Wednesday, November 30, 2011

19. The Carl Woodring collection

Nature into Literature (1989) by Carl Woodring (1919-2009) devoted several pages to Charles Ricketts in a chapter on the 'Aesthetes'. Woodring argued that the aesthetic movement 'was a reaction against perceived insolence in the language of utilitarians, industrial capitalists, and scientific positivists, a rejection of respectability in morals and of democratic leveling, athleticism, imperialism, policy toward Ireland, and illusion as an aim in arts and manufacturing' (p. 229).
Carl Woodring
The chapter on the 'Aesthetes' is mainly concerned with photography, as at the time, 'a drawing had to be made of a photograph in order to print it' (p. 240), and later, 'photography took away engravers' jobs as artisans', however, 'the solution, for a few, was to declare themselves artists' (p. 241), and Woodring mentions the magazine The Century Guild Hobby Horse as 'the first periodical of a more strictly artistic kind'. The editor, Selwyn Image, was an early friend of Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon, who were trained as engravers and modelled their magazine The Dial after the Hobby Horse.

Cover for J.A. Symonds, In the Key of Blue
Woodring mentioned several book designs by Ricketts, such as the cover for John Addington Symonds In the Key of Blue (1893) and the endpapers for Oscar Wilde's Poems (1892). Both designs were signed by Ricketts, who deliberately managed to present himself as an artist. Woodring acquired a series of Ricketts's Vale Press books and other book designs, a collection that included letters by Ricketts and Shannon, as well as oil paintings and lithographs, which he donated to Rice University in Austin, Texas, in 2004.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

18. Patterned papers (a: Mouse and nut)

Almost thirty years ago, I was introduced to the work of Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon by Ton Leenhouts, who collected illustrated books, and had become enchanted by Ricketts's books before Paul Delaney and Stephen Calloway mounted their influential exhibition in the Orleans House Gallery in the Spring of 1979.

Yesterday, Ton celebrated his 77th birthday. The Japanese insist on a special rite of passage to pray for long life at several ages: 60, 70, 77, 80, 88, 90 and 99, and the celebration at 77 is called kiju. Vale Press celebrations are suitable for any season, however, to introduce what might be called the Ricketts kiju, I asked Ton for a list of favourite Vale Press books. His answer was: the Vale Press publications bound in patterned papers. It is his wish, that this episode of the Charles Ricketts blog will be the first in an intermittent series about the paper-covered Vale Press books.

Front cover of Michael Drayton, Nymphidia and the Muses Elizium (1896)
The first Vale Press book with a decorated binding paper was published in the Spring and the second one in the Autumn of 1896. It is not clear whose idea it was to design patterned papers, as Lucien Pissarro, who used Ricketts's Vale Type for his Eragny Press books and had his books issued by Hacon & Ricketts at the time, also used such papers. It might well have been his initiative.

A few years later, another patterned material was suggested, both by Ricketts and Pissarro, as they considered using decorated cloth for their bindings. Pissarro's father, the impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, wrote to Jean Monet (2 September 1897): 'Un des amis de mon fils Lucien, Monsieur Ricketts artiste et patron de la maison Hacon et Ricketts éditeurs à Londres [...] nous demande si vous ne pourriez pas recommender une maison qui voudrait se charger d'imprimer des cottons pour la reliure dans le genre de l'échantillon ci-inclus qui est imprimé sur papier' (see catalogue 926 of the antiquarian firm Erasmushaus in Basle, 2007). Apparently, Ricketts wanted to have his designs printed on cloth as well as on paper, and an example of the decorated paper was sent along with the request. Interestingly, two years later, Pissarro also planned to use cloth for his bindings, and asked his father for an instruction book for printing on cloth (see The Letters of Lucien to Camille Pissarro 1883-1903, edited by Anne Thorold, 1993, p. 604). In the end, neither the Vale Press, nor the Eragny Press, used decorated cloth for bindings.

Back to the decorated Vale Press paper. In his prospectus for The Poems of Sir John Suckling (Spring 1896) the patterned paper was not mentioned. Nor was it mentioned in the prospectus for Michael Drayton's Nymphidia or the Muses Elizium (Autumn 1896). Ricketts did not mention the patterned paper in any of the Vale Press prospectuses for that matter, only (some of) the plain buckram and cloth bindings. The paper bindings were not considered to be permanent; it was customary for the book collector to have them replaced by a leather or vellum binding. However, the collectors quite liked these decorated paper bindings and when Ricketts edited his Vale Press Bibliography in 1904 he did mention the specially designed decorated papers, and the second one was called 'mouse and nut'. The binders did not always understand which way the paper was to be used, and copies with the paper upside down can therefore be found.


