Wednesday, October 23, 2019

430. Ricketts In Wilde's Lifes

In this blog, I haven't mentioned the new biography about Oscar Wilde before, but the book is a good opportunity to see how both biographers - Richard Ellmann and Matthew Sturgis - deal with Charles Ricketts.

Richard Ellmann, Oscar Wilde (1987): index (detail)
The lemma Ricketts is the most elaborate in the index of Ellmann's biography Oscar Wilde (published 1987). There are twenty references. In most cases they do not refer to Wilde's meetings with Ricketts, but to stories that Wilde told and that Ricketts published in his Recollections of Oscar Wilde (1932). This applies to almost half of the references. In one case Ellmann refers to the letters and diaries published in Self-Portrait (1939).

Ricketts is only mentioned in passing as the designer of Wilde's books. Much more attention is paid to the coterie of the Vale and The Dial in connection with John Gray, one of Wilde's lovers, to copies of Wilde's books that Ricketts received, and to the possibility that he was a model for Basil Hallward in The Portrait of Dorian Gray. The role of designer of Wilde's books is almost neglected. Ricketts's role in Wilde's life was mainly limited to the years 1890-1895, and from 1905 onwards with his designs for the posthumous Wilde publications.

There are no portraits of Ricketts or reproductions of Wilde's books in Ellmann's biography.

Matthew Sturgis, Oscar. A Life (2018): index (detail)
Wilde's fame has not diminished since 1987, on the contrary; in 2018, the new biographer Matthew Sturgis no longer even mentions Wilde's surname in the title of his biography: Oscar. A Life. We don't recognise any Oscar - except Wilde.

Only fourteen references to Ricketts are included in Sturgis' index. Sturgis approaches Ricketts in a different way: not as a source for stories about Wilde, but as a designer and friend of Wilde throughout the book. In only two cases does he quote Ricketts's Recollections as a source for stories about Wilde and others. Most of the passages are about Ricketts's designs for The Picture of Dorian Gray, The Sphinx, and other books. Evidently, he had Delaney's biography of Ricketts at his disposal (which had not yet appeared when Ellmann wrote his biography), but he also cites earlier works such as the memoirs of William Rothenstein and Charles J. Holmes, and he quotes from Wilde's letters. From this he found a nice phrase about Ricketts's advice to join him in a Trappist monastery after prison (imagine them together in  monastery cell), and another letter in which Wilde expects Ricketts and Shannon to visit him at the end of his life: 'those good kind friends of mine'.

This is how Sturgis treats both artists, Ricketts and Shannon: as good friends of Wilde and as his most important designers. In this way he does more justice to their unique relationship with the author than Ellmann did.

However a few small mistakes are to be regretted. He erroneously calls A House of Pomegranates 'The House of Pomegranates' and still thinks (despite our little book about Ricketts's mother!) that Ricketts was half French. He was half-Italian!

Sturgis' biography does not contain images of Ricketts's designs either, but there is a double portrait of Ricketts and Shannon: a well-known lithograph by William Rothenstein. 

Matthew Sturgis, Oscar. A Life (2018): endpapers
And then, there are the endpapers: they have been decorated with a design after Ricketts. Now this is truly to be regretted. The design is not justified and was created by maltreating Ricketts's original design for the binding of Wilde's Poems. 

This in itself was a misjudgement, and the art editor did not realize that Ricketts had also designed the endpapers for the 1892 edition of Poems - with a different design - that should have been chosen instead,  and then, of course, in the perfect design of Ricketts himself, and not in a bad arrangement.

The red colour is passable. But the subtlety of the original has disappeared. We can't blame the author for this, but we can blame his publisher. Shame!