Wednesday, February 22, 2017

291. The 2017 Alphabet: C

The C is for Conquered.

Conquered the flower-maidens, and the wide embrace
Of their round, proffered arms, that tempt the virgin boy;

Charles Ricketts, initial 'C' in John Gray, Silverpoints (1893) (page XXII)
The first book of poetry of John Gray, Silverpoints, appeared in 1893, and although not all ideosyncrasies of its design can be attributed to Charles Ricketts, whose leads were not always followed by the printer, overall, the book displays a novel harmony of 1890s book design. The book contained many poems that were dedicated to friends in England and abroad: Felix Fénéon, Robert Harborough Sherard, Oscar Wilde, Pierre Louÿs. The book also contained some translations after Stéphane Mallarmé, Arthur Rimbaud, Paul Verlaine, and Charles Baudelaire. Each section of these translations starts with a decorated initial, designed by Ricketts; the first one illustrates 'Parsifal imitated from the French of Paul Verlaine'.

The book's concept followed an early Renaissance example that Ricketts saw exhibited in the British Museum, where, according to him, it was on show for eight years. The edition of the texts of Virgil, edited by A.P. Manutius, was printed on vellum in Venice by Aldus Manutius, 'Ex ædibus Aldi Romani', in 1501. Ricketts remembered that this copy came from the library of Isabella D'Este, Duchess of Mantua. The current description (British Library C.19.f.7) does not mention her name:

The first book printed in the Italic types invented by Francesco da Bologna, who is mentioned as the inventor in three Latin lines on the verso of the title. With illuminated initials, and an illuminated border to the first page of text. This copy belonged to the Gonzaga family, and has on the fly leaves the autographs of Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga, and Vincenzo Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua.

It was a famous edition that, as a recent catalogue on Manutius argued, 'introduced the series of enchiridia, books in the small octavo format which could easily be carried about and held in the hand and with their texts in the new italic type cut by Francesco Griffo, who, with his “Daedalus-like hands”, is thanked by Aldus in some short prefatory verses entitled In grammatoglyptae laudem. The choice of Virgil as the pre-eminent Latin poet to open the series was deliberate and symbolic, as was Aldus’ choice to present the text by itself, without commentary or textual apparatus: this kind of edition was aimed at a wider public than trained scholars, as Aldus explicitly states, consisting of all those who “optime scire Latinam linguam desiderant”.' (Entry written by Stephen Parkin)

Virgil, Venice, Aldus Manutius, 1501 (British Library copy)
This vellum copy, as Stephen Parkin, has it, came from the Gonzaga library in Mantua, and had been presented, presumably, to Isabella d’Este Gonzaga 'in the summer of 1501 – just three months after publication'. 

John Gray, Silverpoints
(1893): detail (page VIII)
It is easy to recognize some elements from the book's layout in Ricketts's Silverpoints: the small, elongated format, the verse lines in italics, the initial letter of each line in roman, a large decorative initial at the top. 

But there is more. The remarkable painted border in the 1501 edition of Virgil has an outer lining with small golden dashes pointing outwards. This pattern was copied by Ricketts for the cover of Silverpoints, and can be found at the top and bottom of his now famous design of wavy lines. 

Charles Ricketts, cover (detail) forJohn Gray, Silverpoints (1893)

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

290. The Grave of Rickett's Mother: an Update

The Italian local historian Marco Cazzulo has written a blog about his find of the grave of Charles Ricketts's mother in Genua.

The gravestone of Ricketts's mother (photo: Marco Cazzulo)

See: La madre misteriosa di Charles Ricketts – Charles Ricketts’s Mysterious Mother

Both authors of the book about Ricketts's mother have left a message on the blog: Paul Delaney and Corine Verney.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

289. The 2017 Alphabet: B

The B is for Both.

Both city and suburbs rejoiced.

Charles Ricketts, initial 'B' (The Dial, 1892)

The second number of The Dial appeared in February 1892, and, unlike the first issue of 1889, it didn't contain large illustrated initials, but smaller and more simple decorated initials. 

