Wednesday, March 29, 2023

608. The Binder of Ricketts's Beyond the Threshold (1929)

Regularly I receive questions from collectors, and the most straightforward questions are often the hardest to answer. Last week, a bookbinder asked me about the binding of Charles Ricketts's 1929 Beyond the Threshold: 'In this case I wonder if you know which bindery made the 150 copies - I have an idea it could be Riviere & Son.' My initial response was that I considered that unlikely, but would attempt to find out. Promptly came a second suggestion: 'Perhaps the binder was Leighton - they did a lot of large gilt block-work'.

At the time of the Vale Press (1896-1904), Ricketts did indeed have special copies and even entire runs bound by Riviere and Son, Zaehnsdorf and J. & J. Leighton, but with a late work such as Beyond the Threshold, it is questionable whether he commented on possible binderies or left the choice to others.

Charles Ricketts, Beyond the Threshold (1929)
"CR" monogram

Beyond the Threshold is a difficult case because it was not a commercial edition, but an obscure combination of a private edition by Ricketts and an edition coordinated by A.J.A. Symons on behalf of the First Edition Club. Copies were traded only by Symons; Ricketts gave at least a dozen copies, if not more, as gifts to friends. Financially, the business was handled by the First Edition Club who also paid Ricketts for the brass plate made for the execution of the cover he designed.

The book itself gives no clues about the binder. The binding does mention the designer's monogram ("CR"), but not that of the bookbinder, nor does the turn-in - where the bookbinder's name is sometimes stamped - mention a name.

Charles Ricketts, Beyond the Threshold (1929)
turn-in at the back of the book

The colophon is equally sparse with details, and information about the edition and paper are absent. However, the printer is mentioned: 'PRINTED IN ENGLAND AT THE CURWEN PRESS PLAISTOW MCMXXIX'.

Charles Ricketts, Beyond the Threshold (1929)

This could point us in a certain direction. During the interwar period, the Curwen Press was one of the leading modern printing houses in Britain, where the teams of typographer Oliver Simon and printer Harold Curwen worked together to produce books that could stand any test of criticism. The First Edition Club had several books printed there, such as A Bibliographical Catalogue of the First Loan Exhibition of Books and Manuscripts Held by The First Edition Club 1922 (1922) and Book Clubs & Printing Societies of Great Britain and Ireland (1929).

One of the major financial successes of the Curwen Press in those years was The Legion Book, which was reprinted many times. This is where it gets interesting, because the deluxe first edition of this book - which I wrote about earlier - featured a binding designed by Ricketts that was executed by Henry T. Wood Limited in London. The book included a statement to that effect.

The Legion Book (1929)
turn-in with the name of Wood, London

Can we find a connection between the First Edition Club, Charles Ricketts and Henry T. Wood Limited? Yes, that is entirely possible. 

An exhibition of 132 examples of English bookbindings at the First Edition Club in January 1934 included 'transparent vellum bindings, designed by Mr. Kenneth Hobson and executed by Messrs. Henry T. Wood, Limited' (The Times, 4 January 1934).

The Book-Collector's Quarterly, April-June 1935

The bookbinder placed an ad in The Book-Collector’s Quarterly (April-June 1935), which was issued by The First Edition Club:

All the special bindings for The First Edition Club Binding Group have been entrusted to the old-established firm of Henry T. Wood Limited.

A later binding, for the Letters from Aubrey Beardsley to Leonard Smithers (The First Edition Club, 1937), was, however, executed by Leighton-Straker-Bookbinding Co.

However, in the first volume of The Book-Collector’s Quarterly (1930-1931), Wood was the only bookbinder among the advertisers.

The Book-Collector's Quarterly,
October-December 1931

Perhaps - because of the short interval between Beyond the Threshold and The Legion Book - we may assume that the binding of Beyond the Threshold was executed by Henry T. Wood.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

607. Ricketts's Drawings for Oscar Wilde's Prose Poems (1924)

In 1924, Charles Ricketts made a series of drawings for (a never realised) edition of Oscar Wilde's prose poems. The set was sold (along with a set of new drawings for Wilde's The Sphinx) in America. None of this set of eight drawings were known in the 1970s.

