Wednesday, March 30, 2022

556. Charles Shannon in Theosophical Company

Blog 552, The Wise and Foolish Virgins by Charles Shannon, promised more information about Joseph Bibby's acquisition of Charles Shannon's painting that eventually was given to the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool.

Joseph Bibby (1851-1940), devoutly raised as a Methodist, was an English industrialist who, together with his brother James, built an empire around cattle fodder and Bibby's Pure Soap in Liverpool. James was the businessman, Joseph indulged in marketing and publicity. He was a generous benefactor of social causes. He developed an interest in theosophy and became a vegetarian.

Cover of Bibby's Annual (1921),
with an illustration by Ernest Wallcousins (detail)

Part of his advertising campaigns was an annual magazine, Bibby's Annual (1906-1922, 1938). He also published Bibby's Quarterly, Bibby's Almanac, and The Bibby Cake Calendar. He edited and subsidized the issues of Bibby's Annual that integrated theosophy with art and literature, incorporating plates after famous paintings and prints by Rembrandt, Reynolds, Dürer, Velasques, Gainsborough, Turner and Blake. Works by lesser-known modern artists, such as William Orpen and Charles Shannon, were also illustrated. 

A lithograph and a painting by Shannon were reproduced in the penultimate volume, 1921. The lithograph 'Tibullus in the House of Delia' received a short introduction which, together with the image, was given a corner in an article on 'The Source of Social Wellbeing':

Mr. Shannon is a master of the art of lithography, which, since the renewal of interest largely due to Mr. Whistler, is no longer regarded as a poor relation of the Graphic Arts. He is a poetic and subtle draughtsman, an absorbed student of beauty, a seeker after nobility of design who subordinates literary to pictorial requirements. For this reason it is vain to seek in our picture more than the slightest literary motive. "Delia" may be the lady referred to in Pope's lines - "Slander or poison dread from Delia's rage" - but we do not know. What seems suggested is one of those sinister beauties of the Renaissance, whom men admired and feared. we see a banquet where the guests are raising wine cups in her honour, while one whispers in her ear. It is just a fancy in which the artist has expressed his power of noble and rhythmic design. The subject was once admirably characterised by Sir Frederick Wedmore as "ideal and opulent and Titianesque."

The art-historical text and lithography are embedded in the world of theosophy. Already on the first page, above and below the table of contents, there are quotations from L.W. Rogers, long-time president of the Theosophical Society in America: 'Man is a God in the making. Latent within him are all the attributes of divinity.'

Charles Shannon, 'The Wise and Foolish Virgins'
(1919-1920) [detail]
Walker Art Gallery
(National Museums Liverpool)

Opposite the page with Shannon's lithograph is a full-page colour image, printed across, of Shannon's 1920 picture 'The Wise and Foolish Virgins'. Joseph Bibby must have purchased the oil painting in 1921 and immediately decided to use it for his annual because of its religious subject. The accompanying text is long, and we may assume that it was written by Bibby himself:

Mr. Charles Shannon is one of the most sensitive and distinguished of living artists. His art is the quiet product of study and dream; standing aloof from haste or turmoil or anything suggestive of sensation or notoriety. It reaches a region of pure beauty, beyond the world of reality or actuality; where mere events lose much of their significance, and cries of passion and emotion are but faintly heard. The theme of the "Wise and Foolish Virgins" has appealed to him solely from the point of view of the creation of pictorial beauty. His picture is frankly not very scriptural. We are not here much concerned with the Twenty-fifth Chapter of St. Matthew. This is no vision of sudden midnight alarm; of desperate appeals for what could not be spared; of the tragic doom that may befall innocent and well-meaning souls who lack forethought. The very choice of the banks of a river as the scene puts the Scriptural narrative far away; for what could the Virgins we know be doing there? If, however, we do not have a satisfying illustration of a familiar story, we get instead a noble picture. We think it was the rhythm of the interlacing figures, the haunting beauty and mystery of the night, with its fine yet austere harmony of colour that the artist aimed to achieve; and we gladly admit he has succeeded. Many an earnest thinker has pondered over the true inner meaning of this story, although its lessons of ready preparedness is obvious to all. This story of the coming of the bridegroom has in it a still deeper meaning to the devout mystic, who senses a parable of initiation, the first unfolding of the Divine super-consciousness within, which shall thereafter irradiate and illumine the whole of the inner and outer life. We cannot tell how near that moment is just when it will come, any more than a flower knows the moment when the glory of the universe will burst upon an opened heart that has at last unfolded. But it has to be watched for, prayed for, lived for; since until it comes a man lives but a darkened, divided life, seemingly cut off in consciousness from the true source of his happiness and power. So the lamp which shall light us to that supreme consummation is the vessel of consecrated thought and deed, and it must be filled always with the oil of human service, elsewise it were empty and useless indeed. To those whose light within is thus kept steadily trimmed and burning, there comes the day of Initiation, the reception at the marriage feast, and entrance into the joy of their Lord. The story also indicates that all ignorance and neglect invite a just nemesis.