The initial 'B' decorated the first sentence of a story by Charles Ricketts, 'The Marred Face', about a Chinese queen, and the head of her former lover, Chang Tei. His house is burnt down, and after his torture and decapitation, his head is taken by a beggar, who tosses it in the lap of the queen. She holds on to it for years, until her palace is rioted, and burned to the ground as well. 

To the left of the page was an illustration of the queen holding the scull in front of a mirror.

This initial is part of an incomplete alphabet, comprising only of 'B', 'C' and 'G', all decorated with doves and winding lines.

Charles Ricketts, initials 'C' and 'G' (The Dial, 1892)
The poems in The Dial nor the art notes were decorated with such initials. These were reserved for the prose contributions. There are slight differences in decoration though, the 'C' was adorned with doves and branches, while the 'G' had berries as well. The piece on 'Maurice de Guérin', the French author, and 'King Comfort', a story, were both written by T. Sturge Moore. Apart from the initials, they were decorated with headpieces.

There was a fourth initial in this issue of The Dial, decorating a defense of the first number of the magazine against its critics, written by Ricketts. This initial 'T' was decorated with fishes and waves.

Charles Ricketts, initial 'T' (The Dial, 1892)
These initials were not used again, excepting the 'T' that reappeared in an invitation for a private view of the Society of Medalists in the Dutch Gallery six years later.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

288. The 2017 Mark Samuels Lasner Collection Exhibition and Symposium

On Friday and Saturday, March 17 and 18, 2017, the University of Delaware will host a symposium, Celebrating the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection: Rare Books and Manuscripts, Victorian Literature and Art

Mark Samuels Lasner has donated his collection of Victorian books to the University of Delaware Library where it has been on loan for quite some years. I visited Mark there in 2013 to see a few of the more than 9.000 books, prints and documents in his collection. See my two blogs about the visit (No. 82: A Visit to Delaware, and No. 83: The Mark Samuels Lasner Collection).

The Mark Samuels Lasner Collection,
University of Delaware Library
The collection focuses on British literature and art of the period 1850 to 1900, with an emphasis on the Pre-Raphaelites and on the writers and illustrators of the 1890s, and it contains numerous books designed by Ricketts, including signed and association copies, proofs, letters, as well as a great number of lithographs by Charles Shannon.

Mark is one of those all too rare collectors who share their treasures with researchers and with the general public, by allowing full access to the works; an impressive series of exhibitions have been on view, some accompanied by well designed catalogues. 

To pick just two items from his vast Ricketts and Shannon holdings is a challenge. My previous blogs contained illustrations of some of the more important items, such as an original drawing for Oscar Wilde's The Sphinx and a dedication copy of the Vale Press edition of The Life of Benvenuto Cellini. But there are many smaller and even ephemeral documents that contain not widely known facts.

Proof for Notice (Vale Press), 1900
One of those is a proof for a Vale Press Notice that was published after a fire destroyed part of the stock and archive at the Ballantyne Press at the end of 1899. This proof contains some corrections that have been carried out in the definitive version, but more importantly, it contains a date stamp of the printers'. Most of the announcements and prospectuses are difficult to date, and when I published my checklist of Vale Press works in 1996, the date of publication was a mild guess: 'Summer 1900'. The proof is dated '28/7/00', 28 July 1900.

Paul Verlaine. Three Drawings by Will Rothenstein (1897)

Another rarity is an art publication by Hacon & Ricketts: three lithographs by William Rothenstein: Paul Verlaine. Three Drawings (1897). The portfolio was issued in 25 copies, initialled in pencil by the artist, and issued in printed wrappers. The Samuels Lasner copy has been bound in green cloth (similar to the Ricketts and Shannon edition of Daphnis and Chloe). This is No. 6.

Portrait of Paul Verlaine (detail) in
Paul Verlaine. Three Drawings by Will Rothenstein (1897)

2017 Mark Samuels Lasner Collection Exhibition and Symposium

Victorian Passions: Stories from the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, curated by Margaret D. Stetz, Mae and Robert Carter Professor of Women’s Studies and Professor of Humanities, is on view from 14 February to 3 June 2017, at the Special Collections Gallery, Morris Library.

