[gallery type="rectangular" ids="3350,3353,3352,3355"]
Charles Ricketts (Dress for Judithe)
Large watercolor on paper 51 cm x 35.5 cm monogramed lower right CR
Charles de Sousy Ricketts
(2 October 1866 – 7 October 1931) was a versatile English artist, illustrator, author and printer, and is best known for his work as book designer and typographer from 1896 to 1904 with the Vale Press
, and his work in the theatre as a set and costume designer.
Ricketts was born in Geneva to a French mother and an English father. He grew up mainly in France and Italy. He began his studies in art at the City and Guilds Technical Art School in Lambeth, in 1882, after both his parents had died.
According to William Rothenstein, "Ricketts, with his pale, delicate features, fair hair and pointed red-gold beard, looked like a Clouet drawing. Half French, he had the quick mind and the rapid speech of a southerner."
At the Art School he met Charles Shannon (1863–1937), painter and lithographer, who would be his lifelong partner in both his artistic and personal life. On the advice of Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, they settled in England rather than abroad.
Vale Press and artistic career
They founded The Dial
, a magazine, which had five issues from 1889 to 1897, and the Vale Press, named after their house, The Vale, in Chelsea, London. "The portrait of Ricketts by Shannon was painted two years after Ricketts had founded the Vale Press. It is a record of their friendship, slightly tentative in its character, with Ricketts turning his head away so that he is seen in profile. He liked it precisely for this reason since it shows him 'turning away from the 20th century to think only of the 15th.' It is labelled on the back 'The Man in an Inverness Cloak'." – National Portrait Gallery
Ricketts was one of two well-known illustrators of Oscar Wilde's work, the other being Aubrey Beardsley who worked on Salomé
. He and Shannon were friends and supporters of Wilde, for whom Ricketts painted, in the style of Clouet, the hero of Wilde's short story, 'The Portrait of Mr. W. H.'"
It was in the work of the Vale Press that Ricketts would find his talents were best employed. The enterprise also involved Thomas Sturge Moore, and later William Llewellyn Hacon (1860–1910), a barrister. The actual printing was carried out by Ballantyne Press under the supervision of Charles McCall. A total of about 75 books were produced, including a complete Shakespeare in 39 volumes, before the special type fonts were destroyed. In parallel, Ricketts was involved with the Eragny Press
, run by Lucien Pissarro and his wife Esther, from 1894 to 1914.
After 1902, he turned more to painting and sculpture. His principal pictures in public galleries are "The Death of Don Juan" (Tate Gallery), "The Plague" (Musée du Luxembourg, Paris) and "Montezuma" (Manchester Art Gallery).
Ricketts also wrote on art, was a collector, and was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1922 and a full member in 1928.In 1929 he was appointed a member of the Royal Fine Arts Commission. He was also a member of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers.
Ricketts became a celebrated and sought-after designer for the stage. "Mr Ricketts is infallible in his ideas on costume" observed The Times
. Plays on which he worked included Oscar Wilde's Salome
(1906), Laurence Binyon's Attila
(1907), King Lear
(1909), Bernard Shaw's The Dark Lady
(1910), Arnold Bennett's Judith
(1916), Maurice Maeterlinck's The Betrothal
(1920), Shaw's Saint Joan
(1926) and John Masefield's The Coming of Christ
(1928). Outside London he worked for the Abbey Theatre, Dublin on plays by W. B. Yeats and J.M. Synge. Ricketts also designed much-publicised new productions of The Gondoliers
and The Mikado
for Rupert D'Oyly Carte in the 1920s.
Michael MacLennan wrote "Last Romantics", a play based on the life of Ricketts, Shannon and their circle, including Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley and Michael Field. The play premiered in 2003 and was a finallist for the Governor General's Literary Award that year.
