Wednesday, April 29, 2015

196. An Almost Silent Spine

The cover of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray displays a rather austere design. On the front a triangle of ornaments supports the title of the book, or rather, no, not even that: only the name of the book's hero, Dorian Gray, is mentioned. That is all. Charles Ricketts, the designer of the book's cover and opening pages, has discarded the author's and publisher's names, and only used a pattern of daisy ornaments. Blankness, silence, mystery.
Title on the dust wrapper of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891 and 1895)
The ordinary edition of the first printing and the second edition both show this design. The spine design is not as silent as the front cover. It mentions the name of the author and the title. 

Title on the spine of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891 and 1895)

The title is printed in gold on the spine, at the lower end, underneath a column of blank vellum. Even today, this kind of design is rare.

Copies in poor condition can sometimes be found at a price that is no comparison to the normal price of this book. Usually, the spine has disappeared, or the book has been rebacked, or the book has been rebound, and sometimes the original covers have been bound in. What to do if one has a copy like that?

I would say: nothing at all. Any  repair will be for the worse. The book will look fresher perhaps, clean, and proper, but the original design will not come back, and the book as a whole will suffer from the alienation of the book's original design and its subtlety, beauty, and, for that matter, value. If one wants to possess a perfect copy, the only remedy is to buy a perfect copy, and not to cheaply buy a battered copy in order to repair it.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

195. Charles Ricketts in Japan

Recently I examined a copy of the Souvenir of Rupert D'Oyly Carte's Season of Gilbert and Sullivan Operas illustrating the New Dresses Designed by Charles Ricketts, A.R.A. for The Mikado, issued for the Princes Theatre London in the Fall of 1926. Before the opening night a short promotional film was released that featured in an earlier blog, Charles Ricketts on film.

The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive (seen: 19 April 2015)
A quick scan of internet sources on the programme leaflet uncovered some rather surprising 'facts' about Ricketts, who, according to The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive was 'a front-rank English artist who had lived in Japan and who was an authority on Japanese costume and art'. The fact of course is that Ricketts never lived in Japan, and never visited the country, although he was a keen collector of early Japanese prints by Hokusai, Utamaro, Harunobu, and others. 

But Ricketts, living in Japan? Who invented that story? It is, by all means, a lovely phantasy. One could imagine Ricketts in a Japanese studio, writing in his diary, contemplating art, painting, and entertaining guests.

The Gilbert and Sullivan Archive (seen: 19 April 2015)
The promotional film is introduced on the same website with another puzzling Ricketts commentary: 'In 1926 Rupert D'Oyly Carte decided to have The Mikado Re-dressed with new costumes. He chose to use Charles Ricketts to make new designs. Ricketts was trained at Dartington as was Bridget D'Oyly Carte and they knew each other. Ricketts was an ARA and getting well known in the arts world.'

Ricketts trained at Dartington? Of course not, the paragraph has Ricketts mixed up with a later Mikado designer, Peter Goffin. Bridget D'Oyly Carte (1908-1985) was only 18 when the re-dressed Mikado was launched.

In a letter to Gordon Bottomley, Ricketts wrote about the first night:

In the Mikado everything turned out perfectly in execution, the dresses being the most successful I have so far done. With the exception of Katisha - who hated her dress - all the women looked exquisite. Binyon was overwhelmed. The men, I regret to say, excepting Koko and Pooh Bah, were paralysed by their clothes and looked dressed up. The house on the first night, and the public since, have been enthusiastic. The hostility in the Press was, I think, due to some dozen interviews I gave to as many Pressmen at Townshend House in the dining-room before D'Oyly Carte. I think they thought me a gentle lunatic, but praised the drawings; hence sniffs and dispraise among the musical critics.
[Quoted after Self-Portrait Taken from the Letters & Journals of Charles Ricketts, R.A., 1939, p. 368-369.]

Binyon was Laurence Binyon,  (1869-1943), poet, and keeper of (oriental) prints at the British Library. He was a connoisseur of Japanese prints who visited Japan in 1929.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

194. The Myth of Danaë (5): Conclusion

This little series of blogs about Ricketts's images that illustrate the myth of Danaë, published to accompany a poem by Thomas Sturge Moore, comes to a close.

Charles Ricketts, 'In polisht walls a sister found is kissed'
(wood-engraving for Danaë, 1903) (detail)
We started with some observations by Julia Kölnner on the representation of Danaë in art. She pointed out a few details in one of the wood-engravings connecting the myth of Danaë to the stories about the biblical figure of Maria. Ricketts knew about this connection, and inserted a lily in the central image (the second illustration in the book), the one that depicts Zeus penetrating the prison cell of Danaë, impregnating her with his sun rays.

