Wednesday, April 15, 2020

455. Glyn Philpot, Cecil French and The Parables from the Gospels (Vale Press, 1903)

This week's blog is a guest blog written by Jan Piggott, former Keeper of Archives at Dulwich College, and author of several books, including Palace of the People. The Crystal Palace at Sydenham, 1854-1936 (2004), Dulwich College. A History, 1616-2008 (2008), and Turner's Vignettes (1993). Last year he curated the exhibition 'Phoenix and Unicorn & In Conversation: Coming into the Light' (see blog 425. A Thomas Sturge Moore Exhibition: Phoenix and Unicorn).

Glyn Philpot, Cecil French and The Parables from the Gospels (Vale Press, 1903)

I recently bought an undated letter from Glyn Philpot (1884-1937) to the minor writer, artist and collector, Cecil French (1879-1953): it asks him politely to return ‘a book I value very much’, Ricketts’s Vale Press Parables, borrowed ‘some time back’. As Philpot had to ask the Grosvenor Gallery for French’s address, it seems they were not meeting socially at that time. This was not the first Grosvenor Gallery (1877-90), famous for Burne-Jones and Whistler – haunt of W.S. Gilbert’s fictitious Aesthete poseur-poet in Patience, the ‘greenery-yallery Grosvenor Gallery’ Bunthorne – where in the mid-1880s Ricketts and Shannon had shown early pastels and water-colours (note 1). Philpot refers to the second Grosvenor Gallery (of three), founded in 1912 by the London American artist, arts administrator and collector Francis Howard (1874-1954) an associate of Whistler. Howard, incidentally, made two important gifts to the Tate (1914 and 1939-40): these included Ricketts’s bronze Orpheus and Eurydice, Shannon’s The Bath of Venus, Mrs Patrick CampbellHermes and the Infant Bacchus, and Philpot’s The Man in Black (Robert Allerton).

Glyn Philpot, letter to Cecil French, undated, c.1920(?)
[Collection Jan Piggott]

Philpot’s address is die-stamped on the writing-paper: ‘The Tower House, 28, Tite Street, Chelsea’ (renumbered since then as no. 46). Here he took a studio flat in 1910 which he gave up in 1923 to take Ricketts and Shannon’s large studio, one of six, at Lansdowne House, Holland Park. The date of the letter must have been between these years; the writing-paper seems post-War. The architect of The Tower House (1885), red brick and terra cotta with four large studio windows (a few doors away from Wilde’s former house), was E.W. Godwin (1833-1886). Whistler lived there after Godwin’s death; he married his widow. Ricketts visited Philpot there with Shannon in 1918, reporting to Lowinsky, ‘We grubbed yesterday with Philpot, who has a nice place, a magnificent coromandel screen and a lovely Egyptian figure. He gave us a first-rate dinner and gramophone records of Spanish songs, amazing, obviously lewd, and going back to the roots of the world’ (note 2).

Glyn Philpot, [design]
The Fourth Chapter of the Song of Songs which is Solomon's(1907)
Paul Delaney in Charles Ricketts (1990) and Glyn Philpot (1999) so very well describes Philpot’s friendship with Ricketts and Shannon, and their great influence on his work and life. In 1881-2 Ricketts and Shannon had enrolled at Lambeth Art School (City and Guilds Technical Art School in Kennington), conspicuous, even famous, among contemporaries there who became illustrators such as Reginald Savage, Arthur Rackham, Laurence Housman, F.H. Townsend, and Thomas Sturge Moore. In 1900 Philpot, not quite sixteen, began to study there, taught (like Austin Osman Spare) by the landscape painter Philip Connard; wood-engraving was one course he took. Philpot was obsessed with Ricketts’s work. In 1903 he won first prize for book-illustration in the National Competition for Schools of Art (note 3). It clearly shows close study of those rather plentiful underrated designs by Ricketts in The Magazine of Art in the 1890s; Ricketts used to buy up and destroy the drawings that he described as ‘hack work’; his good work was for The Dial (note 4). On a home press the young Philpot engraved, printed and bound books in editions of twenty for friends and family; they could hardly go further in homage to Ricketts: The Pitiful Song of Dante (c.1901) made at sixteen, has a pseudo-Vale initial letter and an interlaced floral border; in Troubled Flames (1902) one might be forgiven for mistaking the ornament Gibson reproduces for an original in The DialThe Fourth Chapter of the Song of Songs which is Solomon’s of 1903-4, when Philpot was still at Lambeth, is pastiche, almost a crib, of the Renaissance decorations and the borders in the Vale Julia Domna (1903) (note 5). Shannon was later a really important influence on Philpot’s highly successful portraits. 

