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Charles Ricketts and the Vale Press 1896-1903

Introduction

Charles Ricketts (1866-1931) was a versatile and innovative craftsman active throughout his life variously as an illustrator, typographer, wood engraver, publisher, theatre designer, painter, sculptor, jewellery designer, connoisseur, art adviser, and writer. Among other things he exerted a powerful influence on the development of modern book design.

This exhibition presents materials that illustrate Ricketts's achievements as a typographer, publisher, and wood engraver within the context of what may be called the typographical ferment of the eighteen-nineties.

The majority of materials on display are drawn from the fine collection of books assembled by the Liverpool collector William Noble (1838-1912) and held in the University Library's Special Collections and Archives. William Noble was Treasurer to the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board from 1877 until his retirement in 1906. His bequest to the University of Liverpool included his book collection and a sum of money to establish a fellowship. Noble pursued additions to his collection with a passion as shown by his letters to Ricketts and other publishers of the day requesting by return of post this or that book or asking when a particular item was due if publication had been delayed.

Through the generosity of Liverpool City Library materials are also on display from an important portfolio of items assembled by the art historian H C Marillier who corresponded with Ricketts and collected items from the Vale Press including advertising prospectuses and proofs.

I would like to extend my thanks for their help to my colleagues in Special Collections and Archives, Joyce Little and Janet Graham of Liverpool City Libraries, Ian Qualtrough and Suzanne Yee of the Graphics Unit, and Matthew Clough, Curator of the University Art Collections for hosting this exhibition.

Dr Maureen Watry, Head of Special Collections and Archives, University of Liverpool Library, January 2004

 

The Typographical Ferment of the Eighteen-Nineties

In the sphere of book design the eighteen-nineties was a period of experimentation inspired both by technical advances and a reaction to them. For example commercial wood engraving was superseded in the eighteen-nineties when the printing industry turned to line and half-tone printing blocks for the illustration of books and magazines. The new photo-mechanical methods were put to good use by illustrators such as Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898), but were railed against by William Morris (1834-1896) and others who were not simply concerned with illustration, but with the harmonious unity of paper, binding, text and illustration, - the 'Book Beautiful'.

Some progress towards this ideal had already been made by imaginative publishers such as William Heinemann and the Bodley Head. These publishers employed artists specifically to design the physical appearance of the books they published, thereby harmonising the disparate elements of printed text, illustration, and binding.

One of the earliest models of artistic publishing, the Century Guild Hobby Horse had been displayed at the first Arts and Crafts Exhibition in 1888, and in 1890 the artist Whistler had undertaken the layout and design of his book, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies showing the effects that could be achieved using commercial type. However, it was William Morris's work at the Kelmscott Press, beginning with the publication of The Glittering Plain in 1891, that gave the greatest impetus to the new movement in book design. Morris's use of wood engravings reinvigorated the art and inspired the young Charles Ricketts (1866-1931), an illustrator, binding designer, and professional engraver, to found his own press and embark on a quest to revive wood engraving as a legitimate form of artistic endeavour.

  1. Arthur Gaskin, Good King Wenceslaus, Birmingham, 1895
  2. James Abbott McNeill Whistler, The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, Heinemann, London, 1890
  3. William Morris, The Glittering Plain, Kelmscott Press, 1891
  4. Oscar Wilde, Salomé, Mathews and Lane, London, 1894
  5. Norman Gale, Orchard Songs, Mathews & Lane, London, 1893
  6. The Yellow Book, Mathews & Lane, London, 1894
  7. Michael Field, The Tragic Mary, George Bell, London, 1890
  8. William Nicholson, An Alphabet, Heinemann, London, 1898
  9. The Century Guild Hobby Horse, London, 1884-1893

 

Charles Ricketts's 'Earliest Experiments in the Shaping of Books'

In 1889 Ricketts and his lifelong companion Charles Shannon (1863-1937) published The Dial, 'a periodical devoted to art' from their home in the Vale, Chelsea. A complimentary copy sent to Oscar Wilde prompted him to visit Ricketts and Shannon and tell them 'it is quite delightful, but don't bring out a second number, all perfect things should be unique'. In fact four more issues were published between 1892 and 1897.

