure, a seated satyr playing the flute. The two don't seem to notice each other.

The embroidered roundels show scenes from Wilde's stories. The one at the top refers to the story of 'The Fisherman and his Soul'. The second roundel is about the story of 'The Young King', while the third one symbolizes the story about 'The Star-Child'. 

A fourth design is pinned to the frame. This one depicts a heart, a rose and thistles. A similar design is printed in the margin of 'The Birthday of the Infanta'.

Bristow focusses on other details. He argues that the togetherness of the faun and the woman suggests love, or, rather, lust. The satyr has her in mind, and her dreams are about the lust he represents, the unheard song of his flute, one might say.

The interpretation is partly based on criticisms after publication, and our modern interpretations of nineteenth-century imagery, but Bristow convinced his audience that contemporary readers would have understood the page's sexual innuendoes, and, as Oscar Wilde had not yet been convicted, they would not have felt threatened. Excited, perhaps, but not disgusted. A few years later, all that changed.