CHARLES DE SOUSY RICKETTS (1866-1931)
Charles Ricketts has been called the quintessence of the nineties. In his life as much as his work, he embodied not merely an “aesthetic” devotion to art and beauty but also many of the fin de siècle’s finest creative energies. While still a young man, Ricketts established himself as an innovator in book design, illustration, publishing, and printing, quickly earning the admiration of leading figures in the literary and art worlds. Frederick Leighton commissioned an important early pen-and-ink drawing. Samuel Bing, Camille Pissarro and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec numbered among Ricketts’s admirers on the Continent (where Ricketts’s influence upon Art Nouveau is still underrated). In London, the writers Oscar Wilde, Michael Field, John Gray, Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats and Thomas Sturge-Moore were all eager for Ricketts to decorate their books or design stagings for their plays. Wilde especially was proud of Ricketts’s involvement in his own work: he once called Ricketts “the subtle and fantastic decorator” of his books. In some respects, Ricketts was Wilde’s collaborator or kindred spirit. His sympathies with Wilde were profound. His designs for Wilde’s The Sphinx mark one of the high points, if not the high point, of late-Victorian book design.
Ricketts was born in 1866 in Geneva to a French mother and an English father, the latter of whom harboured serious ambitions of becoming a painter of seascapes and marine subjects. From his parents, then, Ricketts inherited strong visual propensities and a discerning eye, as well as an affinity with Continental art and ideas that runs through his early work. Much of his youth was spent travelling in France and Italy, where he frequented the Louvre especially and began to formulate the taste and artistic principles that were to guide his life.
Thus, when Ricketts enrolled in 1882 at the City and Guilds Technical Art School in Lambeth to train as a professional wood-engraver, he brought with him a familiarity with the canons of European art that was rare in his chosen career. Woodcutting had been a respectable and remunerative form of artisanship for the previous three decades, and in the hands of master-engravers such as the Dalziel Brothers, it had reached a high degree of excellence. But it had chiefly been a medium of mechanical reproduction, not a medium for original “production”. Ricketts was determined to integrate the roles of artist and engraver, thereby raising the eminence of wood engraving as an artistic medium, while simultaneously exploiting the massive demand for wood engraving from publishers. There can be little debate today that Ricketts achieved the first of these goals – by 1898 he was hailed as the finest wood engraver of his day. But his entry into the field coincided with the arrival of new photoengraving techniques that ultimately eclipsed the medium he had chosen, and some of the best of Ricketts’s designs over the ensuing years – his illustrations and decorations for Wilde’s A House of Pomegranates and The Sphinx, or the remarkable bindings he designed in the early 1890s for books by Wilde, Hardy, John Gray, Lord de Tabley, and John Addington Symonds — were executed in an alien medium. Even the wood-engraved borders and frontispieces for Vale Press books, from the late 1890s, bear traces revealing that Ricketts took advantage of phototransfer techniques to save himself from making a drawing on the block in reverse of his original.
So far as the 1890s are concerned, Ricketts’s reputation today rests partly, and rightly, on his contributions to the book arts: on his illustrations and bindings for commercial books, on the innovative typography of The Sphinx, and on the creation of a series of books privately designed, printed, and conceived from cover to cover by Ricketts, culminating — after early experiments, such as the splendid Hero and Leander published by Elkin Mathews and John Lane in 1894 — in the creation in 1896 of his private press the Vale Press. The forty-six books produced in the eight years of the Press’s existence constitute some of the most notable examples of the Revival of Printing of the 1890s, surpassing even William Morris’s books in certain respects. Each incorporated typefonts, frontispieces, border decorations, illuminated letters, and in
some cases wood-engraved illustrations and bindings, designed and overseen by Ricketts personally. Even the papers bore his watermarks. With some justice, A. J. A. Symons claimed in 1930 that Ricketts almost single-handedly invented the figure of the modern typographer or graphic designer.
But Ricketts was prolific and influential in other fields. Through The Dial: An Occasional Magazine, which he co-founded in 1889 and co-edited with his life-partner, the painter and lithographer Charles Shannon, Ricketts introduced French symbolist art and ideas into Britain, where they influenced the work of Beardsley and Wilde, among others. With the arrival of the twentieth century, Ricketts turned his considerable talents to painting, sculpture, theatre design, jewelry, art criticism – and eventually to fiction and memoir. His sculpture, jewelry, and stage designs are now regarded as among the finest produced in Britain prior to World War Two. Kenneth Clark has called Ricketts, along with Roger Fry, one of the two “leading critics of art” of his day; and Ricketts’s books on the Prado and on Titian remain among the most important and enjoyable of their kind. But long before he wrote them, Ricketts’s activities in the textual arts created significant connections between nineteenth-century movements and the emerging strains of Modernism. His advice was eagerly sought by collectors and museums: he declined the Directorship of England’s National Gallery in 1914 only to take on the role of paid advisor to Canada’s National Gallery nine years later. Together with Shannon, whom he had met at the City and Guilds in 1882, he formed one of the early twentieth century’s pre-eminent private collections, much of it later absorbed into the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge. As Jacques Emile Blanche once remarked, Ricketts seemed to live an ideal existence, sacrificing everything for art. He was a figure of “real distinction,” writes Clark in his memoirs, “and much of his work... will be `rediscovered’ with astonishment.”
