Wednesday, August 7, 2019

419. Printing The Illustrations of A House of Pomegranates (1891)

The most recent volumes of The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, IX and X, contain the texts of The Importance of Being Earnest and the versions on which this play was based. The editor, Joseph Donohue, pays attention to some of the book historical aspects, such as the textual tradition, the printing process and the date of publication, but not to the binding designed by Charles Shannon - Shannon is not mentioned in the whole book (two volumes, 1189 pages).

Charles Shannon, untitled illustration for 'The Star-Child'
(Oscar Wilde, A House of Pomegranates, 1891, between p. 128 and p. 129)
(Photograph: Henk Treur)
This certainly does not apply to all volumes of this edition, but strangely enough it does to Volume VIII: The Short Fiction (2017), which reprints and publishes a commentary on the fairy tales from A House of Pomegranates (1891), among other prose pieces. This volume was edited by Ian Small. He frequently mentions Ricketts and Shannon in his introduction, and discusses various book-historical aspects, such as the desire of publisher and author to play two markets at the same time: that of the children's book and that of the luxury, bibliophile edition: 

It is at this point that a consideration of the book's design and printing becomes important. Osgood, McIlvaine & Co. had not only commissioned Charles Ricketts to design the book, they had also commissioned his partner Charles Shannon to provide the illustrations. [...] The finished work, however, had a number of shortcomings.
(p. xlix)

Small then falls back on the bibliography of Stuart Mason from 1914 without quoting later literature on the printing process. Pages later - in the 'Textual Introduction' he returns to this point and seems surprised that the printing company, the famous firm The Chiswick Press, was content with the fact that Shannon's prints were not printed properly. 

The proofs also confirm the assumption that the illustrations (made by Charles Ricketts) were added to the type after the galley-proofing of text was complete, and that the subsequent plates were sent to Paris for printing.
(p. xcviii).

I am not sure I understand this point, as galley proofs were not meant to contain illustrations. As to the plates, Mason stated:

These four plates were printed in Paris by some "improved" process. After the book was finished and bound it was noticed that a dusty deposit had formed on each plate, probably owing to some chemical impurity either in the printer's ink or in the chalky paper used. To take off this deposit each plate was rubbed with soft flannel, which removed the surface and left the reproductions faint and in some cases almost obliterated.
(quoted by Small, pp. xlix, lii).

However, the problem of the enigmatic French process was solved years ago and it is therefore very surprising that Ian Small does not refer to the article on this subject published by Paul W. Nash in the Spring 2007 edition of The Private Library.

Nash's article was a response to my article (published in The Private Library of Summer 2005) in which I argued that there are two different binding editions of A House of Pomegranates, one bound in a pale yellowish green spine and ivory cloth boards; the other in a darker green spine and light brown cloth boards; in the first case Shannon's plates are pasted on white linen guards, in the second case on pale brown paper guards, - and there are more differences. 

Two binding states of Oscar Wilde, A House of Pomegranates (1891)
I also pointed out that Shannon's plates contained a small monogram that was hard to interpret and that I read as 'WHD sc', but that Nash was correct in reading as 'VDH sc'.

Monogram 'VDH sc' (lower left corner of the plates by Charles Shannon
in A House of Pomegranates, 1891)
Nash was able to find out at which firm in Paris the blocks for these illustrations were manufactured and which process had been used. After a discussion of the Chiswick Press ledgers, he continues: 

An examination of Shannon's plates in A House of Pomegranates confirms that they were drawn on Papier Gillot. Their overall appearance suggests an etching process; the paler tones show a clear pattern of fine vertical lines, while darker areas show a pattern of equally regular horizontal lines bisecting the vertical to form a close network. The palest shading of all shows the expected pattern of dots, diminishing to nothing at all for pure white areas.
(Nash, p. 34)

'VDH sc', he stated:

is in fact the monogram of the firm Verdoux, Ducourtioux et Huillard, which existed in Paris between 1890 and 1895. They were etchers, engravers and photo-engravers, generally preparing blocks for printing by others.
(Nash, pp. 35-36)

To summarise, the text and decorations for A House of Pomegranates were printed by the Chiswick Press, before 10 November 1891. Shannon's drawings were made on Papier Gillot and sent to Paris, where Verdoux, Ducourtioux et Huillard created etched relief  blocks directly from them (justifying at least in part Mason's statement about an 'improved processs' being used at Paris); the blocks for Ricketts's illustrations may also have been made in Paris, perhaps by the same firm. Verdoux, Ducourtioux et Huillard may well have printed Shannon's plates too, although this remains unproven, and other companies (including Gillot's) could have been responsible.
(Nash, pp. 38-39)

The technical details and the name of the Parisian engraver are therefore known, and in the future it will no longer suffice to refer to Mason to describe the production of Shannon's illustrations. It is strange and extremely unfortunate that this important article by Paul Nash has escaped the attention of the editors of Wilde's complete works.