A symposium, Celebrating the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection: Rare Books and Manuscripts, Victorian Literature and Art, will be held in the Reading Room, Morris Library, on 17 and 18 March. Keynote speaker is Elaine Showalter, Professor Emerita of English at Princeton University, and other speakers will include Mark Dimunation (Library of Congress), Barbara Heritage (Rare Book School, University of Virginia), Edward Maggs (Maggs Bros. Ltd., London), Joseph Bristow (UCLA), Linda K. Hughes (Texas Christian University), Margaretta S. Frederick (Delaware Art Museum), William S. Peterson (Emeritus, University of Maryland), David Taylor (UK historian and author), and Margaret D. Stetz (University of Delaware).

The symposium is free and open to the public, but registration is requested. See the conference website of the University of Delaware.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

287. News about the Grave of Cornelia Ricketts

Around Christmas, I received an email from Genoa in Italy, the city where Charles Ricketts's mother died in 1880. Her grave was in the English cemetery, which was closed in 1881, and a new graveyard was arranged for in the English corner of the Cimitero Monumentale di Staglieno.

So far so good. When Constance Wilde, wife of Oscar Wilde, died in Genoa in 1898, she was interred here.

However, when Paul Delaney, Ricketts's biographer, went on a search for the grave of Ricketts's mother, who was so important for his early education, it proved elusive. There was no record of it, and the plot contained no monument to remember her.

In October 2016, we published J.G.P. Delaney and Corine Verney's book Charles Ricketts's Mysterious Mother. Who could have known that only a month later Cornelia Ricketts's grave would be found by a local historian?

Grave of Cornelia Ricketts (Photo: Marco Cazzulo)
In November 2016 Marco Cazzulo uncovered a gravestone with the text:

DIED 1880

Marco Cazzulo works with a group of volonteers who go out and clean the graves of Genoa. This Associazione "Per Staglieno" ONLUS-Genova is involved in maintaining and cleaning the burial places of the Cimitero Monumentale di Staglieno. 

Cazzulo is a historian who searches for stories about Genoa's past and the people who lived there, including passers by, like Ricketts's mother. Graves are part of the history of Genoa.

Grave of Cornelia Ricketts (Photo: Marco Cazzulo)
Marco Cazzulo himself found the grave of Cornelia in the Staglieno cemetery (Genoa). 

The grave was uncovered in a part of the graveyard that was in a bad condition. Stones were hidden to view by ivy, roots, weeds, and dirt. After the graves were cleaned, some stones revealed names and one of them was Helene Cornelie Ricketts. This is the name on the stone, although Ricketts's mother had been born in Rome as Cornelia Pia Adeodata Marsuzi de Aguirre.

Grave of Cornelia Ricketts (Photo: Marco Cazzulo)
Next time you visit the grave of Oscar Wilde's wife, place a flower on Cornelia's grave and send me a photo.

[Thanks are due to Marco Cazzulo for sharing his find with us, and for allowing us to use his photo's of the grave.]

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

286. The 2017 Alphabet: A

A is for A.

A thing of beauty.

Charles Ricketts, initial A in The Poems of John Keats, volume I (1898)
Book I of volume I of the two volume edition of The Poems of John Keats published by the Vale Press in 1898 opens with a large initial A, starting the first verse of 'Endymion'. Along the first line of the poem more initials meet the eye.

The second word of the first sentence in fact is a small initial T within a quartet of leaves, and the second sentence starts with a large initial 'I' for 'its loveliness'. Then the eye is dazzled by a variety of capitals and lower case letters that are not asked for by the poet.

Opening pages in the private press era sometimes echo the earlier nineteenth-century habit of showing off as many different typefaces as a printer could supply on a title page or cover, as a testimony of craftsmanship and excellence.

What we see on this page, and especially the smaller initial T, might be described as a remnant of Charles Ricketts's early career as an illustrator of poems for magazines in which he was asked to display an atmosphere of medievalism or of Tudor period pieces for which he used a sprinkling of small initials and fleurons. 

This said, the image is only a small part of two harmoniously designed facing opening pages for the poems of one of Ricketts's favorite poets, John Keats.