There was a set of preparatory sketches though (and there were earlier ones, probably executed around 1894, and found again in 1918). The preparatory sketches ended up in the Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery in Carlisle. (For these, see blog 97: Pen and Ink Drawings in My Earliest Manner).

Charles Ricketts, 'The Teacher of Wisdom'
(preparatory sketch, c. 1924)
[Location: Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery, Carlisle]
[© With permission of the executors of the Charles Ricketts estate,
Leonie Sturge-Moore and Charmain O'Neil]

The American drawings differ from the sketches: they are signed with Ricketts's monogram 'CR'. Moreover, the original sketches were made on paper prepared with a variety of colours, while the American sketches were drawn on white paper. 

After completing them, Ricketts wrote to Gordon Bottomley that he had 'executed eight drawings in my old manner illustrating Wilde's Poems in Prose' (Charles Ricketts to Gordon Bottomley, 13 June 1924: BL Add MS 61719).

How many can we trace today?

Two of these drawings are in the Arts Institute of Chicago and are described and illustrated on the museum's website: 'The Hermet' and 'Narcissus by the Pool'. In 1925, both were given to the museum by philanthropist Robert Allerton (1873-1964).

A third one, exhibited in 1979, but not known to me until recently, is in the RISD Museum in Providence, Rhode Island. This is the drawing for 'The Teacher of Wisdom'.

Charles Ricketts, 'The Teacher of Wisdom' (1924)
[Location: RISD Museum, Providence, Rhode Island]
[©With permission of the executors of the Charles Ricketts estate,
Leonie Sturge-Moore and Charmain O'Neil]

This drawing has been catalogued as: pen and ink off-white, medium weight wove paper, 229x152 cm, signed l.r.: “CR”, Gift of the estate of Mrs. Gustav Radeke. Eliza Greene Metcalf Radeke (1854-1931) was another patron of the arts, and seventh President of the Rhode Island School of Design (in office 1913–1931). Her alma mater was Vassar College, Brown University. She was a client of the art dealer Martin Birnbaum who sold the Ricketts drawings in America. The drawing was exhibited in 1979, 1991, and 2006, and illustrated in the 1979 catalogue by Diana L. Johnson, Fantastic Illustration and Design in Britain, 1850-1930.

The final drawing for 'The Teacher of Wisdom' is neater than the sketch. Whereas the sketch shows improvements in Chinese white and newly drawn lines, the later drawing comes without improvements. Lines have been drawn together, messy details tightened. The rock outline along the right side of the drawing, for example, is simpler, lacking subdivisions, making the landscape look more harsh and monolithic. Overall, however, the drawing is faithful to the sketch.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

606. A Caricature of Charles Ricketts by Walford Graham Robertson

From about 1910, Ricketts and Shannon became public figures who were therefore regularly photographed, appeared in news reports or became the subject of satire and caricatures.

An unknown cartoon, actually an affectionate portrait of Ricketts, remained unpublished until recently Daniel Mailford Cottam devoted a blog on the site of the V&A in London to a series of drawings in the collection. [Read the full text of his blog with all the illustrations here.] The artist is Walford Graham Robertson (1866-1948).

Walford Graham Robertson, The Saga of Letitia and Rachel, No.20.
[V&A London, b
equeathed by Guy Tristram Little: E.2731-1953]

A handwritten explanation accompanying this image reads:

The revel is at its height. All is innocent gaiety and intellectual relaxation. The Archbishop of Canterbury is approaching Mr Epstein on the subject of a heroic and symbolic statue of himself for presentation to the Luxembourg by Mr Edmund Davis. In the cloakroom (where the crush is terrific) Mr Ricketts is kindly running up a little costume for M Nijinski who, from force of habit, has come without one.

The dancer Vaslav Nijinsky (1888-1950), who was greatly admired by Ricketts and whom he met several times, is at the front of the cloakroom, but is completely naked (as suggested by his costumes in one ballet). Ricketts sits on the counter like a tailor, busy sewing a colourful costume especially for him - these were the years when Ricketts was known for his stage costumes and the dancer for his performances in London.

Daniel Mailford Cotton's blog is a wonderful read.

