Wednesday, March 21, 2018

347. Ricketts's Design of Oscar Wilde's Poems (1892) (2)

Last week I wrote about the limitation statement of Oscar Wilde's Poems in the 1892 edition. (See blog No 346). Michael Seeney contacted me about the line in relation to Wilde's signature on the same page.

His astute observation is:

One thing that has always puzzled me is the printed line about three-quarters of the way down the limitation page. It seems to serve no purpose, although in my copy (No 1) and the one illustrated in Mason (No 7) Wilde joins his name to the line with a descender from the final 'e'. In other copies I've seen he just leaves the line floating - perhaps he became tired of signing with such a flourish.
Limitation statement and Oscar Wilde's signature in No. 109
The limitation statement seems straightforward as a text. However, its design is more complicated than it seems, and Seeney's remark allows us another look at the page as a whole.

The triangle of small ornaments at the top is positioned almost in the middle of the page (45 mm from the top, 50 mm from the left and 50 mm from the right). To the right is a block of text with written letters, numbers and two floral ornaments: a small ornament in line 4 and another one at the end of line 5. There is an initial 'T' (lines 1-3) and another one, 'N' (line 6-7). There are no divisions between the text lines, but the block has been divided into two parts.

Part one is about the edition size:

This edition
consists of
210 copies, 
200 of which
are for sale

The second part is about the individual copy:


The left margin of the two parts of this text block is not straight; it somewhat follows the form of the triangle to the left.

To balance the design on this page, there are two lines: a small one (4 mm) to the right of the second part of the text block, and a longer line (22 mm). The second line is somewhat smaller than the text blocks of which the lines measure 24 to 26 mm.

All these texts, ornaments and lines have been calligraphed by Ricketts, and are printed from a block. No material from the type case has been used.

The purpose of these two lines might have been to obtain an aesthetic balance of the black and white parts on the page, and to achieve a balance of this page with the title page opposite. 

After the page had been printed, Ricketts's design served as a certificate of limitation, and each copy was individualized by the inclusion of a number that was handwritten in ink, and each copy was authenticated by Oscar Wilde, the author of the book, who wrote his large signature in each copy.

Limitation statement and Wilde's signatures in copies No. 22, 91 and 95
Comparing four copies - No 109 (Christie's, 2012), No. 22 (private collection), No. 91 (Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library), No. 95 (Duke University [reproduced in Nicholas Frankel, Oscar Wilde's Decorated Books, 2000]) - it is noticeable that Wilde's signature appears to the lower left side of the page, with the name divided over two lines, the final 'e' unfinished, and ending in a downward stroke of the pen. 

In some cases that pen stroke touches the horizontal line; in some copies the signature appears between the limitation statement and the line; in some cases the pen stroke makes a sharp angle to the right. There seems to be no consistency; the signing of these 210 copies may have been done in several sessions, the author needing a rest or a drink in between. 

The numbers have been placed in the same spot in every copy, that is, between the text 'No of copy' and the small horizontal line. These numbers were not written by Wilde, but (most likely) by an employee at the premises of The Bodley Head. The writing of the numerals is consistent in style and in placement.

But what about the position of both - number and signature - in relation to the horizontal lines (the smaller one and the lower one)?

My theory is, that Ricketts had intended these lines not only to balance the whole design, but also to leave space for the number and signature. Examples of printed limitation statements show that dotted lines were normally used to indicate the place where the copy number and the author's signature should be written. In Ricketts's case, there were no printed lines, and he didn't draw dotted lines, he drew uninterrupted lines. His design was intended to have the copy number in a small script on the small line at the end of the limitation statement. However, the writer of these numbers ignored this intention (Ricketts was not present to instruct him), and the number ended up between the text and the line. That space should have been left blank.

And Oscar Wilde? His signature was never as small and precisely calligraphed as Ricketts's own modest and carefully written signature. Wilde came and confiscated the page, it was to be his book, and it certainly was his signature that would make the book worthwhile to buy. And in other cases, he had done the same. When Ricketts received his personal copy of another book that he had designed for Wilde, The Sphinx, he was infuriated, as T.S. Moore recorded:

Yet I can see his face crimson as he tore out the fly-leaf Wilde had inscribed from the copy of The Sphinx sent to him. 'Vulgar beast!' he cried, for the signature ended in a straight-lined 'z' scrawled right across the leaf, an outrage to the exquisite niceties of the artist's book building, in blatant contrast also with the modesty of his insect-like autograph.

And so it is with each and every copy of the 1892 edition of Wilde's Poems...