'Mouse and nut' pattern, used correctly and upside down

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

17. An unpublished Symposium

For the Vale Press Ricketts projected quite a few publications that never saw the light of day, one of which was an edition of Plato's Symposium. He officially announced the book in a Notice, which was issued after April 1895: 'During the year a want will be met by the publication of an edition of Propertius, the text of which has been prepared by Mr. Owen. We feel that the nineteenth century should not allow an exception to the hitherto invariable coincidence of a re-edition of the classics under current scholarship with revival in printing. The Symposium of Plato, for instance, will follow shortly after the Propertius.'

Notice of Vale Press publications, 1895 (detail)
These editions did not materialize. Earlier, Ricketts had mentioned the Plato edition to the American publisher F. Holland Day (a letter from October 1894) and, before that, to his new Dutch friend, the artist and book designer Richard Roland Holst, who visited Ricketts and Shannon in London at the end of the year 1893. Roland Holst wrote a long letter about this visit to his fiancée: 'hij sprak over Plato, dat hij de oude Eng. vertaling van de Symposium wilde uitgeven, met hoofdletters, en met een band die heelemaal bij dat wonder pastte...' Ricketts had told him about the Plato edition, for which he wanted to design initials and a binding that would fit the wonderful text.

No initials, nor a binding design, have survived, but there is a silent witness of Ricketts's intentions: he finished one drawing (sold at auction in 1986, and, again, in 1997), he made the woodblock for the illustration (now at the Fitzwilliam Museum) and he printed at least one proof (now in the British Library). This illustration was published by Malcolm C. Salaman in The Graphic Arts of Great Britain, a special number of The Studio in 1917.

Wood-engraving for Plato's Symposium by Charles Ricketts (from The Graphic Arts in Great Britain, 1917)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

16. Head in obsidian

The art collection of Charles Ricketts and his partner Charles Shannon contained more than a thousand items, including paintings, Egyptian, Persian, Greek, and Roman objects, as well as hundreds of English drawings and Japanese prints, which were documented in Joseph Darracott's catalogue All for Art (1979). Among the Egyptian artifacts were jars, vases, boxes, jewellery, gaming pieces, statuettes, such as the head of a woman in painted pink limestone (72 mm) from around 2490 BC.

Ricketts wrote about Egyptian art, though not about objects from his own collection, in four, previously unrecorded articles, that appeared in The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology in 1917 and 1918. Before I will quote the first article in full, I will list the four items, which were all illustrated with black and white plates:

1. 'Head of Amenemmēs III in Obsidian: from the Collection of the Rev. W. MacGregor, Tamworth', in: The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 4 (1917) 2/3 (April-July), p. 71-73.
2. 'Head in Serpentine of Amenemmēs III in the Possession of Oscar Raphael, Esq.', in: The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 4 (1917) 4 (October), p. 211-212.
3. 'Bas-Relief Figure of a King of the Ptolemaic Period in Blue Faience', in: The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 5 (1918) 2 (April), p. 77-78.
4. 'Two Faience Chalices at Eton College from the Collection of the Late Major W.J. Myers', in: The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology, 5 (1918) 3 (July), p. 145-147.


Head of Amenemmēs III (or Amenemhat III) from the Journal of Egyptian archaeology (1917)

Head of Amenemmēs III in Obsidian. From the Collection of the Rev. W. MacGregor, Tamworth. By Charles Ricketts

It is a common tendency among students of Egyptian Art to praise the superb creations of the Memphite epoch to the detriment of all that came afterwards and to view the huge space of succeeding centuries as a period of artistic immobility or decline. If the first six Dynasties are illustrated by many works which, in their kind, have remained unsurpassed, the craftsmen of the Twelfth Dynasty carved portraits of a yet more introspective or imaginative cast than heretofore; with the Eighteenth Dynasty Egyptian art made new experiments, both in aim and in modes of expression, each of these subsequent phases being marked by technical developments needed by the aim to be achieved; for centuries Egyptian architecture was to develop in magnificence, resource and even in invention to the very sunset of its time, while in the Saitic revivals - possibly in the old Theban workshops - a series of realistic portraits (such as the Mentemhēt, Taracos and Nesptah) were destined to rival in power of characterization and intense inner life the finest works of the past. It is doubtless the rugged force shown in these works dating from the Twenty-fifth Dynasty which has led Hedwig Fechheimer (Die Plastik der Aegypter, p. 46) to place the superb obsidian head from the fine collection of the Rev. W. MacGregor at Tamworth among these later masterpieces of Egyptian sculpture, instead of classing it in the singularly fine series of portraits which have come down to us of the great Pharaoh Amenemmēs III of the Twelfth Dynasty, among which it is one of the best both in artistic merit and iconographic interest.