© 2010, Nicholas Frankel
Nicholas Frankel, Associate Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, is the editor of Ricketts’s The Sphinx and author of Oscar Wilde’s Decorated Books and Masking The Text: Essays on Literature and Mediation in the 1890s.
Selected Publications by Ricketts
Beyond the Threshold. Privately Printed, 1929.
A Bibliography of The Books Issued by Hacon and Ricketts. London: Vale Pres,
A Defence of the Revival of Printing. London: Hacon and Ricketts, 1899.
Oscar Wilde: Recollections. By Jean Paul Raymond & Charles Ricketts. London:
Nonesuch Press, 1932.
Pages On Art. London: Constable, 1913.
The Prado and Its Masterpieces. Westminster: A. Constable, 1903.
Self-Portrait: Letters & Journals of Charles Ricketts. comp. T. Sturge Moore, ed. C. Lewis. London: Peter Davis, 1939.
Titian London: Methuen, 1910.
Unrecorded Histories. London: Martin Secker, 1933
Charles Ricketts and Lucien Pissarro. “De La Typographie et De L’Harmonie de La Page Imprimé” (1896); Trans. R. Kellenberger as “Of Typography and The Harmony of the Printed Page.” Colby Library Quarterly (Nov. 1953): 194-200.
Selected Publications about Ricketts
Bottomley, Gordon. “Charles Ricketts R. A.” Theatre Arts Monthly (1932): 377-95. Calloway, Stephen. Charles Ricketts: Subtle and Fantastic Decorator. Foreword by
Kenneth Clark. London: Thames and Hudson, 1977.
Corbett, David Peters. “‘Collaborative Resistance’: Charles Ricketts as Illustrator of
Oscar Wilde.” Word & Image 10.1 (Jan.- Mar. 1994): 22-37.
Darracott, Joseph. The World of Charles Ricketts. New York & Toronto: Methuen, 1980.
Delaney, J. G. P.. Charles Ricketts: A Biography. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.
Ifan Kyrle Fletcher. “Charles Ricketts and The Theatre.” Theater Notebook (1966): 6-23.
Frankel, Nicholas. Oscar Wilde’s Decorated Books. Ann Arbor, Mi.: Univ. of Michigan Press, 2000.
Franklin, Colin. The Private Presses.2nd ed. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1991.
Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen. The Artist as Critic: Bitextuality in Fin-de- Siècle Illustrated
Books. Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1995.
Nelson, James. G. The Early Nineties: A View From The Bodley Head. Cambridge, Ma: Harvard U. P. 1971.
Ray, Gordon. The Illustrator and the Book in England from 1790-1914. New York: Pierpont Morgan Library, 1976.
Rothenstein, John. The Artists of the 1890s. London: G. Routledge, 1928. Symons, A. J. A. “An Unacknowledged Movement in Fine Printing.” The Fleuron
Taylor, John Russell. The Art Nouveau Book in Britain. 1966; rpt. Edinburgh: P. Harris,
Van Capelleveen, Paul. A New Checklist of Books Designed by Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon. The Hague: Museum can het Boek/Museum Meermanno- Westreenianum, 1996.
Watry, Maureen. The Vale Press: Charles Ricketts, A Publisher in Earnest. London and New Castle, DE.: British Library/Oak Knoll, 2004.
White, J. W. Gleeson. “The Work of Charles Ricketts.” The Pageant (1896): 79-93. ---.“At the Sign of the Dial: Mr. Ricketts As a Book Builder.” Magazine of Art (Apr.