Wednesday, June 10, 2020

463. Charles Ricketts & John Gray?

John Gray was one of the close associates of Charles Ricketts who, after Gray became a Catholic, even a priest, and began to write religious poems, held a soft spot for him. They continued to correspond throughout their lives.

Charles Ricketts, opening pages for John Gray, Spiritual Poems (1896)
Gray edited several publications of Ricketts's Vale Press. One of the early editions was a collection of translations - 'chiefly done out of several languages' - by Gray: Spiritual Poems (1896). The book contains eleven poems by Gray, the others are translations and include religious poems by Jacopone da Todi, Saint Ambrose, and Saint John of the Cross.

Initially, Gray compiled the book for The Bodley Head and a letter to John Lane shows that Ricketts was going to 'build the book', just like he did for the famous Silverpoints. In fact, 'there has been some talk of his doing an "emblem" for a frontispiece but I think this may possibly not come to much'. (Letter in the Berg Collection, New York Public Library).

Charles Ricketts, opening page for John Gray, Spiritual Poems (1896)
However, Ricketts designed two wood-engravings for the opening pages. The left-hand page depicts a figure surrounded by amorphous swirls that have been compared to the graining of wood. The central figure is a nun (to quote from Brocard Sewell's 1983 description:) 'standing by an altar, holding a taper with which she is taking a light from a sanctuary lamp hanging from a bracket on the wall'. The facing page contains the first stanza of Gray's poem 'The Tree of Knowledge', surrounded by symbols of the Passion: the cross at the top, the crown of thorns and other objects at the foot of the page.

Not all, but many of Ricketts's wood-engravings for Vale Press books are signed. The two facing pages of Spiritual Poems show the monogram on the left-hand page, outside the border, in the lower right-hand corner. After the rediscovery of the 1890s in the 1970s, the monogram was read as a double signature.

Charles Ricketts, detail of opening page for John Gray, Spiritual Poems (1896)
In 1972, the Houghton Library catalogue The Turn of a Century 1885-1910. Art Nouveau, Jugendstil Books stated: 'Frontispiece and border designed and cut by Ricketts; frontispiece signed with initials CR and JG', and explained: 'Since John Gray's initials were added to Ricketts', he must have played a role in the formation of this design.'

Seven years later, the exhibition catalogue Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon. An Aesthetic Partnership (Orleans House Gallery, Twickenham) asserted: 'The full page frontispiece, signed CR and JG[ray]'.

This attribution of the wood-engraving to artist and author has continued to circulate ever since. See for example, Susan Ashbrook's dissertation The Private Press Movement in Britain 1890-1914 (1991): 'John Gray’s initials join those of Ricketts on the lower right, which, it has been suggested, indicates that Gray was a participant in formulating the design.' I repeated this dual authorship 'CR & JG' in my 1996 checklist, as did Maureen Watry in The Vale Press (2004).

For my review of the latter book, I took another good look at the (minuscule) monogram and saw that the intertwined letters did not represent the ampersand (&), but the letters T and O: 'CR TO JG'. In other words, the artist dedicated the wood-engraving to his friend the author.

Ricketts's monogram in John Gray, Spiritual Poems (1896)
Actually, it couldn't be otherwise, because, as Gray himself later wrote to Gordon Bottomley, he only saw Ricketts's designs after the book had been printed. During the production Ricketts was rather secretive about his decorative plans and kept his designs out of the authors' sight.