Wednesday, August 19, 2020

473. John Keats's "Pot of Basil"

John Keats was one of Charles Ricketts's three favourite authors - the other two were Catullus and Baudelaire. Shortly before the First World War, Ricketts even wrote a libretto for a ballet, based on Keats's poem 'Lamia' - in those days, he was completely under the spell of the Ballets Russes, meeting and entertaining at Landsdowne House Nijinski, Diaghilev, and Bakst, among others. (The unpublished libretto is British Library, Add. MS 61724.)

Vale Press edition of John Keats, Poems (1898): volume two:
'Isabella' with initial F designed by Charles Ricketts

In 1898, the Vale Press published a two-volume edition of Keats's poems, including 'Isabella, or the Pot of Basil', decorated with a large initial 'F' incorporating laurel leaves.

This edition did not contain illustrations. However, Ricketts made at least one drawing for this poem by Keats, inscribed 'Pot of Basil', and signed with his initials 'C.R.' This sketch is in the British Library (acc. no. 1946,0209.92): 60 mm (height) by 50 mm (width).

Charles Ricketts, 'Pot of Basil' (sketch)
British Museum, London, Creative Commons license,
with permission of the executors of the Charles Ricketts estate, Leonie Sturge-Moore and Charmain O'Neil

The pen and ink drawing, with touches of graphite, depicts a female figure wearing a long gown, kneeling in a small room, embracing a pot of basil. Not all details have been worked out, even the pot of basil is only rudimentary.

Keats's narrative poem is an adaptation from a story in Boccaccio's Decameron. Isabella will be married off to a nobleman, but she falls in love with Lorenzo, an employee of one of her brothers. Lorenzo is murdered by them, and buried, but Isabella in a dream learns where his body is hidden. She takes the head home, and keeps it in a garden-pot with a basil plant. She anxiously guards the pot, but at some point her brothers find out, take the pot and disappear without a trace. Isabella pines away.

It was a popular theme for painters, who usually illustrated the same scene, just like Ricketts: the phase in which she guards the pot with her lover's head. Pre-Raphaelite painters such as William Holman Hunt (interior scene) and John William Waterhouse (in a garden) depicted Isabella and her pot of basil. John Everett Millais selected an earlier scene with Lorenzo serving (and courting) Isabella at a banquet. Different in- and outdoor scenes were drawn by Jessie M. King (1907) and W.B. MacDougall (1898), whose illustrated editions were among many others.

Ricketts's sketch has never been published before.