Wednesday, March 11, 2020

450. Three Letters from Charles Ricketts

This 450th blog is written by John Aplin, who intends to publish the collected letters of Ricketts and Shannon, of which this blog contains a preview. This edition will significantly complement our knowledge of these two artists and their world. Of course, the upcoming edition will be extensively annotated (unlike this blog). 

We wish to express our thanks to the executors of the Charles Ricketts estate, Leonie Sturge-Moore and Charmian O'Neil, for kindly granting permission to publish these letters. I would also like to extend my sincere thanks to John Aplin for his contribution to this 450th blog post.

Charles Shannon, portrait of Gordon Bottomley (drawing, 1924),
reproduced in Gordon Bottomley, Poems of Thirty Years (1925),
with an inscription to Frederick H. Evans, 1939
Three Letters from Charles Ricketts to Gordon Bottomley

I recently completed editing the complete correspondence exchanged between Thomas Sturge Moore and Gordon Bottomley, the three volumes of which will shortly be available on the online platform InteLex. I had been unprepared for just how much the lives and work of Ricketts and Shannon would preoccupy the exchanges between Moore and Bottomley, acquiring an enhanced significance after Ricketts's death in 1931, when the issue of honouring and preserving his legacy became their shared concern.

From that project, a more ambitious one emerges, for I am now starting to edit the Collected Letters of Ricketts and Shannon. My first thought of focussing on Ricketts alone was quickly dismissed, for in letters to 'Michael Field' (for example) it would prove impossible and undesirable to disentangle his contributions from Shannon's, especially as a number are actually joint efforts, written as though by one voice. But quite apart from that practical challenge, for anyone interested in their life-long companionship as well as in their individual artistic outputs, their letters are a vital resource and deserve to be made available as a complete entity.

This work is just beginning, and I am still endeavouring to locate all surviving materials. I should be especially grateful to learn of letters by Ricketts or Shannon in private hands, so that I might contact their current owners. Others may lurk uncatalogued in smaller public collections or local studies centres, and information about these would also be very welcome (johnjamesaplin [at]

Gordon Bottomley received dozens of letters and cards from Ricketts, all of which he carefully preserved, as well as a smaller number from Shannon. These are all now at the British Library amongst the Bottomley Papers. He would loan his Ricketts letters to Sturge Moore when he was working on Self-Portrait (1939), and extracts from quite a number of them were used. Indeed, some of Ricketts's best surviving letters were those written to Bottomley, stretching from 1905 through to 1931, and their friendship was sealed by Ricketts's designs for the covers for four of Bottomley's books, for which he refused any payment. Three of his letters to Bottomley are included here, with a few explanatory comments before each one. Ricketts's deletions and insertions are recorded.

Gordon Bottomley, Gruach and Britain's Daughter (American edition, 1921)
Cover designed by Charles Ricketts

Letter 1 

Bottomley had sent a copy of his poetry collection Chambers of Imagery (1907). The Vale Press De Cupidinis et Psyches Amoribus appeared in 1901, and Ricketts's Titian in 1910.

[1 July 1907]
Dear Bottomley

I beg a thousand pardons for never having answered your charming letter, I have no excuse excepting the pressure of quite trivial occupations.
            I am quite charmed that you should wish to possess a piece of my pen work, the difficulty is this, all most early pen work or nearly all has been sold, or cut away or thrown away, and all that I could can put at your dispo choice disposal is a choice between a pen study or two done 5 years ago, or one [line obliterated] of the designs for the “De Cupidinis et Psyches Amoribus” of which I enclose two engravers pulls with corrections for identification.
            Shannon begs me to apologise to you for never having acknowledged your charming book, like me he suffers from a reluctance to write letters and an absence of conscience or any moral sense whatever.
            With kindest Remembrances from both of us
            Believe me | Yours Sincerely | C Ricketts

P.S. Shannon thinks most of the poems quite charming. I have to own that I have not read them yet. I am living an idiotic life for another fortnight ploughing through my Titian book.

Gordon Bottomley, A Vision of Giorgione (1922),
spine design by Charles Ricketts (ordinary and deluxe edition)

Letter 2

Ricketts would eventually secure the Rossetti watercolour 'The Passover in the Holy Family' (1855-6). He presented it to the Tate Gallery in 1916 in memory of Michael Field. 

