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.