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 Siècle, 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'.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

478. Coffee Conversation: Ricketts's "Parable of the Vineyard"

Today, from eleven o'clock in the morning, a "Coffee Conversation" about a painting by Ricketts in the Hugh Lane Gallery in Dublin can be seen on Youtube. It is part of a series of informative videos. 

Announcement Online Coffee Conversation,
Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin, 23 September 2020

Curator Yseult O'Driscoll will talk about Ricketts's painting 'The Parable of the Vineyard'. There are several parables with this subject and the title of the painting is confusing. Actually, it is 'The Parable of the Tenants', or 'The Parable of the Wicked Husbandmen' as it is called in the Vale Press edition The Parables from the Gospels. For the book, Ricketts made ten wood-engravings, one depicting the same dramatic moment as the painting. 

Charles Ricketts, 'The Parable of the Vineyard'
[Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin]

The parable (Matthew, 21: 33-42) tells the story of a landowner who, after planting a vineyard, rented it out to farmers, and left the region. To collect his fruit, he sent servants to the vineyard, who were beaten or killed by the tenant farmers. Finally, he sent his son, expecting them to respect him. But they killed the son. 

The Parables from the Gospels (1903) [page xxiv and facing plate]

From today, Yseult O'Driscoll's talk will be on view on YouTube.

[See also an earlier blog about Hugh Lane: 93 Did not sleep last night.]

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

477. A Binding Design for Ricketts's Beyond The Threshold (1929)

In 1929 the Curwen Press printed Charles Ricketts's dialogues of the dead Beyond the Threshold, a publication of The First Edition Club initiated by A.J.A. Symons. Ricketts wrote the text, made five ink drawings for the illustrations and designed the bookbinding of which the front and back are identical. This way, only one brass plate had to be made for the binding (and a smaller one for the spine), which saved a considerable amount of money. From a letter from Ricketts to Symons (now in a private collection), we know that Ricketts initially forgot to charge for this plate which he remembered after finding the receipt of ₤7.

Charles Ricketts, Beyond the Threshold (1929): front cover of binding

The original sketch for the binding decoration was donated to the British Museum by Riette Sturge Moore in 1962.

Charles Ricketts, sketch for binding decoration of Beyond the Threshold (1929).
British Museum, London. Creative Commons License,
with permission of the executors of the Charles Ricketts estate, Leonie Sturge-Moore and Charmain O'Neil

The binding shows some familiar elements often found in Ricketts's designs, such as the dotted circles, dots, small and large acorns, and half circles. 

Charles Ricketts, Beyond the Threshold (1929):
details from cover

In addition, this binding shows hearts, arrows, and two different printer's flowers.

Charles Ricketts, sketch for binding decoration of Beyond the Threshold (1929).
British Museum, LondonCreative Commons License,
with permission of the executors of the Charles Ricketts estate, Leonie Sturge-Moore and Charmain O'Neil

The design could be reproduced photographically, and then a brass plate was manufactured from which the design could be printed in gold on the red full morocco binding (goat skin). The sketch shows that Ricketts carefully finished his design. To the left is a correction with chinese white for the lines of the second border. In the reproduction only the lines remained visible.

Charles Ricketts, Beyond the Threshold (1929): detail of front cover

One hundred and fifty copies were printed, and Ricketts sent dedication copies to his friends W.B. Yeats, T. Sturge Moore, Bruce Winston, R.N. Roland Holst, C.F. French, Marcus Behmer, A.J.A. Symons, Cecil Lewis, T.E. Shaw, Glyn Philpot, and, probably, others.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

476. Gordon Bottomley’s King Lear’s Wife

This week's blog is a contribution by John Aplin, editor Gordon Bottomley and Thomas Sturge Moore: The Complete Correspondence, 1906-1948 [online at Intelex Past Masters]. His edition of the letters from Ricketts and Shannon is in preparation. This blog contains letters from Ricketts, Shannon and others about Gordon Bottomley's play: King Lear's Wife.