See V&A website: The Saga of Letitia and Rachel.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

605. A Vale Press Collector: Constance Astley (5)

At the end of the year 1941, Chas J. Sawyer in Grafton Street, London, sold Constance Astley's collection - without mentioning her name - via catalogue No. 166. Some Vale Press items were listed on pages 8, 9 and 10, but most were described in a separate section 'Vale Press' on pages 55 to 59. The catalogue does not contain all special copies from the collection and it describes books that were apparently not yet part of her collection in 1928. 

The Book Beautiful.
Chas J. Sawyer Ltd., 1941,
catalogue No. 166
[The Grolier Club, New York]

Books not listed in the sales catalogue

Duplicate copies on paper are not mentioned. This is easily explained: the description of one copy was sufficient and if several customers came for it, several copies happened to be available. This is not exceptional.

Only one of the two paper copies of Apuleius' Latin edition is therefore listed, and the same applies, for example, to the three-volume Shelley edition.

What may be surprising is that thirteen copies on vellum are not included in this catalogue. Surely inclusion could have made the Christmas catalogue much more attractive. A reason for the omission is anyone's guess. It is most likely that Sawyer already had buyers in mind, or, that collectors had already scooped up a few prizes. 

However, because of this, both vellum copies of Blake's Poetical Sketches are missing, and exactly the same goes for Ricketts's Defence of the Revival of Printing and Michael Field's The Race of Leaves. The impression of Astley's collection is thus a lot poorer, simpler, less complete than it actually was.

The Book Beautiful. Chas J. Sawyer Ltd., 1941,
catalogue No. 166, page 55
[The Grolier Club, New York]

Books not listed in Astley's library catalogue

Conversely, Sawyer's catalogue includes some Vale Press books not catalogued in 1928; Constance Astley probably acquired these between 1928 and her death in 1940.

The Book Beautiful. Chas J. Sawyer Ltd., 1941,
catalogue No. 166, page 9
[The Grolier Club, New York]

Maurice Guérin's The Centaur. The Bacchante is described in Astley's catalogue as an ordinary copy, and it is described in Sawyer's catalogue on page 57 (no. 163): 'With woodcuts, 8vo, buckram'. But on page 9 - in a section for 'Superb Modern Bindings' - a second copy is listed:

Niger morocco extra, broad gilt line borders enclosing blind tooling on sides, title of book stamped in blind on upper cover, gilt edges by Florence Paget with her initials and date 1902 on inside lower cover.

This - see previous blogs - is another book binding designed and executed by a female binder.

Although I noted earlier that, in 1928, Astley did not own any book bindings specially designed by Ricketts, she apparently acquired one later. Sawyer describes a special copy of Constable's Poems and Sonnets (not in the special section for bookbindings, but in the Vale Press section):

white pigskin, gilt and blind tooled to a design by C. Ricketts

The Book Beautiful. Chas J. Sawyer Ltd., 1941, catalogue No. 166, page 56
[The Grolier Club, New York]

One copy of this book in such a binding is known to exist, and it is now part of Houghton Library, Harvard Library, Cambridge.

Present locations of books from Astley's collection

The above copy of Constable's Poems and Sonnets in Harvard may once have been Constance Astley's - unless several copies (unknown to me) feature this Ricketts-designed pigskin binding.

The two volumes of Tennyson's poems, bound by Sarah T. Prideaux, either ended up in the British Library or in Duke University Library (where, incidentally, only one of the two volumes is found).

The Book Beautiful. Chas J. Sawyer Ltd., 1941, catalogue No. 166, page 10
[The Grolier Club, New York]

Beyond these two items, it cannot be determined at all in which libraries her Vale Press books ended up. (Some other private presses numbered all copies and, with a lot of patience,  these can be traced back to her collection.) 

This lavish private collection, which led a semi-secret existence during the collector's lifetime, ended up in an untraceable collection after her death. A journey from invisibility to obscurity.

Thanks are due to Scott Elwood, The Grolier Club, New York, for providing scans of the Sawyer catalogue.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

604. A Vale Press Collector: Constance Astley (4)

In the catalogue of Astley's collection, The Ashendene Press takes up five pages; The Daniel Press just over one, The Doves Press six; The Eragny Press five-and-a-half, The Essex House Press eight and The Kelmscott Press three-and-a-half. Ricketts's Vale Press also covers the maximum of almost eight pages (pp. 30-37).