Wilde's friendship led to Ricketts's first commissions as 'a designer of books and bindings'. In 1891 Ricketts designed six books including Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray and The House of Pomegranates. The first was influenced by Whistler's idiosyncratic typographical experiments for his own Gentle Art of Making Enemies, 1890, while the second is Ricketts's first fully realised task as a typographer. Throughout the early eighteen-nineties Ricketts continued to develop his skill as a designer of bindings several of which were widely imitated.

While working for commercial publishers Ricketts and Shannon embarked on a plan to publish 'a set of old classical books'. They produced two books, Daphnis and Chloe (1893) and Hero and Leander (1894). Both were printed at the Ballantyne Press under Ricketts's supervision and both contain illustrations engraved on the wood by Ricketts and Shannon. These books represent a significant typographical advance in Ricketts's work, and are remarkable not least for the largely successful partnership between text and illustrations.

With the publication of these two books Ricketts had embarked on his quest to become 'a publisher in earnest'.

  1. The Dial, London, 1889-1897
  2. Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891
  3. Oscar Wilde, The House of Pomegranates, 1891
  4. Christopher Marlowe, Hero and Leander, London, 1894
  5. George Thornley [trans.], Daphnis and Chloe, London, 1893
  6. John Gray, Silverpoints, 1893
  7. John Addington Symonds, In the Key of Blue, Mathews & Lane, London, 1893
  8. John Byrne Leicester Warren, Poems Dramatic and Lyrical, Mathews & Lane, London, 1893


Charles Ricketts, 'A Publisher in Earnest'

Ricketts's 'long-cherished scheme' to become a 'printer, publisher, bookbinder with a small shop' was finally realised when William Llewellyn Hacon (1860-1910), a wealthy barrister, agreed to make an initial investment of £1,000 on the understanding that his return would be a half share in any profits. Ricketts named the Vale Press after his house in the Vale, Chelsea. Vale Press books were published by the Hacon and Ricketts partnership as were books from Lucien Pissarro's Eragny Press, and wood engravings and lithographs by Ricketts's friends.

Vale Press books are a mixture of literary classics, work by Ricketts's friends, and books Ricketts himself enjoyed reading. Ricketts used three typefaces of his own design, hand made paper, and ornaments and illustrations that he designed and engraved to produce forty-six titles that embody the clarity of a single craftsman's vision. Ricketts arranged with the master printer Charles McCall to have Vale Press books printed at the Ballantyne Press on hand presses by a carefully chosen selection of printers.

The first book issued from the Press in 1896 was Milton's Early Poems. Ricketts's Vale typeface was used in most of the books, although a smaller face known as the Avon fount was designed by him to print Shakespeare's plays. His final typeface the Kings's fount was a curious mixture of experimental letterforms and was not well received, although Ricketts 'like many a fond parent', viewed his 'youngest fount with the greatest affection'. The Bibliography published privately by Ricketts in 1904 after the closure of the press in 1903, contains all three typefaces.

  1. John Milton, Early Poems, Vale Press, London, 1896
  2. Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnets from the Portuguese, Vale Press, London, 1897
  3. Michael Drayton, The Nymphidia, Vale Press, 1896
  4. Apuleius, De Cupidinis et Psyches, Vale Press, London, 1901
  5. Charles Ricketts, A Bibliography of the Books issued by Hacon & Ricketts, London, 1904
  6. William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Vale Press, London, 1900
  7. Omar Khayyám, The Rubáiyát, Vale Press, London, 1901
  8. Charles Ricketts, A Defence of the Revival of Printing, Vale Press, 1899

 

The Eragny Press

Lucien Pissarro (1863-1944) moved to London in 1890. Ricketts's friend John Gray introduced Pissarro to the artistic circle centred on the Vale, Chelsea where Ricketts and Shannon lived. Two portfolios of Pissarro's wood engravings were published from the Vale and he also contributed illustrations to four numbers of The Dial.

