Wednesday, January 31, 2024

652. Colour Revolution: Blue

An exhibition on colour is on display at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford until 18 February: Colour Revolution. Victorian Art, Fashion & Design. The catalogue features John Addington Symonds's In the Key of Blue and Other Prose Essays (designed by Charles Ricketts) accompanying an essay by Stefano Evangelista on the possible 'queerness' of the colours green, blue and yellow. 

Charles Ricketts, cover design for In the Key of Blue and Other Prose Essays (1893):
version in cream cloth

The front cover of a copy in blue cloth illustrates this article that states: 'The first edition included a number of copies bound in blue cloth, now extremely rare, [...]' (page 200). A search in ViaLibri immediately produces a number of results: which copies are currently for sale and what does that say about their supposed rarity?

1. A copy in full vellum, one of fifty large paper copies (price c. €4500); 

2. Four copies in cream cloth (prices range from €115 to €285) 

3. Two rebound copies (priced €90 and €100)

Additionally, there are some copies of which the colour of the cover goes unmentioned, and there are several reprints for sale.

Charles Ricketts,
cover design for In the Key of Blue and Other Prose Essays (1893):
version in blue cloth

For now, no copies in blue cloth are for sale. However, if we consider just what has been on offer over the last quarter of a century - at a time when ordinary copies figure considerably less in catalogues than special ones - we see that the range is rather uniform in numbers. I counted (roughly) seven copies in cream cloth, seven in blue cloth and nine large paper copies in vellum.

Since Symonds's bibliography identifies the blue covers as rare, it is not surprising that antiquarian bookdealers like to sell copies in blue cloth rather than those of the cream version. According to bibliographer P.L. Babington, one of the publishers, Elkin Mathews remembered that Ricketts preferred the cream version to the blue one because the colour blue could lead to jokes about Ricketts's Blue (there was a laundry powder called Reckitt's Blue). But in a 1930 letter, Ricketts contradicted this and stated that it was the booksellers who found the cream version too liable to soiling and therefore preferred to sell the blue ones. He was convinced that the cream version was rare. Interestingly, the second printing was issued in blue cloth and, as yet, no copies in cream of this edition have turned up, while the third edition was issued exclusively in cream cloth.

Colour Revolution, Ashmolean Museum, 2024
(case with In the Key of Blue and Other Prose Essays)

The label in the exhibition is confusing. It states that only 150 copies of the edition were bound in blue cloth. As a source for this statement is lacking, I assume this may have been a wild guess by an antiquarian bookseller trying to convince a customer to buy a copy.

Wednesday, January 24, 2024

651. 100 Years Ago: Three Letters by Ricketts from January 1924 (part 2)

[Written by John Aplin]

100 Years Ago: Three Letters by Ricketts from January 1924 (part 2)

Gordon Bottomley was not alone in having to miss the single London performance of his short play Gruach given at the St Martin’s Theatre on 20 January 1924, for a short period of hospitalisation also prevented Thomas Sturge Moore’s attendance. A day after sending Bottomley his reactions to the staging and acting of Gruach, Ricketts wrote again giving the latest news about Moore’s condition, knowing that Bottomley would be anxious to know.


To Gordon Bottomley, 22 January 1924

BL Add MS 88957/1/76, f 84

The T S Moore operation has turned out excellently. I think he was intimidated by too many visits from friends & perhaps Marie intimidated the Doctors who seem to have been perplexed by the case.(1) The Operator has given Marie a frank and reassuring report that all is now well. (Privately) I rather fancy the operation was unnecessary or else, I should say matters were less grave than they thought. T recovered rapidly and looked singularly serene & dignified in his grey hair & beard, He had obviously been preoccupied & frightened, but is well on in convalescence. I have advised Marie to let him “go slow” for a year.


I intended to write this earlier but the stress of everyday occurrences made me put it off.

Yours Ever




I have painted a new Don Juan.(2) 


(1) Marie Appia was Sturge Moore’s French cousin and wife.
(2) Perhaps 'Don Juan Challenging the Commander' (c.1924-1928), the work accepted by the Royal Academy of Arts as his Diploma piece upon being admitted as a full RA, or 'Don Juan Witnesses his own Funeral'. The subject of Don Juan/Don Giovanni was one of Ricketts’s favourites, and he turned to it on several other occasions as well.