Her general collection included other Ricketts-designed books, such as Thomas Hardy's Tess (1891), Wilde's De Profundis (1905) and Shaw's Saint Joan (1924), but his two main commercial designs from the 1890s were missing: Wilde's The Sphinx and John Gray's Silverpoints

On the other hand, she did own copies of the two celebrated predecessors of the Vale Press, the editions of Daphnis and Chloe (1893) and Hero and Leander (1894), and the five issues of The Dial (1899-1897).

The Vale Press

Astley's Vale Press collection was described in forty-seven entries. In this section, too, multi-volume works are included as one item. Thus, the thirty-eight-volume Vale Shakespeare is documented in one brief catalogue description.

The Vale Press, like the Doves Press, must have been among her favourites - the collection was entirely complete. Not one edition was missing. All ninety volumes were present.

Moreover, multiple copies were acquired in many cases, adding another thirty-four books to her Vale Press collection that comprised 124 volumes, five or six shelves at least.

The earliest editions of the press and the later Vale Shakespeare were only printed on paper, there were no vellum editions of those books. However, there were thirty-six volumes printed on vellum, and Astley's bookshelves carried no less than seventeen copies printed on vellum. Three of those were accompanied by a second copy on vellum: twenty in all. Not bad for a collector without a system, she owned almost half of all existing vellum Vale Press editions. By now we can establish that her system of collecting private press editions was simple: don't miss an opportunity, buy all the copies you come across.

Catalogue of the Library of Constance Astley
at Brinsop Court Herefordshire

Astley mostly left the books in their original condition. The vellum copy of Thomas Browne's Religio Medici, for example, was 'One of 10 copies printed on vellum. Unbound.' We can hope that later owners left it that way, but I dread the worst: unbound copies of vellum editions are now extremely scarce.

Remarkably, Astley did not own a single copy in a unique book binding specially designed by Ricketts for a Vale Press book. However, there were a few Vale Press books in bindings by leading contemporary bookbinders, and, although few in number, all by women bookbinders.

Of Robert Browning's Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, Astley owned a copy on vellum bound in blue morocco - probably not after a design by Ricketts, and also a paper copy in a binding by 'Miss T.C. Yeatman', as well as another copy on paper, probably in the original white cloth binding. The Yeatman binding was probably commissioned by Astley, as it contains an autograph letter from the binder (according to the Sawyer 1941 sale catalogue).

Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam (Vale Press, 1900)
Binding (detail) by Sarah T. Prideaux
[Collection: British Library, London]

At the time the Vale Press was publishing a two-volume Tennyson edition, bookbinder Sarah Prideaux bought two copies which she bound. One set is now in the British Library, the In Memoriam volume of the other set ended up in Lisa Unger Baskin's collection and has since been transferred to Duke University Libraries in Durham, North Carolina. One of these must have been Astley's copies.

Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam (Vale Press, 1900)
Binding by Sarah T. Prideaux
[Collection: Duke University, Durham:
from the collection of Lisa Unger Baskin]

Exceptional vellum copies

The books of which she managed to obtain two copies on vellum are:

William Blake, Poetical Sketches (1899): 'Two copies of 8 on vellum'.
Charles Ricketts, A Defence of the Revival of Printing (1899): 'Two copies of ten printed on vellum, one unbound';
Michael Field, The Race of Leaves (1901): 'Two copies of ten printed on vellum. One unbound'.

Catalogue of the Library of Constance Astley
at Brinsop Court Herefordshire

Exceptionally, Astley managed to secure a vellum copy of Michael Field's The World at Auction (1898) - there were only two printed like this. One was left by Charles Shannon and sold in 1937. This cannot have been Astley's copy, as her catalogue was printed in 1928. Copies were sold in 1946 and 1994, these may have been either Shannon's or Astley's copies. The location of one vellum copy is known (to me): Clark Library, UCLA, Los Angeles, California. This copy is bound in green morocco. My guess is that this once was Shannon's copy (and, earlier, Ricketts's copy).

Constance Astley ranks among the absolute top Vale Press collectors of the twentieth century.