King Lear’s Wife And Some Related Correspondence

Gordon Bottomley’s poetic drama, King Lear’s Wife, completed in 1914, remains the work for which he is best known. The reconstruction of a freely-imagined earlier episode in the life of Shakespeare’s tragic hero, this single-act play premiered in September 1915 in a production mounted by John Drinkwater at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, which had opened in 1913. Designed to the exacting requirements of Barry Jackson by a local Birmingham architect, Samuel Cooke, this new building was regarded by Bottomley as an ideal performance space, describing it enthusiastically to fellow poet, Robert Calverley Trevelyan, as ‘the most beautiful & the most wonderfully equipped theatre in England. The auditorium has a rising amphitheatre. The decoration everywhere is brown wood with white inlay, & the lighting arrangements miraculous’ (note 1).

Charles Ricketts, sketch, 'King Lear's Wife'
(from: Gordon Bottomley, A Stage for Poetry, 1948)

Georgian Poetry publication


Edward Marsh would give King Lear’s Wife prime position in his anthology Georgian Poetry, 1913-1915, published by The Poetry Bookshop, the successor volume to his hugely successful Georgian Poetry, 1911-1912. The book appeared only at the end of 1915, after the Birmingham performances, the War having delayed its appearance by a year. Bottomley had arranged with Marsh for up to fifty additional copies of the pre-published sheets of his play to be generated ‘while the type is up and then sewn into pamphlets for possible use as acting parts and prompt copies’ (note 2). He retained a few of these for his own use, providing them with a hand-made cover to his own design. At least one of these copies has survived, inscribed to his aunt Sarah Gordon (‘to Aunt Sarah’), and is now at the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin. Bottomley also sent a copy to the play’s dedicatee, Thomas Sturge Moore, much to Moore’s delight. 


I could hardly believe my eyes when I opened your parcel last night and beheld the gleaming book. I took it to bed with me and have read and reread the opening flatteries. […] The design is very charming and I congratulate you on your first raid into plastic art. 

(note 3)

Photograph of The Sheiling, Silverdale
[in a dedication copy of King Lear's Wife and Other Plays, 1920]

Controversial song


The Birmingham production of the play did not pass without controversy. It related to Bottomley’s closing lines, when one of the two old women preparing the corpse of the dead Queen sings what came to be known as the song of the louse, after which the curtain falls.


The louse made off unhappy and wet;—

Ahumm, Ahumm, Ahee –

He’s looking for us, the little pet;

So haste, for her chin’s to tie up yet,

And let us be gone with what we can get—

Her ring for thee, her gown for Bet,

Her pocket turned out for me.


Until 1968, English stage performances were licensed by the Lord Chamberlain, an officer within the Royal Household who could censor plays at will. His office took exception to these lines and the context in which they were performed, presumably regarding them as undignified and offensive. Much to Bottomley’s anger, the lines had to be dropped and the actress simply hummed the melody to which the words would have been sung.

The opportunity for a first London production of the play came on 19 May 1916, when Viola Tree, the daughter of the actor-manager, Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, organised a single matinée performance at His Majesty’s Theatre in aid of war charities, when it was seen together with short plays by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson (Hoops) and Rupert Brooke (Lithuania), Brooke having died a year earlier. John Drinkwater again undertook the production, but it was not a very satisfactory occasion, partly to inadequate rehearsal and casting. Viola Tree insisted on playing the role of Goneril, and her mother, Lady Tree, was the Queen. Gordon and Emily Bottomley attended, and Emily would tell their friend Ben Fletcher, head of the Leicester School of Art, that ‘you saw a better thing at Birmingham than you would have done at His Majesties [sic], as far as “King Lear” went. The only thing is Rupert Brooke’s play was fairly well done & very interesting – with Ricketts designs for dresses &c which made Gordon quite jealous’ (note 4). 