Charles Ricketts, 'Don Juan Challenging the Commander'
Oil on canvas, 116,8 by 88,9 cm (1924-1928)
[Collection: Royal Academy of Arts]

It was then Moore’s turn to receive a letter, together with the offer of reading matter to distract him during his convalescence. Ricketts included a further description of the Gruach performance for Moore’s benefit [omitted here]. 


To Thomas Sturge Moore, about 25 January 1924

BL Add MS 58086, f 114

My Dear Moore

We are without another book on German Gothic sculpture. My pet statue is that of a King standing & handless at Rheims, all our books on Gothic art are at Chilham(1) and several books on old masters, we kept Greece & the Orient here […] our books mount up to about 4,000 do what we can to keep them down.(2) I will send you one or more books on beasts by Collette Willie which I think quite exquisite, her other admirable books (better still) are about worthless or improper persons of a very modern type and probably would not interest you.(3)

J.-E. BLanche, Manet (Paris: F. Rieder & Cie., éditeurs, 1924)
One of the books from Ricketts's art library,
with a handwritten dedication from the author to Ricketts
[Private Collection]

I wrote a long letter to Bottomley which he might lend you concerning his play which I thought went very well indeed, despite several shortcomings in the performance, at least, till the exit of Macbeth & Gruach. [….] 


I am sorry you have this tiresome complication which, I know needs care.(4) [George] Clausen was troubled by it in Italy when seemingly in perfect health. Tell Marie she must consider this letter in part for her. I hope she is not overworking herself.


Tonight I am attending, by request, a seance to meet the Spirit of Oscar Wilde. I had some questions put to him of which the answers were not entirely satisfactory. The published seances have been quite extraordinary quite unlike the usual insipid spiritualistic stuff. Yeats says it is an obvious case of the medium having created a second personality, founded on Wilde, within her subconscious self.(5) Some of the vagueness of the answers to my questions & actual mistakes might be ascribed to the lapse of time, change in character and outlook & even intrusion of the medium’s personality, anyway it will be interesting.


Yours Ever

C Ricketts



(1) Chilham Castle in Kent, owned by Edmund and Mary Davis, where Ricketts and Shannon had the loan of the Keep as a country retreat.

(2) Only a small part of the vast art library assembled by Ricketts and Shannon would be described in several auction catalogues between 1933 and 1939.

(3) He probably sent Colette Willy, Sept dialogues de bêtes. Paris: Mercure de France, 1905, reissued 1923.

(4) Sturge Moore here annotated the letter with his medical condition: ‘phlebitis’.

(5) A series of messages beginning in June 1923 and purporting to come from Wilde were notated during spiritualist sessions by two mediums (Mr V. and Mrs Travers Smith). Notes from the session on 18 June 1923 record that ‘Mr. V. was the automatist, Mrs. T.S. touching his hand’ (Hester Travers Smith, Psychic Messages from Oscar Wilde. London: T. Werner Laurie, 1924, p. 9).

Hester Travers Smith (ed.), Psychic Messages from Oscar Wilde
( London and Edinburgh: Dunedin Press, 1930

It is a happy chance that this short series of letters from exactly 100 years ago should remind us of the significant roles played by both Gordon Bottomley and Thomas Sturge Moore during Ricketts’s later years, for of all his wide circle of friends they were his most fervently loyal admirers from his early years until the end, and indeed beyond. Following his sudden death on 7 October 1931 they were determined to ensure that the originality of his artistic legacy should be celebrated and remembered. Their belief in this originality may seem paradoxical, in that Ricketts’s respect for traditional practice meant that his own work had seemed by many derivative and backward-looking, and Bottomley and Moore knew that changing fashions would find it too easy to marginalise him. And indeed, in many ways that happened. 