Charles Ricketts, 'She kneels in awe beholding lavish light'
(wood-engraving for Danaë, 1903) (deatil)
The same scene would be illustrated by the Austrian artist Gustav Klimt (1862-1918) a few years later (1907-1908). Klimt's depiction of Danaë's union with the god Zeus is far more erotic and direct. 

Gustav Klimt, Danae (1907-1908)
Klimt depicts Danaë receiving the god in a dreamy position, she is not actively taking part in the lovemaking. In Ricketts's picture, the god descends in the prison cell, also taking the form of golden rays that, in this case, do not touch Danaë, but strike the floor of the room. Ricketts's Danaë is not in a dreamy state at all, she seems afraid of the rays, as if she is aware of the consequences of her being visited by Zeus.

Charles Ricketts, 'She kneels in awe beholding lavish light'
(wood-engraving for Danaë, 1903) (deatil)
Ricketts's depiction of Danaë has a more intellectual and classical approach to the subject than Klimt's. The small series of three images that Ricketts engraved for Sturge Moore's poem all testify to that. 

We have also studied the sequence of the images that was criticized by Edward Hodnett who characterized the last as superfluous. However, we have established that Ricketts willfully concentrated on the captivated Danaë, a situation that he dramatized by showing us her loneliness (in kissing her own mirror image), in her aloofness and distress when she is visited by the god Zeus, and in her longing for the outside world in the third picture where she is found gazing out of a small window.

Charles Ricketts, 'Danaë at her twilit lattice ponders'
(wood-engraving for 
Danaë, 1903) (detail)
The point of all this is that casual observations about details and thorough criticism of the sequence can make us look more carefully to what an illustrated book is all about. I had never looked this close at the images of the book before, and most critics simply remarked that the images belong to the best Ricketts ever did for a book, relating the quality to the ten wood-engravings he designed for The Parables, as they show the same care for detail and a similar independent attitude towards the text. Herbert Furst characterised the Danaë pictures as 'belonging to Ricketts's principal woodcuts', and Cecil French has called them 'romantic, ingenious, fanciful, and of the best order of technical excellence'.

Most readers of the book will have had an experience like this. It is the 'last book' published by the Vale Press, as announced in its colophon, but it is by no means the easiest book to grasp. The type chosen for the text is the King's Fount, that was dismissed by many critics as an abhorrence. The Morris devotee and type connoisseur Robert Proctor - a young assistant keeper - was vehement in his judgment when he saw the book in the British Museum. In his diary of 22 July 1903 he wrote that he found 'the last issue of the “Vale Press”' a 'very ugly' book. 

Ugliness or beauty are not constant factors, and a book is best judged by examining it closely, independent of taste. Any incentive may serve to do the job, and I am sure that in the future other opportunities involving new ways of looking at these images will turn up.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

193. The Myth of Danaë (4): The Titles of the Images

Charles Ricketts's images for Thomas Sturge Moore's poem Danaë (1903) are wood-engravings, for which the artist, as he usually did, made carefully prepared and considered sketches that are now in the British Museum. Each image depicts the heroine of the story, and although the poem also includes scenes of her exile, the images do not. Danaë is only depicted as a lonely young woman in the brass tower. The nurse (or 'crone') has not been visualized by Ricketts. The only other one present is Zeus, be it in the form of sun rays.

Ricketts worked on these illustrations in the Spring of 1902. His diary notes reveal that he engraved the series of illustrations on 17 April 1902. In July he finished at least one of the blocks. 

Did he read Moore's text before he designed the illustrations for Danaë? Moore reworked the poem so heavily that it became twice as long as the original text that was published in The Dial (Number 3, 1893). Moore later testified that Ricketts had asked him to write a longer version for the book he had in view. Moore may have finished the text before Ricketts made the illustrations, however, Ricketts may also have finished his designs before Moore edited his poem.