A is also A for Adoration.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

285. The End of an Exhibition

Last Monday, we dismantled the exhibition in Museum Meermanno that celebrated the 150th anniversary of Charles Ricketts, 1866 - 2016. It has been a wonderful experience to install it, bringing together books, autograph letters, prints, and portraits to tell a new story about Ricketts as an illustrator of the Parables and of Oscar Wilde's Poems in Prose. Visitors loved the small but exquisite contents of the exhibition, and of course it was a great honour to show it to Dame Byatt last November.  

It all ended with a cake for the staff of the museum, inscribed with the name of Ton Leenhouts from whose collection most of the works were on loan. 

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

284. Between Jesus and Oscar Wilde

This weekend, last opportunity to see the exhibition about Charles Ricketts at the Museum Meermanno in The Hague. It closes on Monday morning.

On view are three copies of one of the later works by Ricketts, Beyond the Threshold, a book that he wrote, illustrated, and designed (including the binding) himself.

Charles Ricketts, Beyond the Threshold (1929)
[copy and image: McGill University, Montreal]
Many copies of this book found their way to museums and libraries. In 2015 I examined a copy at the McGill University Library, Rare Books and Special Collections in Montreal. During the SHARP conference The Generation and Regeneration of Books (organised by the Université de Sherbrooke, the Groupe de recherches et d’études sur le livre au Québec, McGill University, and Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec, 7-10 July 2015), I had the opportunity to see quite a number of books, assisted by welcoming and well informed staff members - special collections rooms at university libraries can be delightful study centres, and this was one of those places.

Their copy of Beyond the Threshold has come from the collection of William George Colgate (1896-1970), an English art historian, who moved to Toronto. One of his major publications was Canadian Art, Its Origin and Development (1943). He counted a number of printers among his friends, and collected several hundred books 'of typographical interest', as the university's website informs us. His collection was particularly strong in the fields of the history and technique of printing, calligraphy and letter forms, type design, and typographical productions, type founding and type founders' specimens and printers' manuals and handbooks, including those for colour printing and paper making. The collection was given to the library in the 1940s and 1950s.

An image of the binding of Beyond the Threshold has been published on the university's website Art Deco and the Decorative Arts in the 1920 and 1930s

Between Jesus and Oscar Wilde

In the Museum Meermanno exhibition, three copies show the binding, and two illustrations, 'The Mother of God' (facing page 20) and 'Judas Iscariot' (facing page 22).

A quote from the exhibition leaflet:

In 1929, Ricketts published a book of dialogues of the dead, Beyond the Threshold. After his death, the narrator awakens and meets Voltaire; a number of famous people follow, including Oscar Wilde. 

Wilde recites a previously unpublished prose poem by Oscar Wilde, 'The Mother of God'. Maria dwelt in the house of her mother. Narcissus tried to seduce her with gifts of apples and garlands, but she ignored him, until, one day, they were in a corn field. She consented, and undid her girdle. Then, a great light appeared, a golden dove flashed his wings, and a voice like the voice of an angel told her that she was highly favoured, and that the Lord was with her. Ricketts's drawing shows Maria, her lover, the dove, and the angel. Like in Wilde's story, Ricketts left unsaid what was about to happen.
In between two prose poems, Ricketts lets Wilde explain why Judas came to kill himself. It was not because of his betrayal of Jesus: Judas had given his thirty pieces of silver to Maria Magdalene, and when he came to collect his reward, he found her in bed with a lover. He went out and hanged himself. In Ricketts's drawing Judas is on the threshold. The room is full of love, scents of flowers, and light. Outside, in the world of Judas, there is a bare tree under a dark starry sky.
Beyond the Threshold was intended as a private publication by Ricketts, but all 150 copies were distributed by The First Edition Club. Ricketts gave away quite a few presentation copies. A letter to the artist and critic Cecil French accompanying one of those copies stated: 'The Wilde portions are really like and two of the prose poems almost authentic'. 
All copies were bound in red leather after a design by Ricketts (his monogram 'CR' appears at the bottom). According to a letter to the editor of The First Edition Club, A.J.A. Symons, a brass plate for the binding had been made. 
In the last part of Beyond the Threshold Ricketts introduced the original 'author' of the parables, Jesus Christ. Jesus recounts a new version of the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. The virgins set off to meet the 'bridegroom', five of them brought oil for their lamps, and five of them forgot about the oil. In the night the bridegroom calls them, and the latter virgins go out to buy some oil, as the others do not want to give them theirs. When at last they arrive, they find the door closed to them. That is, according to Matthew 25:1-13. 