The years since 1931 have been a continuing process of rediscovery and reemergence, in large part made possible by two things – the significant labour of preparatory work which made the publication of Self-Portrait possible in 1939, and Moore’s dutiful preservation of the large archive of materials in his care which he ensured passed in due course to the British Library (formerly the British Museum), establishing the collection of Ricketts and Shannon papers. His own personal literary archive of correspondence and other manuscripts is now at Senate House Library, University of London, and provides further essential research material. Bottomley’s equally extensive archive of correspondence, manuscripts and printed matter of all kinds has more recently been deposited at the British Library, containing much unique material directly relating to his own life-long interest in the creative output of Ricketts and Shannon.


The complex genesis of Self-Portrait is a story worth telling, and could generate several blog contributions. Moore’s declining health in his later years meant that he had to rely increasingly on the help of others as he became almost overwhelmed by the huge accumulation of materials which he gathered together. At quite a late stage he entrusted the task to Cecil Lewis, despite knowing that he had little knowledge of Ricketts’s artistic output; and in turn, during the very last stages of production, with the onset of war and his own return to a combat role, Lewis found himself relying on Bottomley’s help, causing some unfortunate tensions between Moore and Bottomley. 


It is perhaps inevitable that despite its obvious value, with the inclusion of somewhat randomly-chosen extracts from correspondence and journals, Self-Portrait is a flawed work, a serendipity of different kinds of materials without a sufficiently clear narrative or editorial method. The process of research and rediscovery which it set in motion has nonetheless led to a growing number of valuable monographs and PhD studies, first among them the seminal biographical and critical work of Paul Delaney which in 1990 culminated in his Charles Ricketts. A Biography. And now this invaluable weekly blog continues to draw in the growing number of admirers of the work of its two subjects, keeping alive the hopes of those earlier believers in the fragile beauties and vulnerabilities of a legacy whose richness and variety can still surprise and delight us.

                                                                                                                    John Aplin

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

650. 100 Years Ago: Three Letters by Ricketts from January 1924 (part 1)

[This week's anniversary blog (number 650) is written by John Aplin, editor of the correspondence of Gordon Bottomley and Thomas Sturge Moore (online at Intelex, 2020), the letters of Philip Webb (Routledge, 2016), the correspondence of the Thackeray family (Routledge, 2011), and author of A Thackeray Family Biography (Lutterworth, 2010-2011). Together, we are preparing an edition of the collected letters of Charles Ricketts.]

100 Years Ago: Three Letters by Ricketts from January 1924 (part 1)

As an occasional contributor to this blog, I know that I will not be alone in noting the milestone marked by its arrival at number 650 in a remarkable unbroken weekly sequence of articles – informative, authoritative, and always with something new to say. It is testimony to the energies of its founder that it is now established as the unrivalled online vehicle for the recording and sharing of information relating not just to Ricketts and Shannon, but to the creative world in which they operated. To mark the occasion, it seems appropriate to give it something of an anniversary flavour, and therefore I offer three of Ricketts’s letters (to be concluded in blog 651) written 100 years ago this month, in January 1924. They were addressed to two of his closest friends and admirers, Gordon Bottomley and Thomas Sturge Moore, and reveal, I think, something typical of Charles Ricketts – that in the midst of a crowded life he always made the time to be generous to his friends, showing a genuine interest in their own work by giving of his time and artistic advice, or in a time of difficulty by extending sympathy and support.

Gordon Bottomley, 'Gruach'
[Free audio book version by LibriVox on YouTube]

Gordon Bottomley’s one-act poetic drama Gruach was dedicated to Ricketts and Shannon, and Ricketts had designed the cover when it was published in 1921 with Bottomley’s Britain’s Daughter (for which Ricketts refused any payment, as he did for the three other volumes for Bottomley’s works for which he prepared cover designs). It was first performed by the Scottish National Theatre Society in Glasgow in March 1923, but Gruach was now to be given a single London performance on 20 January 1924 at the St Martin’s Theatre, staged by the Reandean company under Basil Dean, with Sybil Thorndike in the title role. 

