Wednesday, April 10, 2019

402. A 1916 Sphinx Drawing by Charles Ricketts

On 22 March, Princeton University Library has published a blog about a book illustration by Charles Ricketts that 'does not seem to fit any published project', as the Graphic Arts Curator Julie Mellby wrote to me. (See the Graphic Arts blog.)

The drawing is in style with Ricketts's later drawings, apart from one detail: this drawing is dated: 1916. This is not only unusual - Ricketts's drawings for Beyond the Threshold for example were not dated, nor were his series of drawings for Poems in Prose and a similar series inspired by Wilde's The Sphinx that the artist undertook in 1920s - this drawing predates these drawings by five to ten years.

Charles Ricketts, drawing dated 1916 (Princeton University Library, Graphic Arts)
Is this another Sphinx drawing by Ricketts, or not? The double-lined border, the details in the architecture and landscape, and even the colouring are in style with these later drawings, but the subject of the sphinx had been explored by Ricketts long before, the sphinx being a subject for symbolist painters all over Europe, and especially for Ricketts's example Gustave Moreau. An early drawing of the sphinx, 'Oedipus and the Sphinx', modelled after a drawing by J.A.D. Ingres was bought from Ricketts by Frederic Leighton, and later was reproduced in The Pageant.

The Princeton drawing bears a date and the artist's monogram 'CR', but not a title. It could be called 'Silence', after the bronze sculpture with that name that Ricketts had finished around ten years earlier (now at the Andrews Clark Memorial Library). The fingers pointing to the closed lips suggest the same title 'Silence'. The figure is that of the winged Hermes, who not only is the messenger of the gods, or the conductor of souls into the afterlife, but is also associated with rhetorics and pleading.

The figure of Hermes stands on a stone block next to a skull that belongs to a victim of the sphinx. To the right side of the face of Hermes is the statue of the sphinx on a pedestal. The empty space (half of the image) suggests great height in a steep mountain area.

The date 1916 is puzzling. However, I think there may be an answer for which we have to combine letters from Ricketts to Robert Ross, and a note in his diaries concerning the Red Cross Sale at Christie's. The book and manuscript committee for this sale was chaired by Edmund Gosse. Contributions were to be sent in by the end of February 1916, and the auction took place over several weeks in April.

Initially, Ricketts thought of sending in his copy of Wilde's The Sphinx, as he mentioned to Ross:

Do you think my suggestion would be acceptable at the moment and make money for the Red Cross Sale if I sent up my signed copy of The Sphinx (not the edition de luxe) the dedication is quite simple, to C. Ricketts etc. and without the comments by Oscar I have in the Poems and the Intentions.
[Letter to Robert Ross, February 1916, see Robert Ross, Friend of Friends (1952), p, 281].

In the end he withdrew the book, and the Wilde letters that were to accompany it, but meanwhile he had been working on some drawings. First of all, there was a vellum envelope that was to hold the Wilde letters. 

His diary note, as presented in Self-Portrait (1939, p. 254), reads: 

Drew the vellum envelope for the Oscar Wilde letter. Found the vellum at first trying; and I actually squinted with application like a child with its tongue out, and found afterwards that the seat of my breeches was quite moist. After all, the work came more easily than I had anticipated.

Ross and Shannon objected to selling this at auction, Ricketts already had his doubts, and the valuation of a bookseller distressed him, so he backed off. But there was more, and that concerned the 'drawings' he had been making:

Probably a touch of sentiment enters into the selfish reasons for my retention of the signed Sphinx – the other signed books are so much less my books. Possibly a certain coldness on the part of Holmes and Binyon when I showed them the vellum drawings helped also. 
[Letter to Robert Ross, February 1916, see Robert Ross, Friend of Friends (1952), p, 284].

The puzzling element here is the word 'vellum'. The Princeton drawing is on paper. Obviously, Ricketts would have made several sketches for the design he wanted to draw on vellum, a material that prompts the artist to use all his skills. The whereabouts of these vellum drawings is unknown. The Princeton drawing may have been one of the preparatory drawings. The colouring may or may not date from the same year; the addition of the monogram seems to imply that Ricketts considered this to be a finished drawing, or that he prepared this drawing for presentation. 

Charles Ricketts, drawing dated 1916 (Princeton University Library, Graphic Arts)
We can't be certain, but the date 1916 does relate to drawings by Ricketts that were directly associated with Oscar Wilde's The Sphinx, drawings that were not intended for a proposed new edition of the book, but were made with the 1916 Red Cross Sale in mind. The copy, the letters, and the decorated envelope could be anywhere now.