Wednesday, October 16, 2019

429. Ricketts's Erotic Sphinxes

Occasionally, in search of literature on illustrations and book covers, you'll come across an article that surprises you. Recently I read some chapters in Gerard Curtis's Visual Words. Art and Material Book in Victorian England. The book dates from 2002 and contains a chapter on the visual impact of books, as the author states: 'from their relationship with busts in libraries to their use as symbolic and iconic manifestations of sexuality and death, and as objects sublimating morality and mortality'. This chapter is called 'The empty biscuit tin'.

Charles Ricketts is mentioned in this chapter (not in the index):

Literary culture dressed up its desires, clothing the object in preparation for the tantalizing opening of reading and its abstract pleasure by decorating both the cover and the inside of the book. Such dressing-up heightened the erotic attraction, linking sensual physicality and textual abstraction. Indicative of this unfolding of textual pleasure were the numerous erotic bookplates and markers designed by artists like Aubrey Beardsley, and by various artists in Germany and France. These sensual bookmarks and ownership tags demonstrated the intensification of the sexual element of book-ownership that arose in the latter part of the century, particularly under the influence of the Aesthetic movement.
(pp. 253-254)

Aubrey Beardsley,
Mr. Pollitt's Bookplate
These are difficult assertions to substantiate. In Germany, for example, there had certainly been an increase in erotic bookplates, but has this not been due to the increased private publishing of erotic works in small editions? Whereas in England privately printed books often commemorated deceased soldiers, or other family members, in Germany this kind of publication was often erotic in nature. There was a growing industry of pornographic luxury publications in France and Germany. The collectors adapted their bookplates. We never see this erotic type of bookplate in the more decent editions, the private press publications, for example, of the Kelmscott, Doves, and Vale Presses.

Curtis assertions are made in a paragraph called 'The breast-bound book', which, by the way, is Marcel Duchamp's cover for Le Surréalisme en 1947. This is an indication of the ease with which Curtis jumps back and forth through time, from an example from 1863 in which books by female and male authors are not allowed to stand next to each other on the bookshelf, to a period in which sexuality was commented on and shown in a different way. His assumptions are not always based on facts. In this context Ricketts is mentioned.

Given the high percentage of publishing costs spent on binding alone, the widespread attention to bindings and their designs by publishers show how there was an economic return on catering to both the commodity and fetishistic reliquary value of text. Indeed a considerable  number of covers from the period featured comely women, making the textual attraction quite specific. 

Curtis mentions Louis Legrand's binding for Erastène's Cours de Danse Fin de Siècle (1894) with the 'grasped spread-leg of a Cancan dance', and Aubrey Beardsley's illustration for a prospectus advertising The Yellow Book, displaying 'a sensual woman, clad in black, and out alone at night, preparing to pick out a volume at a bookstall'. In between, he mentions Ricketts:

Charles Ricketts's erotic sphinxes on the binding of Oscar Wilde's The Sphinx (1894), were complemented on the frontispiece by a topless female  wrapped in vines.
(p. 254)

Charles Ricketts, binding for Oscar Wilde's The Sphinx (1894): detail of front cover
While Legrand and Beardsley undoubtedly had erotic intentions with their illustrations, this applies to a lesser extent to Ricketts, especially when it came to female figures, who do not always seem to be drawn from nature. The breasts of the sphinxes, for example, are extremely stylized.

Charles Ricketts, binding for Oscar Wilde's The Sphinx (1894): detail of back cover