Like its predecessor King Lear’s Wife, the work by which Bottomley is best remembered, Gruach is a prequel to a Shakespeare play (in this case Macbeth), and portrays the first meeting and immediate attraction between the future Lady Macbeth and her husband. At the last moment, Bottomley was unable to attend the performance, a recurrence of his debilitating lung condition and a threat of a railway strike making it impossible for him to travel to London from Silverdale on Morecambe Bay. Knowing how much Bottomley would have wanted to be there, Ricketts, who attended the performance with Shannon, immediately sent Bottomley his detailed reaction to the production, calling on his wide practical knowledge of theatre, both as a designer and a frequent audience member, to make suggestions about possible rewrites where things did not quite work effectively. It is an honest and constructive critique, and Bottomley valued it as such.

George William Harris (1878-1929), 'A King'
(Costume Design for 'Gruach', 1924)
[Collection: Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool]

To Gordon Bottomley, 21 January 1924

[BL Add MS 88957/1/76, f 83]

My Dear Bottomley

Both Shannon & I missed you yesterday, though it was prudent not to risk the weather & the Strike. Your play went excellently well; it was, I think, hurt by the end, played with uncertainty by the minor players who impersonated the servants, all of these were poor, but the reception nevertheless was excellent & had the curtain fallen 10 minutes sooner it would have been very warm indeed Fern was good, the Mother quite good, notably in her later scenes, the bridegroom poor & vulgar.(1) Sybil Thorndyke was generally quite admirable, rising superbly to the occasion, with occasional lapses in intonation & in minor business, due to nervousness & hesitation in Macbeth, who was not entirely at his ease in the part.(2) Gruach’s entrance in ugly bridal clothes was superb, her entranced, passionate & magnetic acting in the first scene beyond praise, her sleep walking scene admirable (this is too long and she showed hesitation) her awakening & struggle was quite admirable. Then Macbeth seemed not quite word perfect, he bungled the business of the cloaks & Sybil grew nervous & over busy – for the stage – there are one or two lines too many, or perhaps too much to do, before the exit. The steward was slow, the old woman servant quite good, the drunkard out of the picture. I do not care for the fay girl episode; it is too long (3) & the two girl servants were poor. Macbeth had a good voice & spoke the longer speeches well, he was modern or vulgar in chance exclamations & I think nervous. Sybil was also nervous & many of her slight faults would probably vanish at a second performance, anyway it was very notable indeed. The grim comedy of the servants requires actors of non English blood, the Irish players could have done it in perfection – at least the men could. Russians & Germans would have caught the atmosphere at once. To London players the task was impossible, they were blameless bewig[g]ed cockneys trying to look barbaric. All spoke with distinctness & both Shannon & I were greatly impressed by the beauty & force of the language & the compact planning of the play.


George William Harris (1878-1929), 'Saxon Warrior'
(Costume Design for 'Gruach, 1924)
[Collection: Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool]

The Abercrombie farce is quite good fun, a little long here & there & was acted with go & comprehension. Miss Clare as the Slave R[h]odope was delicious, the Queen was too “musical comedy” & the King poor but for a quite admirable delivery of the speech about blue wine.(4)


[George Bernard] Shaw has returned to the charge over St Joan. I have undertaken it conditionally & on the understanding that it should be anonymous. I have given my reason, that if he can only write plays which take 6 days to act & with gigantic casts, I can only stage vast & expensive ventures like Parsifal & Aida on gigantic stages, regardless of expense. I dont know yet what the upshot will be.(5)


The setting of “Gruach” was quite passable, the dresses neither simple enough or not elaborate enough. I know that for these performances one cannot expect the impossible but less was required, in this as in diction & stage delivery the English lack essential sincerity or simplicity.(6) 


I shall praise Sybil up to the sky when I see her.

Best love to both.

Ever Yours

C Ricketts



Shannon was greatly impressed & less cynical than I.


This is not quite like it looks rather better. 

[Ricketts added a sketch of the ‘Gruach’ set


(1) These roles were played by Hilda Bruce Potter (Fern), Esmé Beringer (Morag) and Felix Aylmer (Conan, Thane of Fortingall).

(2) Played by Malcolm Keen.

(3) The kitchen maid, sometimes called by Bottomley the ‘second sight’ girl (played by Hermione Baddeley), is a young servant who has visions, and foresees the murder of Shakespeare’s Duncan.

