Wednesday, July 3, 2019

414. Ricketts and Shannon as Robert Ross's Characters (5)

As one reviewer wrote about Robert Ross's Masques & Phases: 'very few live in the present and believe in it as Mr. Ross does'. His essays discuss the art of his times, not that of a distant past. The frequent appearances of living authors and artists in his reviews that are sometimes disguised as one-act plays testifies of this focus on the present. The likes of Shaw and Gosse appear on these imaginary stages.

Harley Granville-Barker (c 1915)
[Library of Congress]
In 1906, Harley Granville-Barker produced a play by G.B. Shaw, The Doctor's Dilemma, and only two days before the first performance Shaw thought that the last scene that was set in a picture gallery should contain real art works. Ross, then the proprietor of Carfax Gallery stepped in and delivered some works of art by Augustus John, William Orpen, Albert Rothenstein and others.

Then Ross wrote another little play, called Some Doctored Dilemma (published in Masques & Phases, pp. 236-247). The scene takes place, of course, in a picture gallery in Bury Street (where the Carfax Gallery had its premises), and is presented as 'a new epilogue for the last performance of Mr. Shaw's play'.

The stage is crowded, says Ross; there are, among others, art critics, journalists, collectors, poets, pickpockets and politicians. On show are paintings that were sold only recently, and immediately offered again at double the price.

Isaac Oliver, self-portrait (detail)
[National Portrait Gallery, London]
Enters a 'striking-looking man, not unlike a Holbein drawing, at a distance: but on nearer inspection [...] he is more like an Isaac Oliver or Nicholas Lucidel.' [Both were Renaissance painters.]

Edmund Gosse inquires after his name, and is told:

That is the Holland Park Wonder, so-called because he lives at the top of a tower in Holland Park—the greatest Art Connoisseur in England. Mr. Charles Ricketts, the greatest —

One of the art critics in the room (Frederick Wedmore) asks whether the frames are included in the prices of the pictures, and Ricketts asks:

Do you think I could buy a frame without a picture?

The others all marvel over the paintings of this painter (the imaginary painter Dubedat from Shaw's play), and they argue over the exhibitions that should have contained his work, or the museum collections that need to buy these works now.

Sir Hugh P. Lane (who established Dublin's Municipal Gallery of Modern Art) suggests to buy works at reduced prices or in exchange of other paintings:

I'll give you a Gainsborough drawing in exchange for them. It has a very good history. First it belonged to Ricketts, then to Rothenstein, then Wilson Steer, and then to the Carfax gallery, and .... then it came into my possession, and all that in three months.

The provenance doesn't go far back in time, and reminds us of the claims that some art critics, Ricketts included, published in newspapers, magazines and books in a constant battle among connoisseurs to find the one undiscovered masterpiece that would change the course of the debates about art. Ricketts, of course, frequently proclaimed he had found a lost masterpiece, and sometimes he actually did, sometimes his claim was as unjustified as that of his adversaries.

Robert Ross (c 1911)
In Ross's play, another critic asserts that the paintings look like reproductions after John or Orpen, and someone asks: 'Do you think Bernard Shaw will like the new epilogue?'. Shaw himself answers:

He will; I'm shaw.

The play ends with an attempt to reconstruct Shaw's ten commandments - they were given to H.G. Wells for revision, but he lost them in the Tube. One of them was:

Thou shalt have none other Shaws but me.

The credo is spoken by an actor:

I believe in Bernard Shaw, in Granville Barker, and (heartily) in The Times.

After this 'review' was published, Ricketts wrote a letter to Ross saying that he was 'delighted with your Epilogue':

I laughed to tears over the D.S.M. and Sir Chawles passage.

D.S.M. was the critic D.S. MacColl and Sir Chawles was Sir Charles Holroyd, who went on listing funds that could secure the Dubedat paintings for the nation:

Sir Charles Holroyd (smoothing things over). I think we ought to have an example for the Tate. (MacColl winces.) The Chantrey Bequest—(MacColl winces again)—might do something; and I must write to Lord Balcarres. The National Arts Collections Fund may have something over from the subscriptions to the Rokeby Velasquez; but I want to see what Colvin is going to choose for the British Museum.

The passage, said Ricketts, 'is quite up to your earliest and best manner'. But he did have one complaint about the way he was himself introduced in the play, as a 'striking-looking man, not unlike a Holbein drawing, at a distance: but on nearer inspection [...] he is more like an Isaac Oliver or Nicholas Lucidel.' 

Ricketts would have preferred:

A prepossessing man not unlike Isaac Oliver or Lucidel at a distance: but on close inspection he reveals the perfection of a Holbein, Gosse, Fry, Lane, Rothenstein, all are perfect.

[See Robert Ross, Masques & Phases, 1909, pp. 236-247 and Robert Ross. Friend of Friends (Edited by Margery Ross), 1952, p. 141.]