However, Ricketts has given Jesus another story to tell. On their journey, the foolish virgins had woven garlands of the flowers they found, and the bridegroom welcomed those as gifts, while the wise virgins were reproved for bringing no gifts. This apocryphal parable is typical of Ricketts. In Beyond the Threshold, he twists around the words of all celebrities.

On view until 8 January

'Between Jesus and Oscar Wilde, Charles Ricketts (1866-1931) as an Illustrator of the Parables and Poems in Prose'

A commemorative exhibition celebrating Ricketts's birth in 1866, 150 years ago. 
Museum Meermanno, The Hague
More information about the Meermanno exhibition can be found on the museum's website

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

283. Julia Domna Stolen and Found

Recently, Julia Domna was in the news.

In May of this year, Christie's in Amsterdam was offered for sale a statue with the head of Julia Domna. As the experts were suspicious, the firm's lawyer contacted the Art Squad of the Italian police, and it was found out that the statue was stolen from Hadrian's villa in Tivoli, probably after the last time it had been on display in 2012. Earlier in December, it has been returned by the Dutch police. Amsterdam police say two people were arrested and charged with theft and trying to sell the sculpture.

The History Blog reported on this, and published a few images of the statue.

Julia Domna, 2nd C. (Hadrian's Villa)
The History Blog wrote:

The auction house cooperated with the investigation, suspending the sale so the Art Squad and the Dutch police could work together to research the head. In addition to confirming the true origin of the object, the joint investigation identified two Dutch citizens who were illegally in possession of the statue head. Armed with all the evidence, the police confiscated the portrait and returned it to representatives of the Carabinieri Art Squad. It will be kept with authorities in Rome while the legal case proceeds. When it’s all over, Julia Domna will go back to Hadrian’s Villa with all her family members.

The Vale Press published Michael Field's play about Julia Domna in 1903. It contained an illustrated border page with the beginning of the text, but no illustration of Julia Domna herself. Ricketts rarely did the obvious thing.

However, there are two other women on this border page.

Charles Ricketts, 'Vesta', in Michael Field, Julia Domna (1903)
The first one is the goddess Vesta, a statue of Vesta in her temple, veiled, and her eyes closed.

The second one is Medusa, with snakes in her hair and around her neck.

Charles Ricketts, 'Medusa', in Michael Field, Julia Domna (1903)
Ricketts has followed the traditional iconography of Medusa, but his rendering of Vesta is less conventional, including some oval shaped clouds and a monumental background that looks like a stage set. Apparently, Ricketts thought it necessary to include her name in the illustration. The name has been written on a banner, although there are only four letters, not five, as the T and A have been drawn as a ligature.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

282. The Prodigal Son

The third number of The Dial, the magazine edited by Charles Shannon and Charles Ricketts, contained a 'Personal Note' that was most likely written by Ricketts:

“Poems Dramatic and Lyrical” The plate facing page 200 and appearing to illustrate the poem “The Prodigal” (after Albert Durer)” was done as an illustration to a different poem by Lord de Tabley on the same subject “The Prodigal” page 189 “Rehearsals.” Through inadvertence no mention was made of this mistake in the second edition of  “Poems Dramatic and Lyrical”

'Personal note', in The Dial, No. III (1893)
Rehearsals, A Book of Verses had been published by Strahan & Co. in London in 1870. (The full text is available on the website of the Internet Archive.)

In Poems, Dramatic and Lyrical (1893), Ricketts's illustration was placed facing a sonnet by De Tabley, called 'The Prodigal'. The original poem that was illustrated by Ricketts was not a sonnet, but it carried the same title:

The Prodigal

The scath of sin is on my brow like lead.