So, after Bibby has detailed that this subject probably has no religious significance for Shannon - on the contrary - the explanation takes a turn towards pure theosophical thought halfway through, with which the painting ceases to exist as a work of art and becomes only a secondary illustration of a sermon-like story.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

555. Pricing a Copy of A House of Pomegranates

Last week I wrote about a podcast on YouTube that had been available for some time, but there is also a more recent contribution that has to do with Ricketts and Shannon. In a series of videos on rare book profit margins, American dealer Adam Weinberger talks about three books including, most recently, a copy of Oscar Wilde's A House of Pomegranates (1891). The New York rare bookdealer explains he has acquired the Wilde book at auction, and paid around $700.  

Watch the video Rare Book Profit Margins by Adam Weinberger on YouTube.

Adam Weinberger discussing A House of Pomegranates

His brief explanation starts at 11.03 minutes from the beginning and lasts several minutes.

He says that these days one has to pay between $600 and $900 for a copy at auction. He bought this particular copy for about $700. In determining the selling price, he took into account the prices of other dealers, but he feels that he cannot go higher than $1400, a 100% profit margin (before deducting all kinds of additional costs).

Adam Weinberger
discussing A House of Pomegranates

The book cannot be found on his website, so we can assume that it has been sold.

There are several bookplates, one of which was made for Roy Norr from New York. Designed by Elisha Brown Bird (1867-1943), it dates from around 1910. Norr's collection was sold through Parke-Bernet Galleries in February 1956. 

Another copy with a bookplate of Roy Norr is part of the collection of University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Urbana IL., Rare Book and Manuscript Library: Stacks Non-circulating 823 W64ho. 'Bookplate on front endpaper recto: "Roy Norr", inscription on front endpaper recto: W K Bixby'. Curious.

Bookplate of Roy Norr by E.B. Bord (around 1910)

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

554. The Voice of Paul Delaney

On YouTube, a podcast has been published by Nigel Beale. He interviews Paul Delaney, Ricketts's biographer, about Ricketts's life and art, but also about how the biography published in 1990 came about. The recording lasts just over an hour and the only image used is a recent portrait of Delaney.

See the podcast Paul Delaney on Biography & writing the fascinating life of Charles Ricketts.

Also available on the website 'The Biblio File', hosted by Beale, as Paul Delaney on writing the life of book designer Charles Ricketts.

Beale introduces the podcast as follows: 

I met with Paul Delaney at his home in Moncton, New Brunswick, where we talked about, among other things, his nom de plume (J. G. P. Delaney), about Ricketts of course, and his adventurous mother; about Ricketts' long time companion artist Charles Shannon; about publisher and editor Rupert Hart Davis, and about Paul's experience writing the biography of artist Glyn Philpot.

Paul Delaney (photo: Nigel Beale, 2021)

Copies of the Ricketts biography can only be bought second-hand, as Clarendon Press has not published a second edition of Charles Ricketts. A Biography after the first sold-out hardcover edition from 1990. Nowadays, copies cost anything between €44 and  €536, the latter price being ridiculous, of course. About €100 is the average price.

Also still available, but almost sold out, is the supplement Delaney (and Corine Verney) published a few years back. To buy a copy, see blog 277. An Indispensable Supplement to Charles Ricketts's Biography.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

553. Faithful Servants: Percy and Matromia Nicholls

In response to my previous blog, I received some comments with more information that will allow us to get a fuller picture of Percy Nicholls and his Russian wife Matromia.

Nicholls and his wife joined the household of Ricketts and Shannon in January 1924 and after Ricketts died in 1931 they continued to care for Shannon, moving house with him to Kew where the artist died in 1937.

In his letters Ricketts regularly mentioned Nicholls, who clearly loved cats and the wireless:

Nichol[l]s, our excellent man, has stolen a charming half persian cat [...] This cat is amiable and affectionate it literally prevents one's watering the garden, by playing with the water, or else by caressing one[']s legs [...] and of course sleeps full length on anything newly planted. [...] A Wireless is being placed this moment to supply Nicholls with rag times & L[l]oyd George Speeches.
[Ricketts, letter to Mary Davis, June 1924]

During his trip to Canada and the United States in 1927, Ricketts bought stamps for the apparent collector of them, Nicholls:

I enclose a packet of Collonial [Colonial] stamps for Nicholls. I have bought him a packet of Canadians as well [...]
(Ricketts, letter to Charles Shannon, 4 November 1927)

Entry of Marriage of Percy Harold Nicholls and Matromia Kondratenka (1923) 

Percy Harold Nicholls was born in Wotton-under-Edge on 27 September 1890. His parents were Charles Beames Nicholls (1860-1915) and Alice Matilda James (1865-1931). In 1911 Nicholls was married to Lilian Daisy Blatch. At the time he was a private in the Scottish Rifles stationed in Colchester. The pair had three children: Hubert (1912-1913), Olive (1915-1985), and Joan (1921-1922). His wife died in August 1922, and he remarried the following year, on 28 April 1923, when he was listed as a Butler/Valet. His second wife, Matromia Kondratenka, was born in Russia (probably in Ukraine) on 22 November 1884. She was a domestic servant, and both she and Nicholls were then living at Chessington Hall, a country house in Surrey. Apparently, when they moved in with Ricketts and Shannon as their servants, they did not bring the only surviving daughter from Nicholls's first marriage with them.