Philpot was not properly acquainted with Ricketts and Shannon until about 1911, although all three showed works in the same exhibitions. Later the pair clearly thought of ‘Glynpot’ and his friend Vivian Forbes as the new Ricketts and Shannon. Their friendship blossomed after the Great War, and they were guests at the Keep at Chilham Castle. In 1919 Philpot wrote to Ricketts, ‘My debt to you is so great and is always growing, so I must take this opportunity of telling you how grateful I am for the encouragement, stimulus and support which I constantly find in your work’ (note 6). After Shannon’s accident, Philpot renewed his friendship with Ricketts. In the 1920s he designed a binding with dagger for the Vale Life of Benvenuto Cellini (note 7).

Cecil French, ‘The Wood Nymph’,
in The Green Sheaf (1903: volume 8)
Cecil French – for a portrait by William Shackleton see blog 91. Letters to Cecil French, April 24, 2013 - inspired affection in the art world; his collection of paintings, drawings, and prints showed sophisticated connoisseurship of the art of Ricketts, Shannon and the Pre-Raphaelites, especially Burne-Jones. His own poetry and art, however, now seem woefully derivative. He is said to have given up painting about 1903; dissatisfied with his work, he turned to collecting. He exhibited in the early years of the century, and now and then until 1922. Irish (born in Dublin), and a former student at the RA Schools, he designed for the stage and contributed poems and engravings to those rather precious publications consisting of wood-engravings (sometimes hand-coloured), poems and stories such as The Green Sheaf (1903) and The Golden Hind (1922). His works were in all but three of the thirteen issues of The Green Sheaf, the venture of Pamela Colman Smith (1878-1951) and the circle of W. B. Yeats: ‘The Wood Nymph’ is a particularly annoying imitation of Ricketts (note 8). French’s formative experience, he twice told Yeats in letters of the late 1920s, had been the Monday evening salons at Woburn Buildings in the late Nineties where Yeats entertained writers and artists that he attended, along with Masefield. ‘Any integrity of workmanship’ in his works, he wrote in 1922, sending his new book of poems and wood-engravings, Between Sun and Moon, to Yeats (its dedicatee), ‘will be, in great measure, owing to “Woburn Nights”, and their influence on my youthful beginnings’ (note 9).

Cecil French, ‘Bathers’, in Between Sun and Moon (1922)
Yeats must have thought enough of French’s art to display one of his pictures in his drawing room: ‘The Rose of Dream’, a woman holding a rose between her lips. He was not keen on French’s writings: he told ‘the young Irishman’ who had submitted a play for the Abbey Theatre, ‘it does not catch fire’, and to ‘put it aside for a while’. French was a mutual friend of Yeats’s ‘artistic’ and occult women, Florence Farr and Althea Gyles, whom he helped save from destitution (note 10). Between Sun and Moon was published by the Favil Press in a limited edition of 350 copies, with his own woodcuts. Sending it to Yeats, he wrote in effect that he often felt his poetry was ineffectual, betraying a touch of jealousy of Masefield (note 11). The engraving Bathers’ is a peculiar throw-back compound rendering of motifs by Ricketts, Shannon and Sturge Moore. In the second of limited editions of his poems with cuts, With the Years (1927) the first section was dedicated to Sturge Moore. The engravings are more striking than the earlier version, such as ‘Exiles’, though both subject and treatment suggest a rather endearing arrested development, still absorbed in The Dial.

Cecil French, With the Years (1927)
French would not always show such deference to Yeats: in 1922 he wrote to the great poet for a second time saying he had ruined familiar poems by publishing revised texts of them – ‘You are the spoiled child of letters’ – but Yeats later amended some poor proof-reading and obscurities of sense and syntax that French pointed out in Later Poems (note 12).

In 1921 French edited T. Sturge Moore (Modern Woodcutters, 3), praising Moore’s ‘intimate qualities of an absorbed, delighted, and recondite invention’. French wrote an important article in 1927, ‘The Wood-Engravings of Charles Ricketts’ in The Print Collector’s Quarterly (July 1927), calling him one of ‘the great creative designers’. 

Charles Ricketts, ‘The Parable of the Rich Man’, proof impression (1903)
[Private Collection]
He gives special emphasis to the engraved Vale Parables, reproducing two among the ten notably well selected illustrations, saying ‘the designer of The Parables and of the two accompaniments to Apuleius has always possessed the uncanny gift of developing a hint taken from others, while preserving his strong individuality’. Noting the influence of Rembrandt and Dürer in ‘The Prodigal Son’ and ‘The Rich Man in Hell’ he remarks their ‘fluidity of line, the dwelling upon broken, or unbroken, mass’. In ‘The Parable of the Rich Man’ – ‘this miracle of a few square inches’ – he points to ‘the poignant significance of its accessories – the swinging lamp, the over-turned cup, the leaves blown in at the door’. French calls Ricketts ‘a supremely cultured decorator’, which led to a key remark in a letter from Ricketts, who was absolutely delighted with his article, about his ‘dual personality’: as ‘the born ornamentalist’ and ‘the rather hectic improvisatore’ (note 13). 