In 1894 Pissarro established the Eragny Press named after the Pissarro family's home village in France. The first publication was a fairy tale, The Queen of the Fishes. This was illustrated with wood engravings in colour and the text was handwritten and reproduced from line blocks.

In the subsequent fifteen books Ricketts allowed Pissarro to use the Vale type and the books were published by Hacon and Ricketts. After the closure of the Vale Press in 1903 Pissarro used a typeface of his own design, the Brook type and from that point he and his wife Esther were both printers and publishers of Eragny Press books.

From 1903 until the closure of the Press in 1914 only seventeen books were printed. The decline in the output of the press was due to the inclusion in Eragny books of engravings printed in colours from several woodblocks. Pissarro's refusal to compromise his artistic ideals, his high standards, and production costs meant that although he produced some charming books he rarely made a profit. The small format books were modestly priced but labour intensive to produce and the fusion of English and French aesthetics made them difficult to sell on either side of the Channel.

  1. Margaret Rust, Queen of the Fishes, Eragny Press, 1894
  2. Robert Steele (ed.), Some Old French and English Ballads, Eragny Press, 1905
  3. C'est d'Aucassin et de Nicolete, Eragny Press, 1903
  4. François Villon, Les Ballades, Eragny Press, 1900
  5. Pierre de Ronsard, Choix de Sonnets, Eragny Press, 1902
  6. Charles Perrault, Deux contes de ma mère loye, Eragny Press, 1899
  7. Riquet à la houppe, Eragny Press, 1907
  8. Gérard de Nerval, Histoire de la reine du matin, Eragny Press, 1909
  9. Judith Gautier, Album de poèmes tirés du Livre de Jade, Eragny Press, 1911

 

Bindings

The Vale Press volumes were bound in one of three styles: sober blue paper boards, patterned paper boards, and white buckram. The patterned papers for the Vale Press books as well as those for his own Eragny Press books were printed by Lucien Pissarro. The use of patterned paper bindings formed an integral part of Ricketts's initial conception of the `Book Beautiful'. He intended, however, that this be only a temporary solution to the problem of binding, aiming `to return to the methods of the printer, publisher, and binder of the fifteenth century, regulating the binding to the purse of the purchaser'.

For these alternative bindings, Ricketts evolved a severe rectilinear style in which the position of every line or dot was the result of careful experiment. The special binding for the Vale Press edition of Keats's Poems, 1898 commissioned by William Noble is one example of the spacious simplicity Ricketts achieved using this technique. Ricketts's later style as a binding designer is exemplified in the elegant gold stamped vellum binding for his own Oscar Wilde Recollections published posthumously by the Nonesuch Press in 1932.

  1. Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Blessed Damozel, Vale Press, 1898
  2. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Vale Press, 1899
  3. Sir Philip Sidney, Sonnets, Vale Press, 1898
  4. Thomas Campion, Fifty Songs, Vale Press, 1896
  5. Sir John Suckling, Poems, Vale Press, 1896
  6. Henry Constable, Poems and Sonnets, Vale Press, 1897
  7. Thomas Chatterton, The Rowley Poems, Vale Press, 1898
  8. John Milton, Areopagitica, Eragny Press, 1903
  9. The Book of Ruth and the Book of Esther, Eragny Press, 1896
  10. Thomas Sturge Moore, A Brief Account of the Origin of the Eragny Press, Eragny Press, 1903
  11. Diana White, The Descent of Ishtar, Eragny Press, 1903
  12. Laurence Binyon, Dream Come True, Eragny Press, 1905
  13. Charles Perrault, Histoire de peau d'ane, Eragny Press, 1902
  14. Jules Laforgue, Moralités legendaires, Eragny Press, 1897-98
  15. Emile Verhaeren, Les Petits vieux, Eragny Press, 1901
  16. Ben Jonson, Songs, Eragny Press, 1906
  17. Robert Browning, Some Poems, Eragny Press, 1904
  18. Christina Rossetti, Verses, Eragny Press, 1906
  19. John Keats, Poems, Vale Press, 1898
  20. Charles Ricketts, Oscar Wilde Recollections, Nonesuch Press, 1932