The titles are:
(1) In polisht walls a sister found is kissed.
(2) She kneels in awe beholding lavish light.
(3) Danaë at her twilit lattice ponders.
The titles of the illustrations are a bit of a riddle. I don't think anyone has remarked that they look like quotations - probably, they are generally assumed to be just that. They certainly look like quotations from the poem. The words are completely in style with Sturge Moore's poem that piles up 'thy' and 'ye' and 'hath' and 'claimeth' and 'thee' and 'thou'. There is also a similar grammar, Moore's text includes many inversions; we find a few in the titles as well, such as 'a sister found'. The titles for Ricketts's images seem to have copied this characteristic from the second version of Moore's poem (the Dial version is less complicated).
Charles Ricketts, 'In polisht walls a sister found is kissed' (wood-engraving for Danaë, 1903)
Typographically, the titles resemble Moore's own verses as well. They have been printed in the same typeface. The whole book has been printed in the so-called King's Fount, a hybrid type that unites uncial like characters and roman type. The typeface, designed by Ricketts, integrates text and image titles, enveloping the whole in a gothic atmosphere. The titles have been printed in red, as are the marginal notes, the page numbers, the introduction, the colophon, and the running title, but they have been separated from the text by the use of a paragraph mark at the beginning of each title. The paragraph mark does not occur anywhere else in the book.

'Polisht', 'a sister found', 'beholding', 'twilit', 'ponders': Moore could have written these titles.

However, as each reader of the poem knows, these words do not occur in the verses of Moore's poem; that is, not in the original 1893 edition (which is almost exempt of Moore's later antiquating phrases), nor in the 1903 edition of Danaë

My guess would be that the titles have been provided by Ricketts himself. This is supported by the images, as they can not be traced back to particular verses of the poem. The scenes depicted by Ricketts are inspired by Moore's words, but do not actually occur in the poem. For example, the title 'In polisht walls a sister found is kissed' may refer to a scene in the poem that twice uses the word 'polished'. In these verses, Moore calls Danaë's mirror image a 'sister' (but also 'her companion-self', or 'the twin'), and although the word kiss is not used, the action is mentioned: 'she [...] bunched up her lips to meet the lips outthrust to them' (page xi). On the other hand, 'She kneels in awe beholding lavish light' and 'Danaë at het twilit lattice ponders' are far more removed from the text than one would think.

Charles Ricketts, 'She kneels in awe beholding lavish light' (wood-engraving for Danaë, 1903)

Charles Ricketts, 'Danaë at her twilit lattice ponders' (wood-engraving for Danaë, 1903)
The images and the titles form a separate story that runs parallel to Moore's poem. Ricketts never simply 'illustrated' literary works, he added interpretations, symbols, atmosphere, demanding his own part of the work of art that constitutes an illustrated book.

This also explains why certain accessories that are mentioned in the poem can not be seen in the images. The images do not illustrate Moore's poem about Danaë, Ricketts's images illustrate the original myth of Danaë, or his own version of it. The antiquated titles are meant to blend the images in with the text, to unite text and images. Not only do the images not really illustrate Moore's poem, they are not compatible with each other. Granted, the figure of Danaë seems to be consistently depicted, but the room is not the same room in the three engravings.

It is impossible to sketch a floor plan that agrees with all engravings. In one of them, the bed is in the far end of the room, with a round window to the left wall; in another one, the bed is to the left and the window on the opposite wall, while in a third another type of window is just above an alcove with cushions that might have been the same as that in the second engraving, but then the position of the bed and the other window have become mysterious.

Ricketts did not even try to picture Danaë in a particular room. He shows Danaë in three independent situations that convey claustrophobia, loneliness, and hope, as in each of the images a hint of her future freedom, and companionship, is given: (1) she kisses her mirror image, (2) she receives Zeus's light, and (3) she stands on a step ladder to look out of a small window to see the surrounding landscape and the people in it. This ambiguous imagery - lonely Danaë is not really alone - integrates the story of her imprisonment with the myth of her giving birth to a demi-god, and the story of her escape.

Edward Hodnett's criticism that the last image is redundant and that Ricketts should have illustrated more dramatic scenes (her sea voyage, or her escape), ignores the fact that Ricketts build a sequence of his own: Danaë meets herself (in a mirror image), Danaë is visited by Zeus (in the form of a golden light), and Danaë sees companions who are outside. The first image confirms her strenght, and her wish to survive; the second image makes an end to her solitude; and the third image looks forward to a return to society, and to her future freedom.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

192. The Myth of Danaë (3): Danaë's Possessions

Charles Ricketts made three wood engravings for Thomas Sturge Moore's poem Danaë that was published as a Vale Press edition in 1903. The poem itself, without illustrations, had appeared in The Dial of 1893, but Moore had rewritten the poem, adding many verses for the new edition. In the introduction the tower erected by Acrisius to imprison his daughter Danaë is described:

a tower of brass, so strong that it might never be broken into, so smooth that it might never be scaled, and so high that his daughter was reared in the top of it beyond the reach of any man. (p. iv)

Danaë is attended by a 'crone', however, the myth being a myth, almost no details about food or hygiene are given, although Moore points out that her 'nurse' daily brought her fresh water from a well (and carried a bucket up the winding stair), and that her clothes are taken away on a weekly basis, and returned to her 'smooth and neatly folded' (p. xii). Although the tower is said to be impenetrable, garments and water are regularly brought in. The nurse never leaves the tower, and 'scarcely the room for much more than an hour' (p. xxxviii).

