Wednesday, November 9, 2022

588. Ricketts & Shannon in Constance Wilde's Autograph Book

Recently, the Oscar Wilde Society published a book about Constance Wilde's autograph album, Constance Wilde's Autograph Book 1886-1896, comprising reproductions of the autographs, dedications, poems and drawings from a circle of her acquaintances. Editor Devon Cox reveals that it involves different groups of friends, starting with famous figures, such as politicians, musicians and writers: Walter Pater, James McNeill Whistler, John Ruskin, William Morris, Pablo Sarasate and others. 

Constance Wilde's Autograph Book 1886-1896
(edited by Devon Cox, 2022)

Then the focus shifted to women scientists and authors, such as those who could possibly contribute to the journal that Oscar Wilde edited, The Woman's World, including Marie Corelli and Alice Meynell. From 1889, representatives of two other groups followed: those of spiritualism and women's rights. Lady Georgina Mount Temple was one of them.

Some wrote their name on a separate page, even if they added few words. Others wrote their contribution on a page that already contained an inscription, such as Arthur James Balfour who ironically commented on an older contribution by T.P. O'Connor. But such need for commentary will not have been the only reason for filling up a page; sometimes the idea that you did not then have to fill a whole page may also have helped.

The inscriptions between 1891 and 1895 show who Constance Wilde saw as her own friends at a time when she and Oscar were drifting apart relationally. Not included was her husband's most famous lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, nor was his first lover Robert Ross, although he was a dear friend of hers.

In 1894, Constance Wilde asked artists Ricketts and Shannon to contribute to her book. This is rather surprising - I have little further evidence of their dealings. Ricketts has shared memories of Wilde, but not of his wife.

Charles Shannon's contribution to
Constance Wilde's Autograph Book 1886-1896  

Ricketts and Shannen shared a page in the book (page 45). They are both roundels, Shannon's being at the top, a drawing in blue pencil of three winged boys representing cupids, their heads close together, in a wicker basket, signed and dated: 'C.H. Shannon | July 12. 94.'

Charles Ricketts's contribution to
Constance Wilde's Autograph Book 1886-1896 

Underneath, Ricketts drew a circular drawing in green, grey, blue, brown and white pencil. Against a background with a flowering hedge (roses?) sits a veiled woman, with a naked child at her feet, on her lap rests the head of a second child, and standing next to her is a third child whose hand and cheek touch hers. The three children are depicted in a vertical column next to her own body. The drawing is signed and dated: 'CS Ricketts | 1894.'

Nothing is known about a possible friendly relationship between the two artists and Constance Wilde.  Franny Moyle mentions some early contributions to the autograph book in her biography Constance. The Tragic and Scandalous Life of Mrs Oscar Wilde (2011), but she does not mention the contributions of Ricketts and Shannon. Ricketts's biographer, J.G.P. Delaney, does not mention her name at all. Only one source is known to me, but it is interesting because it contains a - later - description of these drawings, namely the 1900 diary of Katharine Bradley and Edith Cooper ('Michael Field'). Ricketts referred to Wilde's ruined marriage.

With reference to Mrs Oscar, Ricketts dwells on the great opportunity she lost. She was urged to act with spirit, with breadth – she failed – & ever after she was nothing; her husband was an unpleasant subject & she a ghost it was not pleasant to meet. Had she given him limitless devotion she wd have had the sympathy & admiration of all. She once called at the Vale with a Charity Album – Ricketts did a landscape, Shannon some charming Cupids. She was much pleased & they most anxious to [do] anything they could for Oscar’s wife.
[Michael Field, Journal, Sunday [9 December] 1900 [BL Add MS 46789: f 166r-166v].

Constance must have felt admiration for the way Ricketts and Shannon had designed and illustrated Oscar Wilde's books to pay a visit to the Vale and leave her album behind. (They did not take it with them from her home in Tite Street and did not belong to any of the subsequent groups that the editor of the autograph book identified.)

She may have had to wait a long time before she got it back. No new contributions were written between May 1894 and the end of the year. From early 1895 new inscriptions were added. Constance Wilde also pasted into the album an undated note from Shannon, writing guiltily that he should apologise 'for not returning your book in which Ricketts & I have done troubled little sketches'. 

Letter from Charles Shannon to Constance Wilde,
pasted in Constance Wilde's autograph book

He had seen her at the Burlington Club, and the editor suggests this must have been during the summer exhibition that ran form 28 May to 28 July 1894. I would suggest that it may have taken longer to return the album to its owner.

Ricketts and Shannon were among the last to contribute to the album. In early 1895, their drawings were followed by three more contributions from Alice Meynell, Francis Thompson and Arthur Severn. After Wilde's lawsuits, bankruptcy and her departure abroad, Constance asked for one final contribution from Vernon Lee, whose quote from Ecclesiastes indicated that now was a time to remain silent.