Gordon Bottomley, King Lear's Wife and Other Plays (1920)
[Binding designed by Charles Ricketts: deluxe edition] 

Ricketts’s advice


Nonetheless, Ricketts had a direct influence on changes which Bottomley made for this performance, resulting from the intervention by the Lord Chancellor regarding ‘the louse song’. When Bottomley sent the special copy of King Lear’s Wife to Ricketts and Shannon, probably early in 1916, Ricketts was the first to respond, with a recommendation which Bottomley was to follow.



[dated by Bottomley27 Jan 1916

My dear Bottomley

This is just a few hurried lines to say how greatly I am impressed by King Lear’s Wife. It is fresh and full of surprise, with plenty of stuff of a finer order, though freshness, vividness, novelty of a kind count enormously where success or even & idiotic interference of the censor, yet, I am not sure that the character of the song does not underline the scene too much, which is quite forceful and weird [sic] enough without the extra cynical touch. The song in itself is too professional, too much for effect. I am not sure that something quite unrelated to the situation would not give added strangeness. […]

(note 5).

It was wise advice, as Bottomley readily acknowledged a few days later.


The Sheiling | Silverdale. | near Carnforth.

January 30th. 1916.

My dear Ricketts


I see you are perfectly right about the song, and you are the first person to say just that about it. I am so sure you are right that if I can think of the right snatches I shall substitute them. When I began the play I did about the first fifty lines and then was         interrupted by the idea of the song, which amused me so much that I did it straightway; then when, long after, I came to finish the play I just dropped each stanza into its socket without thinking quite enough of its relationship to the new material, and without realising that the song rather repeated the situation when it should have varied it. I see now that the old ladies seem to have    chosen it rather too consciously for the occasion from their repertoire.

I heard it performed at the dress-rehearsal at Birmingham, before the censor intervened; the words were scarcely intelligible, and such a fine shivery little tune had been found for them that it put things rather right, so that one only heard a malevolent uncouth gabble which sounded delicious.

(n0te 6)

In fact, Bottomley would not write new words only for the closing scene; he also substituted new texts for the play’s two other songs, all of which he sent for Ricketts’s approval, and these were inserted for the single matinée performance at His Majesty’s Theatre. Much to Bottomley’s pleasure, music was specially composed by a friend of Edward Marsh, the young Ivor Novello. Interestingly, however, when republished in the collection King Lear’s Wife and Other Plays (1920), for which Ricketts designed the cover, Bottomley retained his original texts, perhaps as much in defiance of the censor as for artistic reasons.

Gordon Bottomley, King Lear's Wife and Other Plays (1920)
[Binding designed by Charles Ricketts: regular edition]

Shannon reads King Lear’s Wife


If Bottomley benefited from Ricketts’s wise assessment as to what might work most effectively on the stage, we should not overlook Charles Shannon’s responses after his own first reading of the play, sent a few weeks after Ricketts’s more detailed assessment. Shannon too considered its effect in performance, but focussed more on the challenge of securing a performer adequate for the challenging part of Goneril, which in May 1916 would be played by Viola Tree (and not very satisfactorily, as it turned out). He believed it needed the skills of an actress like Lillah McCarthy, at this time married to Harley Granville-Barker (they divorced in 1918), but that it might be beyond even her capabilities. 


[dated by Bottomley16 Feb. 1916.


My dear Bottomley

I only read your wonderful ‘King Lear’s Wife’ last night having been busy since its arrival ploughing through Arnold Bennett’s ‘These Twain’. I cannot stop in the middle of any work I have determined to read out of sheer obstinacy. I liked your play immensely. I think Lear’s “The filth is suitably dead. You are my true daughter” quite worthy of Shakespeare himself. I shall look forward to seeing it played but I doubt if there are the people to do it. I imagine Goneril a great stumbling block the rest if frankly done should act itself. It is so refreshing to see real action in a play. The washers are superb in fact they all are.

Forgive this scrawl | & with kind regards to you both

Yrs sincerely | Charles Shannon 

I can only see Mrs Barker doing Goneril & she might overdo it

(note 7).


