The latest issue of The Wildean (A Journal of Oscar Wilde Studies) for January 2019 contains some unknown and surprising letters by Oscar Wilde to the British Museum. He wrote one letter and dictated four others in his capacity as editor of The Woman's World between November 1887 and November 1888, and they reveal that during this earliest period of his editorship he contacted a friend in the museum to secure novel illustrations of antiquities. This friend was Cecil Smith. The article, written by Rosario Rovira Guardiola, necessitates an addendum to my earlier series of articles on Ricketts, Wilde and The Woman's World, especially the second blog (see 222. Charles Ricketts and Oscar Wilde's Woman's World).
|Charles Ricketts, 'A Lady of Pompeii', in The Woman's World (October 1888, facing page 536)|
Guardiola, an ancient historian and archaeologist at the Department of Greece and Rome at the British Museum, mentions and reproduces an illustration by Ricketts:
In The Woman's World, antiquity would have a predominant role that would help to set it apart from its predecessor, The Lady's World, and even articles on fashion would often include references to antiquity. There would also be articles dedicated to women in particular historical periods such as 'The Pompeian Lady' by Edith Margret, based on the archaeological evidence recovered in the city of Pompeii, as well as articles on specific classical subjects such as 'The Pictures of Sappho' in which Jane E. Harrison discussed the representation of the poet Sappho on Greek vases - a subject on which she was a leading scholar.
The illustration by Ricketts didn't have exactly the same title as the article, but was called 'A Lady of Pompeii', not by Ricketts, but by the art director. The inclusion of this illustration suggests that Wilde's letters had something to do with some objects that Ricketts depicted in his illustration, but that is not the case. The images of artefacts from the British Museum collection were used to illustrate articles on Greek plays, Roman women, the umbrella, and beauty. They were part of Wilde's attempt to change the magazine into a cultured, contemporary and varied periodical, concerned 'not merely with what women wear, but with what they think'.
Charles Ricketts, 'A Lady of Pompeii', in The Woman's World (October 1888, facing page 536) [detail]
Earlier, I contended that Wilde only occasionally tried to secure illustrations, as he was the literary editor of the magazine, not the art editor. The letters about the antiquities from the British Museum show that for some subjects he would do more than only suggest possibilities to the authors of the articles, and contact his acquaintance at the BM to ensure engaging illustrations, because, as Guardiola states, 'Wilde liked to illustrate objects that were not widely known, perhaps to emphasise the modernity of The Woman's World'.
Charles Ricketts, 'A Lady of Pompeii', in The Woman's World(October 1888, facing page 536) [details]
Ricketts is known to have drawn a honeycomb after an original in the natural history museum, and his early drawings display his knowledge of what was on display at the London museums at the time. His Pompeian woman is surrounded by objects that would have attracted visitors, such as a home altar and a tripod with figures of a sphinx and a goat's leg. But Ricketts didn't need to consult a friend at the museum (when young, he probably didn't have one), or bring a letter of recommendation. He would roam the museum on his own, and look for objects that he could use in his illustrations, where they would not be depicted for their scientific interest, or for the idea of novelty, but to suggest a certain epoche, or cultural phase.