Wednesday, October 28, 2020

483. Speaking Ephemera (1): Prospectus for Fair Rosamund

In his book British Private Press Prospectuses 1891-2001 David Butcher writes about the relevance of such ephemeral publications as prospectuses and publishers' lists. One of the aspects that he omits to mention is that prospectuses, for example from the Kelmscott and Vale Presses, contain information that cannot be found in the books themselves - in these cases, for example, the number of copies printed (see my essay 'A Number of Books' in Quaerendo).

Another neglected topic concerns the frequent occurrence of handwritten notes on the printed prospectuses, written in some cases by the publisher, and in others by dealers or collectors.

Prospectus/Order Form for Michael Field, Fair Rosamund (1897)

The annotations on prospectuses of the Vale Press are of particular significance because no archive of the press has been preserved. Sometimes they give an insight into the publishers' views on a new publication, as is the case with Michael Fields play Fair Rosamund. The authors received a copy in April 1897.

At least one copy of the prospectus contains a note in red ink at the bottom of the sheet:

This will be the last book issued from the Vale Press this Season; it is perhaps the most richly decorated book that Mr. Ricketts has hitherto designed.

Prospectus/Order Form for Michael Field, Fair Rosamund (1897)
[Private Collection]

Indeed, this edition was followed by a summer break and the following book, Vaughan's Sacred Poems was published in September 1897.

The second remark is more difficult to interpret: what does the publisher mean by the remark about 'the most richly decorated book'?

The decorations in this book comprise:
1. A patterned paper for the binding: buff-coloured paper, with a repetitive design of a rose and of a crowned dove pierced by an arrow, all printed in green [see blog #33 Patterned Papers (d: Bird, Arrow and Rose)];
2. Three initial letters (in two sizes);
3. An engraved border of rose branches, leaves, flowers, and rosehips (used twice); 
3. Paragraph marks, and printer's flowers (to a total of 362);
4. A colophon printed in the form of a rose;
5. Red ink (initials, stage directions, part of a line [p. iii] a selection of ornaments, part of the colophon). 

Michael Field, Fair Rosamund (1897): colophon

Most of the decorations can be found in the nine previous Vale Press books. Patterned papers had been designed for the Suckling and Drayton editions. Borders and initial letters had decorated most of these books, including borders printed in red (Landor, Arnold) and a colophon printed in red (Arnold). The editions of the poems of Suckling and Campion both contained far more initials than the Michael Field play. Some books included frontispieces (the Field book did not) - what made this book the most decorated book so far?

Michael Field, Fair Rosamund (1897): stage direction

The answer lies not so much in the decorations themselves, although the number of ornaments is immense and many times larger than in the earlier books. Nor does it lie so much with the new element, the stage directions that are printed in red. Nevertheless, the occurrence of red in this book is quite generous. 

Another invention was the shape of the colophon that was adapted to the theme that ran through the book: the rose. Ricketts had not previously made this kind of adjustment to the subject. Later, in another book, he would give a colophon the shape of a cross.

For the answer we have to go back to the beginning of the book. On page iii, in the prologue, Ricketts also printed two words in red in the text - and this is an exceptional intervention for this  designer. These words - Rosa Mundi - refer to the name of the main character, Fair Rosamund, and became the leitmotif for Ricketts's design: the rose. The rose is depicted on the patterned paper for the binding, in the borders for Act I and Act II, in the shape of the colophon, and in the exuberant red that jumps out throughout the book.

Michael Field, Fair Rosamund (1897): page [iii]

Why did Ricketts think this was his most decorated book? Undoubtedly, by constantly referring to the 'rose', meanwhile adhering to his strict designer's principles about the book as 'unit', he felt that this book was truly, and visibly so, designed as a whole. A 'Gesamtkunstwerk'.