Emily Bottomley was as delighted as her husband by this response from Shannon, and was astute in recognising its rarity value. ‘We were so pleased this morning to get a letter from Charles Shannon. Now Shannon is a person who never does write a letter to anyone – he makes Ricketts do all the writing – hardly anything can provoke him to take up the pen, but by his own free will & unsolicited he has written to say he has been reading Mrs Lear & how much he likes it' (note 8).

                                                                                                John Aplin



Extracts from correspondence are used with thanks to Scirard Lancelyn Green, literary executor for Gordon Bottomley, and to Leonie Sturge-Moore and Charmian O’Neil, joint literary executors for Thomas Sturge Moore, Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon.



1. Bottomley to Trevelyan, 8 October 1915, collection British Library: BL Add MS 188957/1/87.

2. Bottomley to Marsh, 2 August 1915, Berg Collection, New York Public Library.

3. Sturge Moore to Bottomley, 18 March 1916, collection British Library: Add MS 88957/1/67.

4. Emily Bottomley to Fletcher, 23 May 1916, collection Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle.

5. Collection British Library: BL Add MS 88957/1/75.

6. Collection British Library: BL Add MS 58091.

7. Collection British Library: BL Add MS 88957/1/82.

8. Emily Bottomley to Joan Fletcher, about 17 February 1916, collection Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

475. John Baillie, Ricketts and Shannon

Gallery owner John Baillie - see blog 274 The Adventure of The Venture (1903-1904) - was the publisher of the deluxe magazine The Venture and for the second issue he himself acted as editor. This is evident from James Joyce's letters. Joyce had no contact with any other parties involved. After the first volume was published in November 1903, several authors and artists contacted Baillie - they wrote to him as a gallery owner and as a publisher. So they did not write to the editors of The Venture (Housman or Maugham).

The Venture 1903 and The Venture 1905
(published 1903-1904)

James Hamilton Hay and Gordon Bottomley

In February 1904, the artist James Hamilton Hay (1874-1916) visited Baillie in his gallery. He thought him 'a very sympathetic youngish man': 'he is an Artist and very kind'. Hay wrote these words in a letter to the author Gordon Bottomley (dated 3 February 1904). Bottomley had contacted Baillie in his capacity as publisher, Hay spoke to him as an organiser of an exhibition in his Liverpool studio hoping for potential loans of works of art from Baillie. Baillie promised 'a case full of good things', including works by Reginald Savage, James McNeill Whistler, Charles Ricketts, Charles Shannon, Laurence Housman, William Rothenstein, James Guthrie, and others. Whether Baillie ultimately lent the works of Ricketts and Shannon is unclear. Hay himself paid the artists a visit shortly afterwards, and they may have sent him the necessary works of art themselves. Bottomley saw the show in April, and recorded that there were works by Balmer, Shannon ('heaps of Shannon lithographs'), Muirhead Bone, Augustus John, and others (letter to Joan Fletcher, 6 April 1904).

Invitation to an exhibition in The Gallery of John Baillie, c.1902-1905

Hay had written in February: 'I was at Baillie's yesterday & strange to say we came to speak of you. Baillie seemed very pleased with a letter you had sent him.' Baillie and Hay discussed Bottomley's forthcoming book The Gates of Smaragdus illustrated by Clinton BalmerBoth Bottomley and Balmer would contribute to the second number of The Venture later that year. On the same date, 3 February 1904, Bottomley wrote to his future wife Emily Burton (they married a year later) that Baillie 'invited me into the next Venture'. Yet again, 'the pay depends on the success of the number (this one has not paid)'. Bottomley suggested to Baillie to publish or exhibit works by his friend Hay and Balmer. Works by Hay were included in Baillie's shows, and in the Summer of 1910, Hay got his own show at the gallery.