[1 May 1911]
My Dear Bottomley

Are you back again in your home? For some time I have owed you a letter and hold a small pagan god Idol for you which we purchased in Egypt, the land of real false Gods. I forget also what we decided about a bronze i.e. which one you wanted. On hearing from you all this can be set in Order.
            You once said you knew the Severns well, who own the unfinished Rossetti Watercolour “The Passover.” Could you, do you think, ask them if they would consent to part with it for £200. Between our selves we can go to £300 but in these matters it is better to hold money in reserve. I have come in for a small bequest hence the offer. Should you be able to accomplish this transaction for the first price both Shannon & I will make you a present. From this you see we come from the land of bribes, backshish and all venerable forms of corruption.
            We send kindest greetings to your Wife & Self and hope you are well again.
            Sincerely yours | C Ricketts

Charles Ricketts, Pages on Art (1913)

Letter 3

A portion of this letter was used for Self-Portrait, although (as in other letters used by Sturge Moore for that volume) there is no indication that there were omissions. Both Ricketts and Sturge Moore were enraptured by the London seasons of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, and particularly by the dancing of Vaslav Nijinsky. Bottomley had sent a copy of his second series of Chambers of Imagery (1912). Ricketts's collection Pages on Art appeared in 1913.

[12 May 1912]
My Dear Bottomley
I am overwhelmed with shame that your charming book and gift of flowers should both have remained unacknowledged; it is most kind of you to remember us. I do not know if I agree with you about your best lines – there are many others! I hope your book will meet with some sort of notice. Unlike us painters (who meet often with the kind of notice one does not like) men of letters seem to issue their books for the delight of “Sirius”; I imagine that, as that planet is a long way off from the earth, its inhabitants may still like to read, and may be innocent of the motor, which seems to have has led to a further evaporation (evaporation by friction with the air) of that small residium [sic] of brains still left in this country. Since you were last in London, motor-mania has become so pronounced that one misses losing one[’]s life or limbs on an average twice a day, and men and women wear therigid faces as if they were being hurled through space at a pace too fearful for thought (much worse than in Dante, where they were able to pause and speak). In Shannon & myself there are growing signs of discontent which point to advancing years. England is like the platform of some vast Station, with people waiting feverishly for rapid trains for leaving that go no-where!
            Both S. and I are hard at work on rather more ambitious pictures as to size and subject. I am returning to my old Parables and contemplate some 4 or 5 of them. Shannon is working on a vast design of Winter; but of these it is unwise to speak, as they may fail, like many other more ambitious works, and exist only for “Sirius” which must possess by now quite a large series of my unfinished works. I like Sirius, it was conceived or desired by an astronomer before it was perceived; there was a mathematical need for it, then it was discovered; it moves in perpetual night, – which is the time I like best, and doubtless the star effects there are very fine. My designs for Macbeth which I declined to do for London are probably greatly appreciated there but, all this dull!
            I should tell you that your gentians still live, the bronze bells survived in dwindling companies till today when the last suddenly became thousands of years old, like the flowers in the Cairo Museum. –
            I am collecting together my old chance articles on art, with the idea of issuing them in the Autumn. Some are curiously vivid, others are curiously strange to me, as if they had been written by someone else whose mind was only partly like mine.
            I have not been to the Wagner season. One dreads the chance, or certainty of disappointment; this is my third year of abstinence. Now one hears that the second series last year was good, if the first was bad one does not take the risk. We both look forward to the Russian Dancers; they have been something like a passion during last seasons; here with them the lambent sense of beauty and desire for perfection is so great, that one watches the dancing of Schumann’s Carnaval, in crinolines and Toppers before a purple curtain, with authentic tears in one[’]s eyes, and with crumpled gloves which are split to ribbons at the end. The Chopin Valse Op 64 No 2 passes into an indescribable twylight [sic] world of beauty and tender irony; the rapid portions are played on “a la sordina”, to soundless dancing, so rapid that it seems disembodied. All that the antique world thought and said about the famous Male dancers who seduced were seduced by Empresses etc, is quite true. Nijinski outclasses in passion, beauty and magnetism all that Karsavina can do, and she is a Muse, or several Muses in one, the music of Melancholy and of Caprice, capable of expressing tragedy and even voluptuous innocence; the wildness of chastity and the sting of desire; she is the perfect instrument upon which all emotion can be rendered. He Nijinski is a living flame, the son of Hermes, or Loghi perhaps? One can not imagine his mother; probably actually some ancient ballerina in was answerable; but I prefer to believe in some sort of spontaneous nativity, at the most a passing cloud nay have attracted some fantastic and capricious god.
            Shannon joins with me in kindest greetings to your wife and to yourself
            Sincerely yours | C Ricketts

Edited by John Aplin