Cecil French, With the Years (1927)
In a house at sub-urban Barnes French kept his magnificent collection of turn-of-the-century British art by symbolists and other painters out of fashion by that time, particularly rich in works by Burne-Jones, Watts, Leighton, Alma-Tadema, Albert Moore, Waterhouse, and Cayley Robinson, as well as by Ricketts and Shannon. He thought carefully about the right institutions for bequests of his pictures. The Tate (for promoting ‘modern’ art) and the Victoria and Albert Museum (from some now long forgotten grievance) were to have nothing. The Fulham Library (with superb Burne-Joneses) and the Watts Gallery were the main beneficiaries. The latter received five important pictures by Shannon: The Bathers, 1900; The Toilet of Venus, 1903; The Pursuit, c.1922; An Idyll, 1904; and The Garland, 1895-1902. Other pictures went to the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow (Ricketts, Descent from the Cross, 1905); Leamington Art Gallery (Ricketts, Choosing a Mask’, c. 1905) the Guildhall Art Gallery, London, York City Art Gallery, and prints and drawings to the British Museum.

French wrote a good number of letters to Sturge Moore, now at the Senate House Library. Some very interesting material about the elusive French comes from the on-line Gordon Bottomley and Thomas Sturge Moore: The Complete Correspondence, 1906-1948, edited by John Aplin (forthcoming within the next few months). In August 1922 Moore wrote to Bottomley telling him how he had hesitated before sending him a copy of Between Sun and Moon,

by a man whom I like and respect a great deal, though very little of his work comes up to what I consider the living standard still some of these poems are successful from every point of view such as “Hidden sorrow” and “The Bathers” and most of those near the end of the book are that or nearly that […] He has I think suffered a good deal under the ascendancy of Yeats’ influence especially as Yeats treated him personally with most undeserved cruelty and contempt.

In October 1922, Bottomley recalled French acting a part in Yeats’s Land of Heart’s Desire at the Passmore Edwards Settlement, and was grateful to Moore for 

this charming and really graceful book by the admirable Puffles – as we used to call him at Pixie Smith’s nearly twenty years ago’… ‘I used to like Puffles then more than I did his theosophic pictures and verses, and I used to wish he could be injected with the influence of Ricketts – but in those days I used to think he stood rather haughtily aloof and disdained all other art except his own hieratic kind. And here the very thing has happened to him: his engravings have been learning from Ricketts and you and are delightful; and something – perhaps Yeats’s cruelty – has made his poetry sensitive and human.
                                                                                                             Jan Piggott
1. J.G.P. Delaney, Charles Ricketts. A Biography (1990), p. 36.
2. J.G.P. Delaney, Glyn Philpot. His Life and Art (1999), p. 13.
3. See ‘Design for a Book Illustration’ in Robin Gibson, Glyn Philpot. 1884-1937. Edwardian Aesthete to Thirties Modernist (1984), no. 72-73, p. 94-95. No. 75, p 95, a ‘related design’, shows even better the influence of the Ricketts illustrations. 
4. Delaney, Charles Ricketts, p 46.
5. See Gibson, Glyn Philpot, no.127, p. 124; no. 130, p. 125; Delaney, Glyn Philpot, p. 12-13, 164; Gibson, no 132, p. 126 (giving date as 1907). 
6. Delaney, Glyn Philpot, p. 71 and 13.
8. The Green Sheaf, No 8 (December 1903), p. 2; see online edition: Internet Archive.
9. Letters to W. B. Yeats, ed. by Richard J. Finneran, and others, 1977, pp. 425, 477.
10. The Collected Letters of W. B. Yeats. Volume Three: 1901-1904, ed. by John Kelly and Ronald Schuchard (1994), pp. 173, 221, 199, 318-9.
11. Letters to W.B. Yeats, p. 425.
12. Joseph Hone, W.B. Yeats, 1865-1939 (second edition, 1962), p. 346.
13. Self-Portrait (1939), p. 379. See Blog 91, Letters to Cecil French, 24 April 2013 for further letters from Ricketts and Shannon to French. Philpot’s copy of The Parables was for sale in 1981, cf. Catalogue 14. Rare Books. York, George Ramsden/Stone Trough Books, Summer MM1 [June 2001], No. 106 (‘this one from Glyn Philpot’s library’, ‘Vellum binding somewhat marked; some foxing’), £185.