In April, Bottomley decided to send an 'essay' to The Venture, later calling it 'the things'. In the end, The Venture published 'Old Songs', a series of four prose poems based on the stories of Fair Rosamund (medieval ballads and chronicles), Paolo and Francesca (Dante), Faust (Goethe), and Juliet and Romeo (Shakespeare). At first Bottomley noticed that Baillie apparently admired him very much: he 'is as deferential to me as if I were buried in Poets' Corner' (letter to Ben Fletcher, 16 March 1904). After their first meeting he characterised him somewhat less sympathetically as 'a footman': 'Baillie has the aspect and manners of a footman who would like to have a soul above his position but doesn't know how'. (Letter to Emily Burton, 16 May 1904). In June, Baillie wrote about the Balmer illustrations for the new Venture. In October, Bottomley sent a poem to Baillie, but it was too late for inclusion in the second Venture. In November a prospectus was published, and on 22 November The Venture 1905 was published.

Frank Brangwyn, 'The Citadel', in The Venture 1905

Publisher and Booking Office

This annual was not Baillie's only publication. In December 1904, concurrently with The Venture 1905, he published The Dream Garden. A Children's Annual. After its first issue, the title was discontinued. Apparently, Baillie believed he could serve an adult audience as well as children. The Speaker announced both in 'Books of the Week' (17 December 1904), but only related the contents of The Venture. The critic praised the 'pictures, which are admirably reproduced'. However, Frank Brangwyn's woodcut in two colours was executed far better than, for example, Ricketts's painting 'Centaur Idyl' for which a rather coarse grid was used, and as a result the image is rather vague and muddy. In 2007, Carl Woodring wrote that this painting had been exhibited in 1902 as 'Nessus and Dejanira', and that 'all in the art world of London would have recognized the models for Nessus and stolen bride as Ricketts and Shannon' ('Centaurs Unnaturally Fabulous', in Wordsworth Circle, January 2007). Woodring could study the painting closely, as he owned it (it is now part of his collection at Rice University).

John Baillie was first and foremost a gallery owner who was always looking for other avenues. In 1902, he acted as a booking office for a performance of Laurence Housman play 'Bethlehem' in the Great Hall of the University of London. Tickets were for sale at Baillie's gallery, 'no money being taken at the doors' of the university.

Exhibition of Ricketts and Shannon

Searching for material about John Baillie, I surprisingly came across of an unknown exhibition in his gallery with works by Ricketts and Shannon. A catalogue was issued, but is very rare now; no copy seems to have been preserved in the series in the V&A National Art Library.

A review appeared in The Daily Mirror on 14 December 1903: 'In the Art World. Three Remarkable Picture Shows and a New Annual'.

After discussing an exhibition at Warwick House, the reviewer devoted four paragraphs to John Baillie's gallery and The Venture.

There are two more exhibitions of works of art which can be warmly recommended to those interested in original artistic endeavours: C.J. Collings's water-colour drawings at the Dowdeswell Galleries, and a triple show of woodcuts by C.S. Ricketts, lithographs  by C.H. Shannon, and fans by Mrs. L. Murray Robertson, at The Gallery, 1, Prince's-terrace, Hereford-road, W.

The little gallery in Bayswater, though far from the exhibition centre, is rapidly acquiring an excellent reputation for the quality of the works shown, the commonplace being strictly banished from its walls.

The review continues to describe Robertson's fans. 

From the catalogue, preserved in the collection of Mark Samuels Lasner at the University of Delaware, we learn that 23 fans were on display. Ricketts's part in the exhibition comprised four wood-engravings presumably for the recent Latin edition of Cupid and Psyche and three wood-engravings for Hero and Leander. There were twenty-two illustrations by Ricketts and Shannon published in Daphnis and Chloe. Shannon's part was larger: he exhibited one etching ('Master Hargood'), eighteen lithographs, and eight chiaroscuro woodcuts.

[Thanks are due to: John Aplin for transcriptions of the letters from Hay and Bottomley that are held by the British Library; Lorraine Janzen Kooistra for pointing out that a copy of the catalogue has been preserved in the collection of Mark Samuels Lasner; and Mark Samuels Lasner for providing a digitised copy of the catalogue.]

[This blog post was partly rewritten in June 2023].