(4) Lascelles Abercrombie’s Phoenix completed the double-bill. The slave-girl Rhodope, played by Mary Clare, ‘looks a charming slave, and certainly she is an amusing one’ (The Times, 21 January 1924). Barbara Gott played the Queen, and Leslie Banks the King.

(5) ‘When we saw him Ricketts said he was quite decided not to do St Joan for Shaw & in your letter he speaks doubtfully still. I hope he refuses for he cannot suit Shaw’s invention over such a subject & there is bound to be something awkward’ (Thomas Sturge Moore to Bottomley, 9 February 1924, BL Add MS 88957/1/68, f 126)‘I feel with you that Ricketts’ invention is of too ardent and rich an order to be mated with St. Joan seen through Shaw’s polariscope’ (Bottomley to Sturge Moore, 25 February 1924, Senate House MS 978 17/162). Despite Ricketts’s own justifiable reservations and the doubts of his friends, his decision to undertake the designs for Bernard Shaw’s St Joan resulted in ‘his most celebrated theatrical production’ (J.G.P. Delaney, Charles Ricketts. A Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, p. 312).

(6) The costumes were designed by George William Harris (1878-1929).

                                                                                                                        John Aplin

[To be continued next week.]

Wednesday, January 10, 2024

649. A Vale Set of Punches

From 1897, Ricketts had copies of the publications of the Vale Press (Hacon & Ricketts, At the Sign of the Dial) printed on vellum in addition to copies on paper; the maximum number of copies on vellum was established at ten.

Almost immediately, from 1898, he decided to make special binding designs for the deluxe copies if buyers and collectors requested them. The spines of these copies on vellum were narrower, leaving less space for the author's name and the title of the book. For the books that were bound in (decorative) paper bindings, he used labels that could be printed on paper at Ballantyne's printing establishment in London. However, Ricketts could not use such labels for the pigskin, goatskin and vellum bindings.

For the linen-bound books, Ricketts wanted the title in gold on the spine. The first title - Milton's Early Poems - came with a variant binding that had a linen label applied to the binding alongside copies with the title stamped in gold on the spine (sometimes this label has since come off and the spine is untitled). This was done by photographing a title set in 12 pica Vale Type and having a plate made from it, slightly reducing the size. In the bindery, this could be stamped on the spine of the book.

The Poems of Keats, volume II
(Vale Press, 1898): spine

Indeed, later editions, such as those of Keats, Shelley and Tennyson, show these characters, all of a uniform size: c.3 mm high (the Vale type capitals measured c.3,5 mm).

For the vellum and leather copies, special punches were produced in an even slightly smaller format  (c.2.5 mm). 

The difference is readily apparent by placing a copy printed on paper and a copy printed on vellum side by side. The edition of The Parables (1902) is a case in point.

The Parables (Vale Press, 1902)
Upper part of the spine of a paper copy (left)
and a vellum copy (right)

The Parables (Vale Press, 1902)
Upper part of the spine of a vellum copy

These deluxe copies were not bound as editions (like the paper copies), but were made one by one by hand, with the bookbinder using special stamps or dies for ornaments and binder's flowers and thus also for the characters that were applied separately (not at the same time through a plate).

This is what Charles Ricketts wrote about in a letter to one of his most loyal collectors, Laurence Hodson in Wolverhampton. The letter dates from 1 September 1898  and is kept in the collection of the Boston Atheneum.

My dear Hodson


With regard to your very own extra special design I am hesitating about the future use of plate blocks, and in the light of recent investigations we may leave the good Riviere for the gooder Leighton who used to bind for Morris (he has lost all his hair) he has the use of the Kelmscott founts for Kelmscott bindings (we have just cut a Vale set of punches) a great advantage this for the bindings of our beautiful books. [...]

This letter to Hodson is extremely interesting from beginning to end - and has been quoted in full in an earlier blog no. 111 (11 September 2013). For now let's focus on that comment placed in round brackets:

(we have just cut a Vale set of punches)

These special punches were used only for the copies on vellum or for the specially designed morocco bindings, such as the two volumes of the Keats edition that were specially designed for the Scottish collector John Morgan (see blogs nos. 357 and 358 about the collector John Morgan). On the spines we see small heart-shaped decorations and a leaf. The lettering is applied in the same way, character after character. In some cases, the ornaments and letters are placed slightly further apart than intended, or, on the contrary, they are placed too close together, as can be seen on the spine of the vellum edition of The Parables: some dotted circles are right up against each other, while space has been left between others.

