Review: Charles Ricketts, Everything for Art

ricketts

Charles Ricketts, Everything for Art: Selected Writings, edited by Nicholas Frankel (Rivendale Press, 2014)

Like many artists of his generation, the cultural contributions of Charles Ricketts (1866-1931) were wide and varied.  He was, variously, a book designer, wood-engraver, draughtsman, painter, sculptor, costume and set designer, jewellery designer, and talented typographer. He founded one press – The Vale Press, whose beautiful books are still greatly sought after – and two short-lived yet influential magazines, The Dial and The Pageant. The latter promoted not only his own work (and that of his partner, the artist Charles Shannon), but also that of relatively unknown British artists and writers such as ‘Michael Field’, Thomas Sturge Moore and Charles Conder.

Ricketts and Shannon were, in their own quiet way, a power couple; their extensive art collection ranged from Persian miniatures to Puvis de Chavannes, whilst their Chelsea – and, later, Richmond – house served as a meeting place for like-minded individuals, many of whom (like Roger Fry and Charles Holmes) would go on to assume positions of great responsibility in the British art world.  ‘The Vale is one of the few houses in London where one is never bored’ claimed Oscar Wilde, one of Ricketts’s most famous collaborators. Though Shannon had his moments, it is probably fair to say that Ricketts – excitable and touchy in equal measure – was the chief reason for this. In the words of William Rothenstein, another early follower, ‘[Ricketts] was a fascinating talker… he had been nowhere except to the Louvre, yet he seemed to know everything, to have been everywhere’.

Amongst all of this activity, Ricketts also found the time to write, both occasional essays and full-length studies, various examples of which are included in a new volume Charles Ricketts, Everything for Art: Selected Writings, edited by 1890s expert Nicholas Frankel.

It is probably unfair to refer to Ricketts as a ‘neglected’ figure. Compared to many other artists and critics of this period, he has received a considerable amount of attention in the last twenty years or so, including an excellent biography by J. G. P Delaney, a detailed review of the Vale Press by Maureen Watry, several searching essays by David Peters Corbett, and an ongoing blog by Paul Van Capelleveen. Despite all of this attention, however, he does remain undervalued, particularly as a critic. This may be due to his ‘negative’ reaction to Roger Fry’s 1910 exhibition of Post-Impressionist art, which still serves for many historians as the turning point in early twentieth-century British art. No matter that Ricketts’s reaction is usually misunderstood and that there are, in fact, interesting links between his writing and the avant-garde ideals of Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound; or that Ricketts was busy promoting contemporary French art when Roger Fry was still painting Claudian landscapes in the mid 90s.[1] The important thing for most people is that Ricketts was not fully behind Fry’s revolution (and, as such, ceases to matter).

Frankel’s book chooses to sidestep this issue. On the one hand this seems like a fair decision: this is not a book about art politics, per se, and (particularly for those who read a lot of books on Edwardian art) the 1910 exhibition is a tiresome subject at best. On the other, Frankel’s often erudite readings of Ricketts’s criticism could sometimes do from being placed in a wider context, especially in the Edwardian years. Fry was, after all, a fan of Ricketts’ writing, elements of which clearly echo work by other critics, such as Laurence Binyon. Furthermore, though Ricketts was a very talented artist-critic, he was by no means alone in combining these two roles (a close comparison between his work and that of contemporaries such as Walter Sickert, William Rothenstein and Charles Holmes would be great to see).

These are, however, passing objections in the face of an invaluable volume. This book is beautifully produced (as any book on Ricketts should be) and contains an fascinating selection of Ricketts’s writing from the early 1890s into the 1930s. There are five sections: ‘Writings on Printing and Book Design’; ‘Writings on Art’; ‘Memoirs and Recollections’; ‘Fiction’; concluding with three ‘Appendices’ collecting contemporary articles and interviews on Ricketts. Each section is introduced in a series of essays at the beginning of the book, which also includes a short biography and timeline. The essays themselves are edited and referenced where appropriate. Frankel has been particularly patient when it comes to tracking down obscure quotations. Eight colour plates are included, including images of five decorative bindings designed by Ricketts.

Though the editor’s interest in Ricketts seems to have stemmed from his 1890s connections, many of the pieces are Edwardian in origin, particularly the writings on art, many of which have been gleaned from the artist’s 1903 study of the Prado, and his 1910 monograph on Titian. Those looking for criticism of contemporary artists may be disappointed. An essay on Charles Shannon is included, alongside essays on important late nineteenth-century figures such as William Morris, Gustave Moreau and Puvis de Chavannes (the latter of whom, in particular, was an object of idol worship amongst many Edwardian artists). There is no space, however, for Ricketts’s 1909 essay ‘In Memory of Charles Conder’, ‘Auguste Rodin’ or the introduction to the 1911 exhibition ‘A Century of Art’ (all of which were included in the 1913 compendium Pages on Art). His essay on ‘Post-Impressionism’ is, unsurprisingly, also omitted.

Ricketts’s writings on Old Masters such as Titian, Watteau and Velasquez, or on the ancient art of Praxiteles, represent far more, however, than a nostalgic wander through well-travelled corridors. Nothing is taken for granted here: Ricketts wasn’t the type of critic to dish out compliments lightly, or to trade in witty epigrams for the sake of it. He looked at art not only through an artist’s eyes, but the eyes of an artist utterly engrossed with the processes and traditions of art. Strong-willed, yes, and dismissive at times; there was nonetheless nothing amateur about Ricketts’s criticism. He was a thorough and thoughtful writer, who refused to be swayed by popular opinion.

Though there may be absences in this collection, there are countless riches also. Rickett’s strange and beguiling memoir of Oscar Wilde (in which the author appears as a character rather than the narrator) is included in its entirely – and the three contemporary articles on Ricketts all make for interesting reading. Ricketts’s fiction may not be to everyone’s taste, but nonetheless serves as further proof that his creative talents extended in many directions. The selections here are largely dreamy, historical set-pieces, very much in the Walter Pater mode. One wonders what happened to an idea Ricketts had in 1900, and noted in his journal: a novel about ‘the terrible odds against common people, the tragedy of common lives and the absence of human intercourse among common people’, in which ‘the happiest moments of [the main character’s] life will be in his solitary walks to and from his work’? For every idea that Ricketts set down on paper, there were probably a dozen more that never made it so far. We must nonetheless be thankful to Rivendale Press for publishing this fine and varied selection of writings. Next stop, a new edition of his journals?

Samuel Shaw, January 2014


[1] For more on this see David Peters Corbett’s essay in the recent Companion to British Art: 1600 to the Present (Wiley Blackwell 2013)

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