The draff of swine is in my lips for bread.
Father, I know thy glory is not dead.
I will arise.

The servants in thy house are clothed and fed

Full and to spare. I perish here for bread.
My sin hath clothed thy presence with such dread,
I may not rise.

Mine, mine the guilt, all trespass deep and red:

Thine, thine the mercy on this fallen head.
Naked I come, yet thou shalt give me bread.
I will arise. 

Ricketts originally made a drawing to illustrate this poem that refers to Luke 15:17-19. His drawing was reproduced in photogravure, an etching process, by the firm of C. & A. Dawsons, the Typographic Etching Company.

Charles Ricketts, 'The Prodigal' (1893)
In December 1892 the author had written to the publishers:

Dear Sirs, I quite approve of the design for The Prodigal Son [...?] you have kindly forwarded at the request of Mr. Elkin Mathews. 

However, the book's production was not without misunderstandings. De Tabley had selected and deselected a lot of poems for Poems, Dramatic and Lyrical, and 'The Prodigal' poem that was illustrated by Ricketts was omitted from the final selection. De Tabley wrote a new poem instead:

The Prodigal (After Albert Dürer)

In a strange country, father, most forlorn,
Broken with sin: for many idle days
Crowned with a chaplet of the Devil's bays:
My food the husks of swine, my raiment torn,

I drive my weltering flock in mire at morn
To pasture acorns on the forest ways.
Alone with droning owls and bickering jays,
I herd my hogs and wind my herdsman's horn.

The servants in thy house are clothed and fed,
Nourished with meat and strong with purple wine.
Make me thy servant: feed me lest I die.

Naked I perish for a crust of bread,
Ragged I kneel among the troughs of swine.
Out of thy far land hear my abject cry!

De Tabley's new poem is partially a rewritten version of the earlier poem, especially the sestet that echoes several lines from the older poem.

The main question raised by the result, is that the reader does not realize that it is not Ricketts who has illustrated De Tabley's poem, but De Tabley who illustrated Ricketts's drawing.

Ricketts made an illustration of the prodigal using only a few lines from the poem: 'The draff of swine is in my lips for bread' and 'Naked I come' - and from these words an image grew that was not described in the poem at all. The main subject was not taken up by Ricketts: the guilt, the contrast between the poor son and his rich father, the wish to return home, and the doubts about this intention.

Ricketts needed to invent his own art, his own image to juxtapose to a writer's text, but De Tabley did not understand this desire. He wrote a poem that mentioned elements that are obviously taken from Ricketts's drawing, the poem's ending tries to capture in words what the image shows:

Ragged I kneel among the troughs of swine.

Ricketts wasn't the kind of artist who applauded such servitude. He considered the artist to be an independent spirit. His art works never aspired to be illustrations, but works on their own, telling an autonomic story. His protest to the new poem was worded as a 'Personal note' in The Dial. He urged the publishers of De Tabley's poems to include this note in the second edition of the book, but that did not happen (not even in the third printing).

Ricketts's illustration was more than a meditation on some words from De Tableys' poem, the drawing for 'The Prodigal' also meant to reflect Ricketts's admiration for the work of Albert Dürer.

Albert Dürer, 'The Prodigal Son'

There are many differences, but one can see that the word 'swine' and 'prodigal' in De Tabley's original poem conjured up in Ricketts's memory Dürer's engraving 'The Prodigal Son' (c. 1496), in which the prodigal son kneels among swine. Ricketts diminished the distance between foreground and background; his houses are less German in appearance, the swine have a friendlier look, the prodigal son is much younger, and half naked. Ricketts's drawing is more intimate, less formal, and introduces a pump, while the prodigal son looks at the viewer.

Ten years after the publication of his illustrations for De Tabley's poems, Ricketts published another two illustrations for the parable of the prodigal son (in The Parables from the Gospels, 1903). In one of these a similar scene has been depicted: the prodigal kneeling down next to a trough surrounded by pigs; the shed in the background resembles the building in the earlier illustrations, although the major part of the structure is now in ruins. The prodigal himself hides his face from the spectator.