The Poets and the Artists

'Michael Field' was the pen name of Katherine Bradley (1846-1914) and her niece, Edith Cooper (1862-1913). Katherine and Edith wrote plays and poems in collaboration. Their friendship with Ricketts and Shannon led to four of their plays, including a trilogy, being published by the Vale Press with decorations and cover papers by Ricketts. The collaboration began somewhat uneasily. On first being shown the proofs for Ricketts' cover design for Fair Rosamund, they were unhappy but on publication they decided that they felt excited at 'being associated with the newest crest-wave of modern art'.

With their next publication, part of the trilogy of plays, the poets were anxious to impress upon Ricketts the seriousness of presenting The World at Auction, a first edition, to the public. Fortunately, they were enchanted with his decorative setting for the book. Katherine wrote in their journal of 'the most beautiful capital letter in the whole world - those satyrs at the teats of the grapes and one who has sucked too much'. Edith adored the binding design that showed 'the sumptuous sweep of the green peacocks pecking their bay branches with a superb tilt of their heads'.

In the Race of Leaves Ricketts used the imagery of leaves in the wind for the cover paper and the border design. About the border Katherine commented that 'the stability of the design is most imaginatively disturbed by a gust that sweeps the flame at the top of the page and bows it towards Janus, driving the loose leaves around him'.

The iconography of the borders Ricketts designed for the trilogy is charged with meaning, as the salient images from each play are brought together on a single page. In these 'purely renaissance borders' Ricketts expressed his admiration for 'the forgotten designer' whose `unclassed borders and initials' appeared in fifteenth century Venetian books. At the beginning of 1903 Ricketts presented Katherine and Edith with the finished border design for Julia Domna. They had certain reservations: 'The little Vesta in her shrine of reeded columns has a tragic simpleness The border is perhaps slight and unsatisfying close to the profound significance of Vesta and the Fury'. They also noted with disappointment that the cover paper was to be a repetition of that used for The World at Auction. However, when the book was published and lay on a table in Katherine and Edith's house alongside the others printed by the Vale Press they were delighted saying 'we have not felt so strongly excited for years'.

  1. Michael Field, Fair Rosamund, Vale Press, 1897
  2. Michael Field, World at Auction, Vale Press, 1898
  3. Michael Field, Race of Leaves, Vale Press, 1901
  4. Michael Field, Julia Domna, Vale Press, 1903


William Rothenstein, 'Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon, 1897'

Lithograph. Edition of 750 copies. Published in English Portraits (1897-98).

Following an itinerant childhood, during which he 'basked in museums', Charles de Sousy Ricketts enrolled at the City and Guilds Technical Art School in Lambeth in 1882 to learn the craft of wood engraving. There he met Charles Haslewood Shannon, a fellow student, who was to become his life-long friend and companion. On completion of their apprenticeships, they moved to Whistler's old house in the Vale, Chelsea, where they gathered around them a group of artists and writers. Ricketts and Shannon collaborated on several publications issued from the Vale, but in subsequent years Shannon became a painter and lithographer while Ricketts worked in a variety of different fields including book design, jewellery design, theatre design, sculpture, and painting.

Held at Liverpool City Library

 

Charles Shannon, 'Mother and Child, 1918'

Lithograph.