Dotted circles on the spine of the vellum edition
of The Parables (Vale Press, 1902)

What happened to these special punches? 

In 1906, Ricketts gave novice bookbinder Sybil Pye a set of his binding tools. These are illustrated in Marianne Tidcombe's Women Bookbinders, 1880-1920 (published in 1996): leaves, wheat, and ornaments such as brackets. The dotted circle and the heart-shaped form are not part of this series of tools, indicating that Ricketts did not give her all the punches he had made for the use of his binders at Riviere and Zaehnsdorf.

He did not hand her his punches of the small Vale type characters. Why not? 

Ricketts, in A Bibliography of the Books Issued by Hacon & Ricketts (1904), explained why he did not want to keep the matrices and punches for his types or give them to others for use:

As it is undesirable that these founts should drift into other hands than their designers' and become stale by unthinking use, it has been decided to destroy the punches and matrices, and type with the winding up of the firm which has used them.

The type was melted down, which will have brought in a fair sum of money. 

Ricketts continued:

The punches and matrices are for the most part in the Thames [...].

The specially made binding tools - also called punches - were kept and later given to Pye with the exception of the ones that were used for the titles on the spines of vellum and leather copies of the Vale Press books. These were thrown into the Thames as well. This explains the phrase 'for the most part' - Ricketts must have thought that these (beautiful and costly) tools would come in handy one day. In the end, he never used them again, but Pye used them for most of her bindings.

[See earlier blogs about Sybil Pye's use of tools: No. 66. A Sybil Pye Binding and No. 442. Sybil Pye's Use of Vale Press Type for Bookbindings].

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

648. Another Painting by Ricketts's Father

In 1876, Ricketts's father Charles Robert painted four warships in Portsmouth Harbour. The painting is now for sale at BADA (the British Antique Dealer's Association). The seller is the Armoury of St. James's, the price being £2800.00. (In 2020 this painting was sold for £300.)

Charles Robert Ricketts, 'Royal Sovereign, Donegal, Royal Alfred & Marlborough
in Portsmouth Harbour' (painting, 1876)

The title of the work identifies the four warships depicted from left to right: 'Royal Sovereign, Donegal, Royal Alfred & Marlborough in Portsmouth Harbour, 1876'. 

This medium large oil on canvas (within Ricketts's oeuvre) measures 69 cm by 48 cm. It is signed in the lower left corner: 'C.R. Ricketts '76'.

Charles Robert Ricketts, 'Royal Sovereign, Donegal, Royal Alfred & Marlborough
in Portsmouth Harbour' (painting, 1876): signature

The Armoury of St. James's description provides us with this information about the painting:

The artist's inscription identifies these vessels from left to right as four mid-19th century warships in Portsmouth Harbour. The vessel in the distance on the far left is HMS Marlborough, a first-rate three-decker 131-gun screw-driven ship built in 1855. She served as the flagship of the Mediterranean Fleet from 1858 to 1864, and returned to Portsmouth to become a supply and accommodation ship in 1870. Next is the broadside ironclad HMS Royal Alfred. Commissioned in 1867 as the flagship of the North America Station, she served six years until an engineering survey discovered her boilers were so badly corroded that she had to be laid up prior to sale in 1885. To starboard of Royal Alfred is HMS Donegal, a 101-gun screw ship launched in 1858. In 1865 she took the final surrender of the American Civil War when the commerce raider CSS Shenandoah struck the Confederate colours to her. Donegal was hulked in 1886 and was merged into the Torpedo School HMS Vernon. Lastly on the far right is the experimental turret ship Royal Sovereign. The first of her kind, she was commissioned for service in the English Channel, and was used for gun and turret testing and evaluation. She paid off in October 1866 and was attached to the naval gunnery school HMS Excellent until 1873.