Wednesday, October 27, 2021

535. An Unknown Woodcut by Ricketts

For substantial book projects, such as Daphnis and Chloe (1893), Ricketts and Shannon made several sketches that were never developed into wood-engravings, and even some wood-engravings did not make it to the finish line, even though much work had been involved. For artists who at that time had to take on all kinds of jobs in order to pay the rent at the end of the month, this was obviously a huge waste of time.

Therefore, there are only a few wood-engravings that were not used for their magazine The Dial or for one of the book projects. The British Museum, however, owns a rare print of such a wood-engraving. 

Charles Ricketts, engraving for unknown project, undated
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license]
(with permission of the executors of the Charles Ricketts estate,
Leonie Sturge-Moore and Charmain O'Neil)

It is not clear when the woodcut was acquired, but it was described in 1986: 'Circular design with two naked figures seated to left, holding hands; proof illustration to an unidentified publication. Woodcut'. (Beneath the woodcut, a faint show-through of the British Museum stamp can be seen.)

It is clearly not a stand-alone illustration. Between the figures the shape of a letter 'I' is visible and therefore the woodcut was intended as an initial 'I'.

Around the stem of this character 'I' the female figure seems to reach for the hand of the male figure; it could be a love couple, but probably not. It appears as if she is looking for guidance. She is not seated, but standing in a position as if she has reached the water's edge. He is crouching. A dove is depicted at the top centre.

The shepherd's hat of the male figure (left) recalls that of Daphnis in some illustrations in Daphnis and Chloe, and it is not implausible that this was an early initial for this book.

Probably unsuitable because all the initials and woodcuts in this book were eventually designed as rectangles; this one was out of place because of its shape alone.

But then there is the small flower, left above the circular woodcut (and a small capital letter 'I'?).

The cover of the first number of The Dial (1889) displays a similar small flower, next to the year of publication in the bottom right-hand corner (see Yellow Nineties 2.0: The Dial volume 1). 

Charles Ricketts, decoration for the cover of The Dial 1 (1889)

However, this one looks more like one of the printer's flowers that Ricketts designed in 1895/1896 for the Vale Press editions, which represents a small acorn. 

This ornament appears in the first publication of the Vale Press, Milton's Early Poems (1896). The second poem therein opens with the title 'The Hymn' which is preceded by the ornament. Then follows an initial 'I' for the first line of the poem which is about the naked 'Heav'n born-childe', who is joined by 'meek-eyed Peace'.

Charles Ricketts, decorations to 'Hymn' in John Milton, Early Poems (1896)

Anyway, that makes two female figures and they are not depicted in the woodcut. Besides, it is the only initial 'I' in Early Poems, so it seems unlikely that this was a preliminary study for this book.

The male figure is not only wearing a hat, it is a winged hat. He also has a winged shoe, in other words, this could represent Hermes, or Mercury. The initial might therefore have something to do with Ricketts's and Shannon's edition of Hero and Leander (1894), in which Hermes plays a role. However, there is no initial 'I' in that book and only a leaf ornament. 

The woodcut may also have been intended for one of the prospectuses that Ricketts and Shannon published from about 1891/1892.

In short: the woodcut was made for an unknown edition, but because of the ornament I estimate that it dates from the time of Hero and Leander rather than from the period before or after.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

534. Preparing for the Academy

Six years before his death, Ricketts posed for a picture in The Sphere magazine. In the April 18, 1931 issue, it posted nine photographs of the preparations for the Royal Academy exhibition at Burlington House. Some photos depict the artist and her or his painting, while others show, for example, the moving of a large painting to Burlington House.

The Sphere, 18 April 1931, page 109

Ricketts looks critically, but wearily, at the painting 'Don Juan in Hell' (now in the collection of Grundy Art Gallery in Blackpool).

Charles Ricketts, 'Don Juan in Hell' (1931)
[Collection: Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool]

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

533. Artist's Statements and Manifestos

Last week we reached the deadline for a major project I have been working on as editor-in-chief for the past few years: an almost 400-page work for Stanford University and the Codex Foundation, Materialia Lumina: Contemporary Artists' Books from the Codex International Book Fair. The book is due out next January when an exhibition on the twenty-first century artist's book opens at Stanford University. It will not surprise readers of this blog that I have managed to smuggle Charles Ricketts's name into this work in an essay on the Chinese book artist Leilei Guo, whose book Waves is discussed. It is a work without words, with images of an apartment building in Beijing.

Leilei Guo, Waves (2013)
Photo: Huug Schipper

Ricketts's name could be dropped in an exploration of a collection of artists' publications on their own work: from manifesto to letter.

Without the artist’s explanation, we would probably not be able to grasp the meaning of the visual presentation. Guo provided an artist’s statement for Waves that is an alternative manifestation of it. 

As a genre, the artist’s statement is controversial and not always recognized, although it has a long history. We can link it to the early modern artist’s manifesto that can be seen as a 'passport to modernity' (1) — starting with the Futurists just before the First World War, but we can go a step further back and refer to artists’ manifestos written by book designers such as William Morris, Lucien Pissarro, and Charles Ricketts to defend the private press ideals in the 1890s. 

The antithesis of the manifesto’s opinions and ideals is another modernist idea: the work of art should speak for itself. This proposition may compromise the performative nature of the artist’s statement that can be either the narrative or the meta-narrative, a supplement or a contextualization — 'the artist statement performs a vital if complex rhetorical role' (2). 

In addition to the manifesto, conceptual art is the breeding ground for artists’ statements. Since the 1990s, these have become more or less mandatory, for facilitating acquisition, as a justification for commissioned works, or as an explanation in exhibitions. Nowadays the statements correspond to the responsibilities of the artist as a cultural theorist and practitioner (3).

The viewer should also be aware that an artist’s statement may contradict or extend the artwork. In this case, Guo has produced a loose sheet of paper (or e-document) that is not specially designed to align with the style of Waves. As such, it shares the ephemeral position of an artist’s talk, an interview, or an exhibition statement, similar to other manifestations such as prefaces, sketchbooks, and private correspondence.

(1) 100 Artists’ Manifestos, ed. Alex Danchev (London: Penguin Books, 2011), xxix.
(2) Ibid.
(3) W.F. Garrett-Petts, Rachel Nash, 'Re-Visioning the Visual: Making Artistic Inquiry Visible', Rhizomes. Cultural Studies in Emerging Knowledge 18 (Winter 2008),

Wednesday, October 6, 2021

532. Birth and Death

Tomorrow, October 7, it is ninety years since Charles Ricketts died.
Last October 2 marked the 155th anniversary of his birth.

Charles Ricketts, Self-portrait (c. 1898),
Woodcut printed from two blocks on Japan paper
British Museum No
Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license