Wednesday, January 16, 2019

390. The 2019 Alphabet: W

W is for Why?

Why are you tarrying? Get hence! I weary of your sullen ways,
I weary of your steadfast gaze, your somnolent magnificence.

Charles Ricketts, initial 'W' in Oscar Wilde, The Sphinx (1894)

These lines of poetry are taken from Oscar Wilde's The Sphinx (1894) that figured in this series of letters before, when I wrote about the initial 'I' at the beginning of the poem. For the opening pages of the book Charles Ricketts designed an elaborate frontispiece that also served as the title page - an uncommon combination placed on the left hand page - using an earlier designed initial 'I' for the first line of the poem. This initial displayed the same kind of branches and leaves as the frontispiece drawing 'Melancholia' showed around the figures of 'Melancholia' and the sphinx.

Ricketts could have used the same kind of initials for other pages in the book. However, for these lines of poetry Ricketts designed an untraditional, art nouveau-like set of initials: A, G, H, L, O, T, W. Four were used once only, while 'A' and 'O' appeared twice. The initial 'W' figured four times in the book, introducing the words 'Who', 'With', Why' and 'What'.  

Much is made of the colour of these initials, that were not printed in the same red-brown as the illustrations, but in green, as was the initial 'I' at the beginning of the poem, but why would Ricketts have designed these other initials? Their shapes are extraordinary.

Charles Ricketts, initials for Oscar Wilde, The Sphinx (1894)
Some of the details are snake-like, see for example the initial 'G', while the diagonal stem of the 'A' is unusual, and the 'O' has an unorthodox stem-like addition. The 'L' and T' are comparatively normal for modern types. The 'W' is the most extreme deviation from the normal letter 'W', a letter that was often designed by Ricketts for Vale Press initials.

There is no documentary evidence for my thesis (or for any other), but I believe that Ricketts tried to give these initials the same kind of eclectic historical feel as the illustrations that display a mix of Italian Renaissance landscapes, Minoan architecture, and Japanese compositions. Perhaps he endeavoured to create a Minoan alphabet of his own device.