Wednesday, February 1, 2023

600. The Art Collection of Ricketts and Shannon

Blogpost number 600 is a contribution written by Helen Ritchie, Senior Curator Modern & Contemporary Applied Arts at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. She studied at Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge and the University of the Arts London. She joined the Fitzwilliam in 2016, and has been responsible for the exhibition Designers and Jewellery 1850-1940: Jewellery and Metalwork from The Fitzwilliam Museum (2018), writing the accompanying catalogue, and she has curated other exhibitions. In 2020, she published the article 'The Portrait Jewels of Charles Ricketts (1866-1931)' in Jewellery Studies. The Journal of The Society of Jewellery Historians (read the text online). I am very grateful to her for this blog essay about the art collection of Ricketts and Shannon.

The Art Collection of Ricketts and Shannon

Although better-known as a designer, illustrator, painter and sculptor, Charles Ricketts was not only a producer of art, but a consumer and collector of it too. Together with his partner, artist Charles Shannon, Ricketts amassed an enormous, eclectic art collection, which encompassed Classical and Egyptian antiquities, Japanese woodblock prints, ‘old master’ drawings, and works by more contemporary artists such as Rossetti and Burne-Jones. Ricketts was avid in his attendance of sales at auction houses and dealers' warehouses and had an excellent eye, making use of his formidable memory and extensive knowledge of art to pick up bargains and as-yet unattributed works. The collection mirrored the breadth of Ricketts and Shannon's interests, as recorded by Ricketts in 1900: 

Tuesday. Looked through more of those perfect prints belonging to a German, in this case in the hands of a thief who asked Bing prices for them. Bought 2: one Outamaro, & one Harunobu. I think at their best that nothing quite touches a first rate Jap print, excepting a good greek Kylix or first rate Tannagra, even the latter hardly compare, only the masterpieces of the greatest masters go beyond; picked Titians or Rembrandts or world famous frescoes.
[Charles Ricketts, diary, 30 October 1900, BL Add MS 58098] (See also Self-Portrait, 1939, p. 47]

During the 1890s, Ricketts and Shannon focused on acquiring artworks that were less popular and thus more affordable, in particular, antiquities and Japanese woodblock prints. During the first half of their lives, money was in relatively short supply and Ricketts's diary and correspondence are filled with the agonies of deciding how much to spend on artworks, whether they could afford such sums, and the unreliability of buying at auction houses. He wrote, 'I wish treasure turned up in shops and not in sale rooms' [Diary 22 February 1901, BL Add MS 58099. See also Self-Portrait, 1939, p. 54]. Friend Cecil Lewis described the 'skimping' and 'saving' that enabled Ricketts and Shannon to save up to acquire artworks, and them selling only 'with the greatest reluctance', for example, in 1929, when Ricketts sold their entire group of Persian paintings in order to raise funds for Shannon's medical care. Large-scale oil paintings were often out of reach financially, although sacrifices were made in order to acquire some, including Piero di Cosimo's 'Lapiths and Centaurs' (1500–15), purchased by Ricketts and Shannon in 1904 for £500, just after it had been refused by the Louvre (later bequeathed to the National Gallery), and Alfred Stevens's portrait of Leonard W. Collmann (1854), which was purchased for £300.

Piero di Cosimo, 'The Fight between the Lapiths and the Centaurs' (1500-15)
[Photo/Collection: National Gallery, London]
[Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license]

Alfred Stevens, 'Leonard W. Collmann' (1854)
[Photo/Collection: The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge]
[Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license]

Throughout their lives, the collection was displayed in their homes at Kennington Park Road, the Vale, Beaufort Street (both in Chelsea), Spring Terrace in Richmond, Lansdown House in Kensington, Townshend House in Regent's Park, and in their country retreat, the Keep at Chilham Castle, Kent. Matt Cook (see 'Further Reading' below) has written extensively on the aesthetics of the homes of Ricketts and Shannon, and how their collection brought them together, drawing on the numerous comments made by contemporary visitors, who noted the collection and its arrangement. Although many rooms were ascetic in their sparse decoration, according to Cecil Lewis, certain rooms were arranged like 'a small museum':

Egyptian antiquities, Greek vases and figurines lived in glass cases. Below were drawers full of antique beads and Chinese hair ornaments […]; there were Adam sofas and chairs, Italian side-tables, a marble torso, a bas-relief, a picture of Don Juan by Ricketts, a portrait of [the actress] Mrs Pat[rick Campbell] by Shannon… But this room was never lived in. Days would pass when it was not visited. It was open only when they received, when friends who cared to see, and would understand its rarity, were shown round. Yet it was not, like a museum, cold and detached. It was a set piece, true; but it was none the less a room. Arranged in perfect taste. 
[Cecil Lewis, 'Preface' in Self-Portrait (1939), p. ix]

Given the money, time and attention lavished on the collection, and its important role in the construction of the identities of both Ricketts and Shannon as individuals, and as a couple, it was important that plans were made for its future. Therefore, Ricketts arranged that on his and Shannon's death, most of the collection (comprising more than one thousand works) would be left to various museums. Some of the paintings were bequeathed to the National Gallery, London, and more than 300 Japanese woodblock prints, mostly collected by Shannon, were left to the British Museum under the guardianship of their friend, Laurence Binyon, who was Keeper of the Prints and Drawings Department there until 1933.

