Wednesday, September 30, 2020

479. An Emblem for Borgia

In May 1905, A.H. Bullen anonymously published a play by Michael Field (pen name of Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper): Borgia. A Period Play. Some plays after that were also published anonymously with the indication: 'by the author of Borgia'.

[Michael Field], Borgia (1905)

Emma Donoghue gave an account of the genesis of the publication in her book We Are Michael Field (1998): 

Back in 1899 he [Charles Ricketts] had urged the Michaels to write a play about the Italian Renaissance, with all those "characters with rich honey & wicked old wine in them". Once, chatting about the Borgias, Ricketts acted out his fantasy of Pope Alexander as an aesthete, fondling a chestful of pearls. This bit of nonsense became a key image in the Michaels' next play, Borgia. This steamy, tangled play has a huge cast list of forty-two speaking parts as well as extras, and suffers from a fracturing of the reader's attention and sympathies. Ricketts was disappointed by this play [...] Supportive despite his reservations about the play, Ricketts now came up with a great idea. The Michaels should shed their awful reputation by self-publishing Borgia anonymously. Ricketts provided the artwork, and sent Tommy Sturge Moore as the intermediary to ask a new publisher - A.H. Bullen - to set his name to it. This simple trick on the critics worked brilliantly. It is ironic that Borgia, though one of their worst plays, was the first for many years to get reviews, and a few good ones among them.

The book was printed at Ballantyne, Hanson & Co in London, probably under the direction of Ricketts and/or Sturge Moore - the publisher didn't have much to do; he was supplied with two hundred finished copies, provided with a yellow paper cover, ready for sale. Bullen agreed to include the book in his lists of publications; the authors were charged for the cost of newspaper advertisements.

Ricketts's "art work" was limited to one small emblem. Although this has been identified occasionally as a woodcut, it is a drawing reproduced in line-block.

Charles Ricketts, emblem for Borgia (1905)

Subject of the drama is Pope Alexander VI (1431-1503) and his family, especially his son Cesare and his daughter Lucrezia, who, according to Marion Thain in her analysis of the play, form 'a kind of unholy trinity of their own' (see Michael Field. Poetry, Aestheticism and the Fin de Si├Ęcle, 2007). The play comprises suggestions of incest. Ricketts's original image of the pope 'fondling a chest of pearls' created the central icon for the play, an icon, as Thain states 'which signifies the riches and tears that motivate this treacherous world'.

Is it possible that Ricketts's emblem also refers a pearl? Probably not, although the emblem may have started as an image of a pearl. However, the circle is too large for that, considering the attached wing, the hand on top of it, and the sloping ground underneath. This seems to be an image of the wheel of fortune, rolling down a hill with increasing speed, only slowed by the hand.  The dramatic action of the small emblem is typical of Ricketts. The built-in contradiction - the wing speeding up and the hand holding back the movement - is also characteristic of Ricketts. Despite the possibility of a delay, the emblem suggests a certain downfall.

Charles Ricketts, drawings in ink and pencil for Borgia (1905)
British Museum, LondonCreative Commons License,
with permission of the executors of the Charles Ricketts estate,
Leonie Sturge-Moore and Charmain O'Neil

The sketch in pencil (bottom) was worked out in ink (top) and Ricketts indicated that it had to be reduced in size (photographically) for the line block. The printers sent a proof on 28 April 1905.

Charles Ricketts, drawings in ink and pencil for Borgia (1905)
British Museum, LondonCreative Commons License,
with permission of the executors of the Charles Ricketts estate, 
Leonie Sturge-Moore and Charmain O'Neil

The play was finished in January 1905, and the production went very quickly. The authors corrected and revised the proofs on 23 April, the agreement for 'Publication on Commission' was dated ‘May 15th 1905', and on 25 May the first copies arrived 'at breakfast'.