Wednesday, September 1, 2021

527. Charles Ricketts: A War Illustration

Of course, there is never a period without a war going on somewhere, but in recent weeks we have again been confronted with deplorable facts: terror, change of regime, violence, fear, victims and refugees.

Charles Ricketts, 'Black Agnes', as published in
Annie S. Strachan, Famous Women in Scottish History

Charles Ricketts published his first drawings in a book when he was twenty-one: they were mainly war scenes for Cassell's History of England, Volume 1: From the Roman Invasion to the Wars of the Roses. (Read more about these early illustrations in blog number 224.) One of these drawings depicted the attack on Dunbar castle that was defended by Agnes, Countess of Dunbar in 1337. The caption read: 'Black Agnes at the siege of Dunbar Castle'. Large chunks of stone fly through the air, one of the soldiers is hit by an arrow in his eye while Black Agnes watches the battle unfold.

The pen drawing (202 x 147 mm), signed C. Ricketts, illustrated the text on page 400: 

Another of the most remarkable defences of these castles was that of Dunbar by the Countess of March. She was the daughter of the renowned Thomas Randolph, first Earl of Moray, of that family so gloriously associated with Scottish history, and from her complexion was called Black Agnes. The castle of Dunbar was built on a chain of rocks running into the sea, and its only connection with the mainland was well fortified. Montague, Earl of Salisbury, besieged it, and brought forward engines to throw stones, such as were used to batter down walls before the invention of cannon. One of these, with a strong roof to defend the assailants, standing up like a hog’s back, was called the sow. When Black Agnes saw this engine advancing, she called out to the Earl of Salisbury, in derision – 'Beware Montagow, For farrow shall thy sow.' She had ordered a huge stone to be set on the wall over the castle gate, and as soon as the sow came under this was let fall, by which means the roof of the machine was crushed in, and as the English soldiers ran out, they were shot down by a flight of arrows; whereupon the Black Agnes shouted out to Salisbury, 'Behold the litter of English pigs!' As the earl brought up fresh engines, and sent ponderous stones against her battlements, Black Agnes stood there, and wiped disdainfully the fragments of the broken battlements away with her handkerchief, as a matter of no moment.

Ricketts's drawings became the property of Cassell, who sold their blocks on a large scale to other publishers. This is how, more than twenty years later, the illustration of Agnes came to J.W. Butcher publishers in London, who used it as the frontispiece in the publication Famous Women in Scottish Story (1909). It shows how little control the young artist had over the distribution of his work. Years later, when he was already reasonably well known, youthful works could turn up in books uninvited.