Between Jesus and Oscar Wilde
Charles Ricketts (1866-1931) as an Illustrator of the Parables and of the Poems in Prose
Exhibition from 2 October 2016 through 8 January 2017
The parables from the New Testament are allegorical stories with a Christian moral. They were popular with the Victorians. Many editions appeared, some with colourful reproductions in chromolithography, others with pre-Rafaelite wood-engravings. Shortly after 1900 the artist Charles Ricketts published his version of The Parables from the Gospels.
The illustrations come in a variety of styles. See for example ‘The Parable of The Prodigal Son’.
1847: a quasi-medieval style; thorns symbolize the adversity of his career. 1864: the artist J.E Millais followed the pre-Rafaelite principles in drawing after nature; the landscape is English, the garments look oriental in some illustrations.
1903: Ricketts started as an Art Nouveau artist, but by 1903 his style was more modern; his wood-engravings referred to those of Dürer, Rembrandt and other old masters.
Millais worried over the reproduction of his drawings by the engravers. Ricketts, belonging to a younger generation, sought to control all stages of the book’s production. He cut his own woodblocks, founded a publishing firm, ordered paper to be made, designed typefaces, and supervised the printing.
Who was Charles Ricketts?
Charles Ricketts was born 150 years ago, on 2 October 1866. He was educated as an artist in the decorative arts, worked as an illustrator for magazines, and founded his own magazine with a circle of friends. In 1889 he met Oscar Wilde, whose books he would design later. Between 1896 and 1904 he was the publisher of a private press, The Vale Press. Later, he worked as an art critic, an adviser, and as a stage and costume designer. He died in 1931.
A shop was opened in order to sell the work: At the Sign of the Dial. Small exhibitions were organized there. In March 1898, works by Millais were on display. Ricketts’s illustrations of the parables are smaller in size than those by Millais; yet, they are more complex, and detached. Ricketts has hidden his emotions in the composition. The symbolism of his designs is ambiguous.
Ricketts began working on his ten designs for The Parables (1903) before 1900. He saw them as ‘the high-water-mark in my work, as far as design goes’. He started to draw stamp-sized sketches; later he made drawings with a quill-pen on a format of 5x5 cm. Corrections were done in Chinese white and black ink. For years he worked on the drawings, before, in 1902, he started to make the blocks. Cutting one illustration took him three days.
For ‘The Parable of the Rich Man’ Ricketts rejected the obvious design of richness and well-filled barns. Often, he selected less popular parts of the stories. In this case, he chose to illustrate an abstract phrase: ‘Thou foul, this night thy soul shall be required of thee’. However, his illustration was full of movement. While the soul is carried away, the lamp is swinging to and fro, leaves are blown about, and the table is being overturned, the rich man bends over to try to capture his escaping soul.
Similar choices were made for the illustrations that accompany ‘The Prodigal Son’. The years of parties and waste went unillustrated. Ricketts shows the prodigal at his lowest point, as a swineherd, kneeling in the mud beside a trough, like a pig. He hides his face. In his designs Ricketts often included fragments of daily life that were not mentioned in the parables. It makes them more humane and lively.
Ricketts designed a number of bookbindings for works of Oscar Wilde. He also illustrated a few of them, such as A House of Pomegranates (1891). The binding of Wilde’s posthumously published De Profundis (1905) displays his designs of a caged and a free dove.
In 1894, Wilde published six of his prose poems in The Fortnightly Review. A little later, Ricketts made illustrations for them; these were never used. Reproductions of these sketches are hanging in this room.
Wilde considered literature as the highest art form; art was merely illustration. Ricketts did not agree. Stories are there to be told over and over, changing in the process, whether in words or images. They are like living organisms. Ricketts’s work cannot be considered mere illustrations of the prose poems; he used his images to embellish the poems, and to tell a story of his own.
In Wilde’s ‘The Disciple’ the pool mourns the dead of Narcissus, not because of his beauty, but because of its own reflection in the eyes of Narcissus. The pool is as idle as was Narcissus. Ricketts adapted the story to his taste: Narcissus’s face cannot be seen, and so the pool cannot see itself reflected in his eye. The mere presence of Narcissus after his death is an invention of Ricketts, as is the introduction of a centaur. The centaur was mentioned by Wilde in another, unpublished prose poem. Ricketts remembered Wilde reciting this tale. The centaur symbolizes Wilde, the narrator, as well as Lust.
Ricketts’s recollections of Wilde were published posthumously in 1932: Oscar Wilde. Recollections. The binding echoes the design of an earlier one by Ricketts that he did for Wilde’s The Sphinx (1893).
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, ‘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 stories, Wilde explains (in Ricketts’s story) 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’.
The editor of The First Edition Club, A.J.A. Symons, was told that the brass plate for the binding had not yet been paid for. All copies were bound in red leather after a design by Ricketts (his monogram ‘CR’ appears at the bottom).
Paul van Capelleveen