Contrary to the impression conveyed by the reproduction, this admirable work is not life-size but 130 millimetres from top of head to chin; a few breakages have affected both ears, thereby lessening what seems to have been a characteristic of the Twelfth Dynasty Pharaohs, namely ears of huge size, placed high and very projecting. One of the elements of interest in this relic of one of the finest epochs of Egyptian art lies in the fact that the king is represented as an older man than in all but one other monument - that from the Karnak cache now at Cairo; the expression is more pensive or less energetic than usual in his portraits; and the general resemblance to his father Sesostris III is so marked as to give rise to some hesitation in identifying it, though this hesitation is dispelled on closer examination, the nose and jaw being fuller or more massive than in the three granite statues of Sesostris III in the British Museum and the magnificent portrait from Karnak now at Cairo.

A severe and brooding expression marks all the portraits of Amenemmēs III, who was a ruler, warrior and builder in a family which had numbered warriors, rulers and thinkers before him. To his reign belongs the yet extant wall of El Kab; he was, in legend at least, the maker of the great Lake Mœris and the Labyrinth, and reigned for some forty-eight years powerful and prosperous. Yet on all his energetic effigies is cast a shadow as of one who had lived to see the extinction of some great hope, or the dawn of some great threat; it is doubtless a mere idle flight of romantic fancy to believe that he noted the first mutterings of the storm before the downward rush of the Hyksos invasion which, some years after his death, was to overwhelm his kingdom and whose forgotten princes were to carve their obscure names upon his very statues and royal sphinxes. Even in the studied simplicity and austerity of his seated effigy at Cairo, where he is represented in the flower of youth and with a sweeter cast of face than is his wont, he seems to brood upon some bitter thought of his ancestor Amenemmēs I, upon the illusions of kingship and the loyalty of men: "Know not a friend nor make for thyself intimates, wherein there is no end."

In the small statue at Petrograd and three other portraits at Cairo his expression is leonine and ardent; he is more grave and austere in the admirable granite statue in Berlin. In the superb "Hyksos-Sphinxes" his glance is thrown upwards and is more tense; the best preserved of these sphinxes ranks in the successful rendering of superhuman power and majesty with the great Khephren, and is unsurpassed in the art of Egypt or any other country.*

A head, in schist, preserved in Berlin, represents the king grown thinner and older, the general aspect being more marked and more sparse and very like his father. The resemblance of the profile of this important fragment to the Tamworth head is very great, yet in this last I believe the king is older still, the eyebrows project and are insisted on by the sculptor, the glance has become more sedate; it is, however, without the heavy furrows and a sort of sullenness of the least artistic of his monuments, namely the walking figure from the Karnak cache now at Cairo, which probably represents him as a yet older man.

The British Museum owns a superb Colossus in grey granite which has been tentatively described as Amenemmēs III. This, like the fine fragments in the same material from Bubastis (now at Cairo), would seem to represent some other king of the Twelfth Dynasty. There is undoubtedly a great resemblance to him in the construction of the head, but something less noble and less energetic in expression and implied character. Is this his son Amenemmēs IV or some later prince? A marked resemblance to Amenemmēs III is shown, also, in the older of the two princes in the striking group at Cairo known as "Les Deux Statues Jumelles"; these figures have been tentatively described as Neferhotep I and Sebkhotep III, who may after all have usurped an earlier work representing Amenemmēs III and one of his sons. We are here in the field of pure conjecture. 

* Hyksos Sphinxes. The interesting suggestion has been made that the sphinxes of Amenemmēs III generally known as the Hyksos-Sphinxes do not represent him but are, in fact, masterpieces of the Old Kingdom. Even during the Twelfth Dynasty research was made into the past for the form of the gods, and some such "archaizing" aim may have been deliberately adopted for the mythical shape of these composite creations in which realism and formality are in such perfect balance. Against all ascription to an earlier epoch counts their great resemblance to Amenemmēs III, and more significant still is the fact that the facial modelling shows the conscious study of the inner structure and renders bone, cartilage etc. This is new in Egyptian Art, for the startling realism of earlier masterpieces is based upon outward appearance only; even the face surfaces of the Khephren, Mycerinus and Ranofer are of one substance throughout: there is, in fact, between works of the old Empire and the finest portraits of the Twelfth Dynasty that difference which exists between the finest or most realistic French Gothic statues and any head by Donatello or Verrocchio; the character of the realism is different and the sense of plane unlike. 

Ricketts wrote about this head of Amenemmēs III (usually spelled Amenemhat III) in 1917. MacGregor's collection was sold at auction by Sotheby, Wilkinson & Hodge on 6 July 1922, when the New York Times reported that the head from the collection of William MacGregor had been sold to A.S. Harris for £10,000, and although the paper did not quote Ricketts's article, referring instead to the Egyptologist prof. Sherberry, who described it as 'a masterpiece that has not been surpassed by any sculptor of any country or age', we may recognize Ricketts's opinion in his words.