Wednesday, April 7, 2021

506. The Designs on the Cover of 'Bibliography of Oscar Wilde' (6)

Last time I mentioned a vignette that was not used by Ricketts for the limited first editions of Oscar Wilde's De Profundis in 1905. The fourth vignette was replaced by that of the sea and the star. In an 1970 essay on bookbindings designed by Ricketts, Giles Barber wrote about De Profundis:

Here again we come back to Rossetti, for the plain ivory cover bears only three circles with simplified ornamentation and, between the top two, the calligraphically inscribed title. These top two circles show, on the left the imprisoned bird, on the right the free bird. Ricketts’s signed sketch for the binding, now in the possession of Mr. John Sparrow, shows that he intended his initials to appear hidden between the prison bars. This detail seems to have been dropped in the finished work.
(Giles Barber, 'Rossetti, Ricketts, and Some English Publishers' Bindings of the Nineties', The Library, December 1970, pp. 329-330) 

Charles Ricketts,
sketch for vignette of escaping bird
(current whereabouts unknown)
[reproduced after Christie's auction catalogue,
21 October 1992]

We can indeed see the initials 'CR' in the bottom right-hand section of the drawn vignette. This sketch was in the possession of John Sparrow, and was partly reproduced in the catalogue of the Christie's auction of his collection: Printed Books from the Celebrated Library of the late John Sparrow, O.B.E., Warden of All Souls College, Oxford (21 October 1992).

Barber continued:

More important is that on the original sketch the bottom circle originally bore a complicated circular thorn device which has been crossed out and that the final circular device, showing the star in the sky above the great waters as described in the concluding paragraph of the book, has been substituted. This fine and bare design, so unlike the nineteenth century in style, was adopted three years later for all the volumes of Methuen’s collected edition of Wilde. Since this design is so effective on the ivory vellum finally chosen it is perhaps interesting that in a footnote to the original sketch Ricketts wrote: "Please ask Mr. Leighton. Ask for specimen on black cloth, on green cloth (same as Vale Shakespeare) and mauve cloth same as used on Oscar Wilde’s plays".'
(Giles Barber, 'Rossetti, Ricketts, and Some English Publishers' Bindings of the Nineties', The Library, December 1970, p. 330).
The vignette of a thorn was not used by Ricketts for Wilde's works, and yet we have reason to believe that it has not completely fallen out of favour. The question is whether Barber has identified it correctly.

Once again, Stuart Mason (pen-name of Christopher Sclater Millard) comes into the picture.

In 1907 Mason had published a study and bibliography on The Picture of Dorian Gray: Art and Morality. After Wilde's collected works appeared in 1908, followed in 1910 by the so-called Second Collected Edition in a smaller format, bound in green buckram, Mason published a second revised edition of Oscar Wilde. Art & Morality in 1912. The new edition was published by a different publisher: Frank Palmer in London. In the 1914 Bibliography of Oscar Wilde, Mason himself described this new edition as 'Uniform with Methuen's foolscap 8vo edition of Wilde's works'.

Oscar Wilde, Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Stories (1910)
and Stuart Mason, Oscar Wilde. Art & Morality (1912)

Mason's work does indeed look suspiciously like the Methuen volumes, also because Wilde's name has now been added to the title, so that at first, the book even seems to have been written by him. The vignette of the sea is not used here. The new vignette seems to reasonably match Barber's description. Would Ricketts have allowed him to use it? Nobody is thanked for the design in the preface and the vignette is not even mentioned in his later bibliography.

If we look closely at the design, we can see that the thorny branches are actually flames.

Vignette on the cover of Stuart Mason,
Oscar Wilde. Art & Morality (1912)

The similarity to the vignettes of the escaping and free birds is immediately apparent: the shape of the same bird is cut out in the middle, including the spread wings and the opened beak. To the right, we see a preview of the later vignette of the star - here still accompanied by the crescent moon. At the bottom, flames swirl up, reaching left to top and surrounding the bird on various sides. In other words: Ricketts did not draw thorny branches; the vignette depicts the bird Phoenix rising from its ashes. 

The vignette must be the previously unused vignette: it fits seamlessly with the bird devices and it already uses elements from the star-over-sea vignette. It has all the subtlety we would expect from a Ricketts design.

But this adds to the mystery: Ricketts must have lent an earlier sketch (the later one being 'crossed out') to Mason/Millard, perhaps through the intervention of Robert Ross. From 1906 Ross had supported Millard (who had been imprisoned for homosexuality), and Millard had helped him prepare the collected works of Wilde, and later, between 1910 and 1913, hwas Ross's personal secretary, only to be fired after he became embroiled in court cases again. 

This explains why Mason could not borrow the other vignettes, and used clumsy imitations for the Bibliography of Oscar Wilde. Originally, when negotiations about the Collected Works of Wilde were opened by Robert Ross, Methuen considered issuing the bibliography separately, but uniform to the de-luxe edition, on a royalty basis, and Millard/Mason and his friend Walter Ledger were requested to make their own arrangements with Methuen. It seems, these were not even started before Millard was arrested at Iffley in April 1906. The 1908 edition of the Collected Works did not include the bibliography, and when it was finally published in 1914, Methuen, the owner of the original blocks for Ricketts's decorations, did not lend them to the publisher T. Werner Laurie.

The question remains as to why Ricketts initially rejected this very fine Phoenix vignette. The explanation may lie precisely in the great affinity with the other two bird vignettes, the escaping bird and the free bird. These two symbolise the soul of Oscar Wilde who, still in prison, was already thinking ahead to his freedom, and was in fact freed from earlier pre-occupations by focusing on the essence of human existence (as Wilde wrote in De Profundis). Ricketts thus drew the unfree and the free soul, and an image of the resurrected phoenix was in fact duplicitous. 

However, it does mean that we can add a new title to the list of books decorated or designed by Charles Ricketts: Stuart Mason's Oscar Wilde: Art & Morality (1912).