An embroidery frame in Charles Ricketts, wood-engraving 'She kneels in awe beholding lavish light' (1903) [detail]
The poem does not say much about the room that keeps Danaë a prisoner. Details about her small possessions are given in some verses: she owns a 'coral necklace' (p. xvi), a pair of sandals (p. xiii), a napkin (p. xvii), 'little terra-cotta dolls' (p. xvii), a 'simple nightdress' (p. xx), needle work (p. xxii), 'balls of silk', shells, 'silver trinkets, and gold mugs', and a bowl of maple wood (p. xxxvii), and a 'tall embroidery frame' (p. xxv).

An embroidery frame in Charles Ricketts, wood-engraving 'In polisht walls a sister found is kissed' (1903) [detail]
Ricketts showed the embroidery frame (in his first and in his second wood-engraving), and he also depicted the pair of sandals. The nightdress has been illustrated as well; in all three wood-engravings Danaë seems to be dressed in the same long white garments. The toy-dolls, the napkin, and bowls have been ignored by the artist.

A pair of sandals, in Charles Ricketts, wood-engraving 'Danaë at her twilit lattice ponders' (1903) [detail]
But Ricketts has added other objects that Moore does not mention in his poem, such as a wicker basket (illustration 1). In a preparatory drawing for this in the British Museum one can see a second basket in the front, which, in the final design, has been replaced by a step.

A basket in Charles Ricketts, wood-engraving 'In polisht walls a sister found is kissed' (1903) [detail]
How to illustrate a mythical place? Ricketts seems to have used objects, garments, furniture, and room constructions that could have existed in Greece, the location of the story. However, he also introduced objects that look too modern, like the books that occur in the first two illustrations. They have a codex form that was not in use in Greece 'at the time', but then, a myth is without a fixed time in history.

A book in Charles Ricketts, wood-engraving 'In polisht walls a sister found is kissed' (1903) [detail]
A book in Charles Ricketts, wood-engraving 'She kneels in awe beholding lavish light' (1903) [detail]
As the poem progresses some features of Danaë's prison are mentioned:

A window:
For nothing saw she, save her room's few things,
Beside the well-conned window-view (p. ix)

So tall and slender later on she grew
That, planted on a footstool, she could view
The many lanes that led up through the fields (p. xxvii)

Ricketts gives an image of Danaë looking out of the small window, however she is not on a footstool but on a small stepladder.

Flight of stairs in Charles Ricketts, wood-engraving 'Danaë at her twilit lattice ponders' (1903) [detail]

A window in Charles Ricketts, wood-engraving 'In polisht walls a sister found is kissed' (1903) [detail]

Danaë at her window in Charles Ricketts, wood-engraving 'Danaë at her twilit lattice ponders' (1903) [detail]
A mirror:
the great mirror's polished round (p. ix)

Ricketts shows a mirror with a peacock feather as a decoration.

A mirror in Charles Ricketts, wood-engraving 'Danaë at her twilit lattice ponders' (1903) [detail]
A cupboard:
a cupboard on the wall (p. xii-xiii)

Ricketts did not illustrate this piece of furniture.

A bed:
How long it took before her bed was made!
[...]                                                   It stood,

A scaffold house of slender painted wood,
Secluded like a shrine far in the room
Where curtains through the day made hallowed gloom. (p. xvii)

The bed's mattress 'hung on straps of pliant leather, which, through, each other plaited, joined the frame', the pillows were soft, the sheets were white and the quilt was 'beyond blue'.

Ricketts includes a canopy bed, with a decorated headstand and long curtains, in his second wood-engraving.

A canopy bed, in Charles Ricketts, wood-engraving 'She kneels in awe beholding lavish light' (1903) [detail, below]
A carpet
across the carpet treads (p. xxii)

A bath
         in her bath she washed herself that morn (p. xxiii)
The bath is in the room where Zeus envelopes her in his light for the first time, and she does not hear:
                                          her nurse's knocks
Or voice that bids her raise the latch that locks
The door from the inside (p. xxiv)

The carpet and the bath have not been illustrated by Ricketts.
Later, Zeus's light approaches her in another room:
                                     Zeus even dared
Come close up to the tall embroidering frame 
(p. xxv)

And this brings us to the architecture of the tower, or better, the floor plan of Danaë's prison room(s).

[To be continued.]