Sketches, proofs and prints of these are now on view at the commemorative exhibition in Museum Meermanno in The Hague, celebrating Ricketts's birth in 1866, 150 years ago. More information about the Meermanno exhibition can be found on the museum's website. On view until 8 January!

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

281. Nimrud - Nimrod

Recent news about the city of Nimrud in Iraq was all about vandalism and pillage by ISIS. The destruction of Assyrian antiquities in the region around the ancient city of Nimrud reminded me of the biblical figure Nimrod. Nimrud - Nimrod - that's how the mind works.

A long poem about Nimrod as the architect of the tower of Babel was published by John Leicester Warren, Lord de Tabley, in Poems Dramatic and Lyrical (1893).

Nimrod, wood engraving from Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum (Lyon, Guillaume Rouillé, 1553)
In the Bible, Nimrod is associated with some Assyrian cities, including Babel or Babylon. However, he was not actually mentioned in the passages about the building of the Tower of Babel, an etiological myth that was meant to explain the origin of different languages.

De Tabley's poem introduces Nimrod as a mighty king who tries to find an equal enemy in the gods. He decides to build a tower to reach their home in the skies. 

And the tower rose: the masons at its height
Could see the ocean now that we had left
A year behind us: ever at its base
The thousand-throated labour like a sea
Continually murmured: tier on tier
It darkened heaven, a monster in the sand,
And height succeeded height and pause was none:
Until its summits entered in the zones
Of cloud, and these about it clave all day
As on some giant peak untrod of man.

Then, Nimrod leads his men upwards, in battle, trying to conquer heaven, but he falls down:

There as I lay confounded, like a child
That cannot move his limbs; it seemed there grew
Enormous light out up above the cloud

This light then is accompanied by a 'terrible' voice. In the Bible, this is the voice of God who has decided to stop Nimrod, and to confound the speech of men.

Charles Ricketts, 'Nimrod' (1893)

Charles Ricketts's illustration for this poem shows a startled Nimrod in front of the exploding tower, with a cloud and a light source to the left of his face, while powerful diagonal lines run to the right of his face down towards the exploding tower, flames coming out of every opening and debris scattered everywhere. At the base of the tower some people on horseback try to escape. At Nimrod's feet lies his crown (to the left), and in the bottom right-hand corner the head of a dying man is visible.

Charles Ricketts, 'Nimrod' (details) (1893)

Nimrod in Ricketts's image is not an older bearded general (as in the Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum, 1553), but a young man who has closed his eyes to symbolize his loneliness now that the confusion of languages has taken hold of his troops. In the poem Nimrod notices that they can no longer understand him:

I was to these a babbler as the rest.

Gleeson White praised the five illustrations that Ricketts made for De Tabley's Poems Dramatic and Lyrical

Take, for instance, the "Nimrod," and note how the impassivity of the stricken hero, with all the accidents of cloud and flame, is rendered more impressive by the oak-sprig in his girdle, plucked from the tree which has since fallen behind him. The lightning still playing on his crown, upon every metallic surface of his spear, and the decoration of his garments, leaves no doubt of the source of the catastrophe. Nor must one fail to recognise the tact of the artist in closing the eyes of the man, who seems to be the only thing remaining alive when all has crumbled about him. To analyse these more minutely, it is interesting to compare the different treatment of the nerveless hand of the Nimrod who has dropped his shield with the searching hands of the figure that represents Death (in the frontispiece "Death of the Old King").

Charles Ricketts, 'Nimrod' (detail) (1893)

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

280. Christ Seen From Behind: Art Around 1890

The crucifixion has been depicted in art so often, that for an artist to come up with a new view verges on the impossible. Usually dramatic effects were sorted by the positioning of the figures around Christ, at the foot of the cross.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York lists examples on its website. Italian painters, for example, 'continually renewed' the Passion scenes 

through creative engagement with established conventions. Unlike the stories associated with Christ's birth, the episodes of the Passion are colored by painful emotions, such as guilt, intense pity, and grief, and artists often worked to make the viewer share these feelings. In this, they supported the work of contemporary theologians, who urged the faithful to identify with Christ in his sufferings that they might also hope to share his exaltation.