However, after Shannon's and Nicholls's accident some family members came to assist Ricketts:

Did I tell you there is hope of a cousin of Nicholls coming here as house maid. I hope so, the family seem worthwhile though his young daughter proved a failure. I understand she is doing well in her new place.
(Ricketts to Mary Davis, 1930)

This was Olive, who was fifteen at the time.

Nicholls was mentioned in Ricketts's will. After Shannon's death, the Nicholls lived at 35 Jedburgh Street, Clapham Common (1939 census). That year Percy Nicholls received a copy of  Self-Portrait taken from the Letters & Journals of Charles Ricketts that was compiled by Thomas Sturge Moore. 

Percy Nicholls died in Clapham Common on 19 October 1947. He left the considerable sum of £1310 3s 11d to his wife and to the future husband of his daughter (Francis James Garrison, a locomotive fireman). Matromia Nicholls died in 1974.

It is highly likely that the assistant in Ricketts's studio, filmed for a D'Oyly Carte Promotional Film in 1926, is Percy Nichols.

Percy Nicholls in 1926
The Mikado - D'Oyly Carte Promotional Film 1926
Still from the film on YouTube

Charles Ricketts and Percy Nicholls in 1926
The Mikado - D'Oyly Carte Promotional Film 1926
Still from the film on YouTube

The preliminary study for Shannon's painting The Wise and Foolish Virgins (see last week's blog) in the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry was donated by his brother Alfred Edward Nicholls (1897-1969) and his wife Lillian Williams.

[Thanks are due to Mike Gunnill who asked the question about Nicholls and to Steven Halliwell and John Aplin for their information.]

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

552. The Wise and Foolish Virgins by Charles Shannon

A question about the couple who managed the household of Ricketts and Shannon led to a search for a study of Shannon's painting The Wise and Foolish Virgins. The painting, now in the Walker Art Gallery (Liverpool), is dated by Shannon: '1919-1920'. A large format oil painting, it measures 110.8 x 177.8 cm.

Charles Shannon, The Wise and Foolish Virgins (1919-1920)
Walker Art Gallery
(National Museums Liverpool)

The painting was donated by Joseph Bibby in 1934. 

A preliminary study for the painting is in the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry. This version of the oil painting is slightly smaller, measuring 58.4 x 95 cm.

Charles Shannon, The Wise and Foolish Virgins (1920?)
Herbert Art Gallery & Museum

This donation from Mr and Mrs A.E. Nicholls was added to the collection in 1962. Intriguingly, the donors bear the same surname as the servants of Ricketts and Shannon. These were Percy Nicholls and his (according to one source) Russian wife, who ran the household from January 1924 - they stayed until after Shannon's death. In January 1929, Nicholls was injured while hanging a painting, but not as seriously as Shannon who remained disabled for the rest of his life. For their good care, the Nicholls received paid vacations twice, one to Margate and one to Bognor and on the latter occasion 'Nicholls's cousin' came to help in the house.

Shannon needed constant nursing care and Ricketts himself was having a bad effect on his condition: 'Nicholls seems to have the best influence over him & I the worst' (letter to Mary Davis, 1930).

After Ricketts's death, friends arranged for Shannon to move to Kew (21 Kew Gardens Road), and the Nicholls also cared for him there until his death in March 1937. After Shannon's death, they continued to care for the house. It was bought by Sydney Cockerell who was eager for them to stay, probably to take care of his invalid wife, but they did not. They stayed until Cockerell moved into the house in August 1937 and still helped unpack and furnish.

On 30 May 1937, Thomas Sturge Moore wrote to Gordon Bottomley (see Gordon Bottomley-Thomas Sturge Moore correspondence, edited by John Aplin, published online by InteLex Past Masters):

Cockerell has bought the house and wanted to take over the good Nicholls too, but Mrs Nicholls put her foot down and said they must have a change. But after having a post at the Nat Gallery waved before him by Lowinsky and one at the Law Courts by Gilchrist he may be reduced to washing buses.

It is entirely possible that the generous Ricketts gave the preliminary study of the painting to Nicholls, but what the relationship between Percy and A.E. Nicholls is I do not know.

(About Joseph Bibby a next time.)