Shannon was singled out by the art critic Joseph Pennell in his Lithographs and Lithographers, 1898 as having 'done more than anyone else' among the younger lithographers. In his practice of the art, Shannon was, Pennell noted, 'thorough to a degree to which no other English artist has followed him. Not content with making his drawings, he has set up a press for himself and has done or has had carried out under his supervision all the work of transferring, etching, and printing'. Shannon purchased a copy of W D Richmond's handbook, The Grammar of Lithography, 1880 when he first thought of practising the art. The subject of Shannon's first lithograph was 'The Vale in Snow', and this along with those included in Shannon's portfolio 'Early Lithographs' owed the scarcity of prints to 'an accidental neglect of the stones during a winter in a damp lumber-room'. Although Ricketts regarded lithography as 'a first-rate autographic medium of infinite range', when he tried his hand at it, he found the 'capricious' medium unsuited to him.

Held at University of Liverpool, Art Collections

 

Lucien Pissarro, 'Twelve Woodcuts in Black and Colours, 1891'

Edition of 12 copies. Published from the Vale, Chelsea.

Lucien Pissarro was the eldest son of Camille Pissarro, the impressionist painter. He had learned to work with colour blocks when he worked with the publishers Manzi, and had some rudimentary instruction in the art of wood engraving from Auguste Lepère. Lucien Pissarro moved to England in 1890 and was introduced to Ricketts and Shannon. He became part of their artistic circle based at their home in the Vale, Chelsea. In 1891 Pissarro's portfolio was published from the Vale. It included three multi-block colour prints in the style that Pissarro was to use to great effect in his later work at his Eragny Press.

 

'The Dial', 1889- 1897

Wood engraving. Proof for the cover of the second number, 1892

The second number of the Dial was undoubtedly a model of craftsmanship and could claim an artistic integrity for it embodied the first stage in Ricketts and Shannon's 'reinvention of wood engraving and lithography as original means of expression'. Such was their confidence in this production that a complimentary copy was sent to that figurehead in the revival of handicraft, William Morris. Morris wrote to confess that he had 'looked at the art portion of it with somewhat mixed feelings as the talent and the aberration of the talent seemed?to be in about equal proportions'. A complimentary copy was also sent to 'Michael Field', whose sex and plurality was at this stage unknown to Ricketts and Shannon. Just how Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper felt on receiving The Dial can be gauged from their private musings on 'that mad journal?with some good line work in it, and rubbish for prose'. However, despite these feelings they were persuaded to contribute to the last two numbers.

Held at Liverpool City Library

 

Vale Press and Eragny Press Lists and Announcements

The lists and announcements circulated by Hacon and Ricketts demonstrate the various techniques used to promote the books to discerning collectors.

Since Ricketts's stated aim in Vale Press books was to 'give a faithful reprint of the first editions, only obvious errors being corrected' it is not surprising that in prospectuses for reprints of early texts reference is made to the use of the 'earliest editions' and adherence to the 'original spelling'. Although importance was given to the scholarly editing of several texts with detailed notes added to the prospectuses, the books themselves generally lacked any critical apparatus, and so none of the editions produced have proved to be of textual significance. Ricketts decided that his aim 'to publish definitive editions' was incompatible with 'aesthetic criticisms or prefaces'.

If collectors were not persuaded to place an order by Ricketts's promise of textual integrity, he appealed to the bibliophile's desire to collect books in series. For example, he created series defined by format. The anxious purchaser was also made aware that any hint of wavering in a decision to order could leave him without a copy of the volume he simply had to own for one or more of the reasons outlined above: 'The publishers cannot guarantee to supply orders received after publication'. The announcements for the Eragny Press books printed by Lucien Pissarro and published by Hacon and Ricketts generally followed the same pattern. From 1903 when Pissarro and his wife Esther published the Eragny Press books themselves the only alteration made to the announcements was in the format. They were issued in a distinctive long narrow format and usually included one of Pissarro's ornamental initials.

Held at Liverpool City Library