Kitagawa Utamaro, woodblock print from the series: Fujin Tewaza Juni-Ko (1790s)
[Photo/Collection: British Museum, London: 1937,0710,0.96]
[Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license]

However, the bulk of the collection was left to The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge, on the advice of Sydney Carlyle Cockerell (1867–1962), Director of the Fitzwilliam between 1908 and 1937. Cockerell was a great friend of Ricketts and Shannon, often borrowing works from their collection for display in the Museum and receiving 'tip offs' from Ricketts on bargains he had come across. After Ricketts's sudden death in 1931, much of the collection was lent to The Fitzwilliam and bequeathed permanently to the Museum on Shannon's death in 1937. 

In the Museum's Annual Report of 1937, the bequest is listed as follows:

Bequeathed by Charles Hazelwood Shannon, R A:

The Ricketts and Shannon Collections:

The collection of Egyptian antiquities.

The collection of Greek and Roman antiquities, including fine black- and red-figure Greek vases.

47 Classical gems.

15 paintings of the Italian, Flemish, French and English schools.

426 drawings and watercolours by old and modern masters of the Italian, Flemish, Dutch, German, Spanish, French and English schools, including fine examples by Titian, Tintoretto, Tiepolo, Rubens, Van Dyck, Rembrandt, Goya, Watteau, Rowlandson, Stevens and Burne-Jones.

A bronze head of Shannon, by Lilian T. Wells. [This is by Reginald Fairfax Wells]

68 engravings, including work by Goya, Keene and Legros.

A miniature of a child, attributed to Fragonard.

4 pieces of Italian majolica, 16th century.

A Meissen dish, c. 1765.

5 brass dishes, German, 15th century.

A piece of Persian embroidery.

41 Japanese drawings, including works by Hokusai.

A gold locket containing hair of Swinburne and Rossetti.

A satinwood side-table, English, late 18th century.

A mirror in a painted frame.

The collection of around 190 Greek and Roman antiquities included the extremely important bust of Antinous as Dionysos, unearthed from Hadrian's villa at Tivoli, but it was the drawings in particular that were praised for their quality. 

Rembrandt, 'The Supper at Emmaus' (1640-41)
[Photo/Collection: The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge]
[Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license]

The Museum's Annual Report continues:

The bequest of Charles Shannon has greatly enriched the Department [of Pictures and Drawings] in all sections, but especially in that of old-master drawings. Titian's Jupiter and Io, Rembrandt's Christ at Emmaus, and the finest of the drawings by Rubens and Watteau are masterpieces unsurpassed in their kind. The collection also contains numerous other drawings, both by old and modern masters, of the finest quality. Among the paintings may be specially mentioned those by Nardo di Cione, Bicci di Lorenzo and Jacopo del Sellaio, Archbishop Laud from the studio of Vandyck (one of nine known versions), and the portrait of Leonard Collmann by Alfred Stevens.

Anthony van Dyck, 'Archbishop Laud' (c.1635-37)
[Photo/Collection: The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge]
[Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license]

The collection included a range of works by nineteenth-century French artists, including Delacroix, Barye, Millet, Puvis de Chavannes and Rodin, but none of the Impressionists, whose work Ricketts detested. He was also a great admirer of some nineteenth-century English artists, especially Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones. Ricketts acquired one of Burne-Jones's earliest large-scale pencil drawings, 'The Backgammon Players' (1861) from collector (and fellow donor to the Fitzwilliam Museum), Charles Fairfax Murray, who as Burne-Jones's first studio assistant, had been drawn into the Pre-Raphaelite circle. Burne-Jones later painted the same scene in watercolour (now in the collection of Birmingham City Museum and Art Gallery) and on a cabinet made by Philip Webb (now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

Edward Burne-Jones, 'The Backgammon Players' (1861)
[Photo/Collection: The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge]
[Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license]

Rossetti’s drawing, 'Mary Magdalene at the door of Simon the Pharisee' (1858) had long been thought lost before it was rediscovered by Ricketts, who purchased it sometime before 1890.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 'Mary Magdalene at the door of Simon the Pharisee' (1858) 
[Photo/Collection: The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge]
[Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International
(CC BY-NC-SA 4.0) license]

