Wednesday, December 12, 2018

385. The 2018 Alphabet: U

U is for Unless.

Unless one is wealthy there is no use in being a charming fellow.

Oscar Wilde, Lord Arthur Savile's Crime & Other Stories (1891)
This sentence is the opening line of the last story in Oscar Wilde's Lord Arthur Savile's Crime & Other Stories (1891). The cover and spine designs are by Charles Ricketts, who, especially for this book produced a variant on the publisher's mark for James R. Osgood, McIlvaine and Co, as he did for all the new works that he designed for this firm during the early 1890s.

The book was printed by R. & R. Clark in Edinburgh, but it displayed all the asymmetrical and whimsical typographical features of a book printed at the Ballantyne Press where James McNeill Whistler had influenced page design for several years and where Ricketts had his magazine The Dial printed, emulating Whistler's idiosyncrasies and adding his own.

Ricketts might have been responsible for the illustrated initials that appear on the first page of each story: an 'I' (page 3) accompanied by a pair of wings, an 'O' with an acorn and two leaves of what appear to be lathyrus (page 77), a 'W' adorned with two violets (page 91), and finally a 'U' illustrating two small oak leaves (page 157).

No contract for the book has survived, Wilde's letters do not mention the initials, we can't be sure whose design they are. However, I have never seen them in any other book; the style is unlike that of other Clark books, we have seen Ricketts draw more designs for a book than he was commissioned (certainly in the case of Wilde's books - for this book he not only drew the publisher's mark but also a smaller variant one), and the initials are subtle, diverse, and seem to symbolize the story they precede. On the other hand, the letters themselves are not like the art nouveau creations Ricketts displayed on the cover of, for example, Wilde's Poems, although the various positions of the two illustrated elements around the initials are harmonious, yet sophisticated and funny.

Initials in Lord Arthur Savile's Crime & Other Stories (1891)
Although the designer of these initials remains unknown, I have always thought that Ricketts might have been their inventor.

The book was produced to reach a larger audience, and was lowly priced at 2s, and Guy and Small (in Oscar Wilde's Profession, 2000, page 232) argue that this was the reason for the lack of illustrations. This might indicate also that the initials were stock initials used for magazines and such, but, again, they look too subtle and new for that and were not used for Wilde's stories when they first appeared in periodicals. As new illustrations were deemed to be expensive, Ricketts might have stepped in to help solve the space problem, that is: the book needed more pages, and the stories were subdivided into chapters, additional title pages were included with subtitles for each of the stories. The initials might have been introduced at that phase of the editorial process. 

Anyway, they are there now for us to enjoy.