Charles Ricketts, illustration for Oscar Wilde, The Sphinx (1894)

In Charles Ricketts's version of Christ on the cross, published as an illustration for Oscar Wilde's The Sphinx (1894), the crucified figure is on his own, and, remarkably, hangs as if on the cross, but the cross has been omitted from the image.  

The Metropolitan considers a number of ways to enhance the dramatic quality of the scene:

The climactic moment of the Passion story is the Crucifixion itself. Paintings of the subject were usually intended to foster meditation on Christ’s self-sacrifice, and they thus indicate his suffering by showing him hanging heavily with bowed head and bleeding wounds

Ricketts does suggest the heaviness of Christ's burden, but avoids showing the wounds. The bowed head is shown, but the face is not, and the head of hair is almost entirely covered by the crown of thorns.  

The MET's website argues: 

The figure of Christ is rarely distorted, however, and his state of undress often reveals an idealized body based on classical models. A crowd of other figures typically surrounds the cross, and they are frequently notable for their expressiveness. As depicted on a small altarpiece by Pietro Lorenzetti, Christ is crucified between the two thieves mentioned in some of the Gospels, while the Virgin Mary swoons piteously in the foreground and a host of figures, some in oriental dress and some in Roman armor, take part in the execution or gaze at Christ as though he has somehow stirred them

Fra Angelico, 'The Crucifixion'
(Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York)
The MET: 

Fra Angelico's small panel of around 1420 includes many of the same elements, but sets them within a more methodically constructed space. This change reflects a shift in style, but it also imbues the scene with enhanced reality, which in turn makes the scene more accessible to pious meditation. In addition, Fra Angelico magnifies the emotional responses of the figures around Christ's solitary cross: the Virgin Mary falls to the ground, Saint John clasps his hands intensely, Mary Magdalene reaches out in a sharply foreshortened view, angels lament against the gold ground of the sky, and the semicircle of onlookers assume carefully varied attitudes of indifference, pity, or wonder.

In my earlier blog on Ricketts's representation of the crucifixion (see also a blogpost from 2013 on the same subject), I included a prepatory drawing by Fra Bartolomeo. I received a reaction on these blogs from Hugh Chiverton in Hong Kong, suggesting that Ricketts's image seems to be unique in its kind. However, he suggested to consider two images by contemporary artists that may be of interest.

James Tissot (1836-1902) made hundreds of gouache illustrations of biblical scenes, all researched in the region of the 'historical' events. One of those paintings has an interesting angle on the crucifixion scene: it is called 'Behold Thy Son (Stabat Mater)'. The whole series is part of the collection of the Brooklyn Museum.

James Tissot, 'Behold Thy Son (Stabat Mater)',
watercolour, c. 1886-1894 (Brooklyn Museum)
The Tissot watercolour shows the cross seen from behind, but unlike Ricketts's image, we do not see the head of Christ or his back, which are hidden behind the cross. We do see part of his sides, and of the loin cloth he is wearing. The focus of the image is on Maria, Mary Magdalene, St John, and others, including Roman soldiers.

The scene is full of drama, and people. Once more, the obvious loneliness of Christ in Ricketts's image forms a stark contrast with this traditional imagery.

Another image that our reader in Hong Kong, Hugh Chiverton, sent to me, was a photograph by Fred Holland Day (1864-1933), who, in 1898, did a series of photographs with himself as Jesus, viewed from several angles.

Fred Holland Day, 'The Crucifixion',
photograph (1895)
Some of these photographs show the cross in profile, others are close-up studies of Christ's suffering face, and one pictures a soldier on watch with the cross and Christ at an oblique angle. The series of photographs evoked a motion picture.

While Tissot's images were pious, Day's photographs were seen as 'too realistic', as blasphemous even. Fred Holland Day and Herbert Copeland were the American publishers of Oscar Wilde's The Sphinx. Day therefore had seen Ricketts's image.

Among the many depictions of the crucifixion, the one by Ricketts seems to be unique.