Ricketts's prodigious knowledge was widely acknowledged by his peers – he acted as art advisor to the National Gallery of Canada (1924–31) and to individuals including Sir Edmund Davis, who gave Ricketts and Shannon the Keep at Chilham Castle for life in return for the excellent advice Ricketts had given him on buying profitable pictures. In 1915, Ricketts had been offered and declined the Directorship of the National Gallery, London, a decision that he bitterly regretted, writing in his diary, 'I have been an ass' (Self-Portrait, p. 261, diary 16 June 1916). 

Ricketts was more active than Shannon in the acquisition of artworks but their collection was an entirely joint venture, the two men using conjoined ‘C’s as their collectors’ mark. The collection was at the heart of their lives, connecting their professional and artistic activity with their domestic life together at home. At the lowest point in their relationship, when it seemed that Shannon might leave Ricketts for the sculptor, Kathleen Bruce (1878–1947), Ricketts invoked their art as an important reason to stay together, exclaiming, 'And what would become of the collection?' (quoted in Michael Field’s journal, 19 October 1907). It is also a sad irony that the collection was the cause of Shannon's fall in 1929 and subsequent disability – he fell while trying to hang a picture on the stairs.

However, it is important to note that the joint nature of the collection has often been occluded in the documentation of these objects due to institutional technicalities and procedures. As Shannon was the last of the two men to die, and therefore the collection was bequeathed to museums by him as an individual, many objects appear in museum collections as 'Bequeathed by Charles Shannon, 1937', with no reference at all to Ricketts. This masks the key role that Ricketts played in piecing together the collection, and ignores the role of the importance of the collection in the construction of Ricketts's and Shannon's relationship. Given that Ricketts was particularly sensitive to this sort of detail, berating Cockerell for labelling jewels in the Fitzwilliam as having belonged to 'Misses Bradley & Cooper' instead of by their preferred singular pseudonym of Michael Field (letter from Ricketts to Cockerell, dated 6 June 1917, British Library, Add MS 52746, no. 58), it undoubtedly would have distressed him to think that his and Shannon's collection would have been similarly incorrectly credited.

Indeed, shortly after the bequest was formalized, the objects were installed in the Fitzwilliam Museum with only Shannon's name appearing on the object labels. This was noticed immediately by friends of Ricketts and Shannon. The Museum's archive contains a letter dated 24 October 1937 from Thomas Sturge Moore to then-Fitzwilliam Museum Director, L. C. G. Clarke. In it, Moore writes of Ricketts and Shannon, 'Their friendship, like their collection, was unique and they regarded its designation by their joint names as their monument.' For Ricketts and Shannon, their collection was intended to be their joint legacy, recording their partnership for posterity.

This letter, and its reply, was highlighted recently by participants in the University of Cambridge Museums' Remix programme and, read aloud in full, formed the basis of a creative response to Edmund Dulac's portrait of the pair as medieval saints, which is also in the Fitzwilliam's collection. In light of this evidence and the clarity of their wishes, it behoves Curators at the many institutions that benefitted from their generosity to ensure that both Ricketts and Shannon are credited with the creation of their unique and important art collection.
                                                                                                                Helen Ritchie

Further reading on the art collection of Ricketts and Shannon:

Stephen Calloway, ''Tout pour l'art': Charles Ricketts, Charles Shannon and the Arrangement of a collection' in The Journal of the Decorative Arts Society 1890-1940, no. 8 (1984), pp. 19–28.

Matt Cook, 'Domestic Passions: Unpacking the Homes of Charles Shannon and Charles Ricketts' in Journal of British Studies, vol. 51, no. 3 (2012), pp. 618–640.

Joseph Darracott, All for Art: The Ricketts and Shannon Collection. Cambridge , Cambridge University Press (for) Fitzwilliam Museum, 1979.

Caroline Elam, 'Piero di Cosimo and Centaurophilia in Edwardian London' in The Burlington Magazine, vol. 151, no. 1278 (2009), pp. 607–615.

Jane Munro, 'CR and Charles Shannon collectionneurs de dessins' in Catherine Monbeig Goguel (ed.), L'Artiste collectionneur de dessin II. Paris, Société du Salon de Dessin, 2007, pp. 149–60.

Christina Rozeik, '"A maddening temptation" The Ricketts and Shannon Collection of Greek and Roman Antiquities' in Journal of the History of Collections, vol. 24, no. 3 (2012), pp. 369–378.

For the transcription of Ricketts's diary notes, the editor wishes to thank John Aplin.