Wednesday, July 13, 2022

571. Two Portraits of Charles Ricketts by Max Beerbohm

In 1928 Robes of Thespis: Costume Designs by Modern Artists, a book on modern costumes for plays, revues, operas and ballet, was published. It included seven costume drawings by Charles Ricketts (only one of which was in colour) for 'The Merchant of Venice', 'King Lear', 'The Winter's Tale', and Yeats' 'King's Threshold'. Ricketts was no longer a 'modern artist' in 1928; the hefty book focused on a younger generation. More interesting than the commentary on his costumes is the illustrated introduction by Max Beerbohm.

Beerbohm had lived in Rapallo since 1910, but, he was briefly back in London in 1925. From a taxi, he saw Ricketts and Shannon walking in the street, apparently on their way to the opera:

[...] though I waved my hand wildly to them they did not see me. An any rate, Shannon did not. Ricketts may have, perhaps, and just ignored me. For I was not wearing a top-hat. And Ricketts was.

It was an opera hat - 'a thing that opens with a loud plop and closes with a quiet snap'. Beerbohm remembers the days in the 1890s when he himself always wore a top hat - and Ricketts and Shannon did not. And now that nobody wore top hats anymore, Ricketts did.

I wonder, does Ricketts wear that collapsible crown of his only when he dines out? Or does he, when he comes home, close it with a quiet snap and place it under his pillow, ready for the first thing in the morning? Some painters wear hats when they are working, to shade their eyes. Does Ricketts at his easel wear his gibus?

The answer is no. Rickets painted bare-headedly.

Beerbohm then turns to the use of colour in clothing and laments the fact that since 1830, men's fashion has turned into the tyranny of black and white. Only on stage did the colours shine, at least since 1900, when Gordon Craig and Ricketts designed costumes. Still, the stage designers themselves, walk around in black and white. Beerbohm made a drawing to show it: William Nicholson, Albert Rutherston, Edward Gordon Craig, R. Boyd Morrison and Charles Ricketts - only the last three are shown below. 

Max Beerbohm, 'Here are Five Friends of Mine'
(from Robes of Thespis, 1928)
© Copyright of the Estate of Max Beerbohm

Ricketts, with his reddish beard, stands on the right in a characteristic pose: gesticulating and talking. The others are silent. Beerbohm remarks on this portrait:

I have given Ricketts the small sombrero that I had always associated with him. When one does a drawing, what is one glimpse as against the vision of a lifetime?

Beerbohm understands young people's desire for colour and fantasy and believes that stage designers should set a good example.

I appeal to the designers of theatrical costumes. Doubtless they have hoped that the orgies of colour and fantasy with which they grace the theatres would have a marked effect on the streets, instead of merely making the streets' effect duller than ever by contrast. I suggest to these eminent friends of mine that they should design costumes not merely for actors and actresses, but also for citizens. [...] Let them go around setting the example. This is a splendid idea. I am too excited to write about it. I will do another drawing.

Max Beerbohm, 'Why Not Rather Thus?'
(from Robes of Thespis, 1928)
© Copyright of the Estate of Max Beerbohm

I just clothed them hurriedly in anything bright that occurred to me. Only once did I pause. I was about to give Ricketts an opera hat of many colours. But this would have been to carry fantasy too far; and I curbed my foolish pencil.

Ricketts now looks like a courtier from the Renaissance, his preferred period, with colourful rings on his fingers, a straight high feather on his cap, a green tunic and tights in blue and white. He also carries a sword.

It is fortunate that Ricketts did not carry a sword in real life.