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.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

279. Illustrated Editions of The Picture of Dorian Gray

A recent book by Xavier Giudicelli discusses the illustrated editions of Oscar Wilde's novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. Interestingly, the first illustrated edition appeared in 1906, six years after Wilde had died. (Giudicelli states that the first illustrated edition was published in 1908, see note below).

Xavier Giudicelli, Portraits de Dorian Gray (2016)
In the novel the portrait of the hero plays an important role, as it changes while the hero himself does not seem to change at all (except of course for his malignant character). It may seem surprising that illustrated editions were not considered during Wilde's lifetime. However, the novel only had three impressions. The first one was in magazine form, and the last one was suppressed, as the Wilde trials went the wrong way. Illustrating a novel by a convicted author could have ruined an artist's reputation. 

Giudicelli's study, Portraits de Dorian Gray. Le texte, le livre, l'image (2016), looks promising, although on first perusal I found some disturbing and odd mistakes. For example, on page 18 Wilde's The Sphinx is mentioned in a footnote, and the author seems to think that the book was illustrated by 'Charles Ricketts et Charles Shannon'. Of course, Shannon had nothing to do with it. The author confuses both artists in a paragraph on page 58, writing about A House of Pomegranates

les décorations sont de Shannon, tandis que les gravures placées avant chaque conte sont de Ricketts.

Obviously, it is the other way around, as every bibliography duly notes.

I haven't been able to read the whole book carefully yet, but these errors and the illustration of A House of Pomegranates disturbed me. A full page colour image of the binding, designed by Charles Ricketts, is on page 59. This copy is in such a worn state that the inclusion of the image does not do credit to the designer nor to the author. There are many better copies around. 

Oscar Wilde, A House of Pomegranates: a worn copy

Another curious mistake is the illustration on page 30, that is meant to depict the 'couverture de l'édition originale de The Picture of Dorian Gray'. 

The illustration shows a full leather binding, with raised bands, gilded and decorated with red dots on the spine (Ricketts's original spine design has been discarded). The front of the binding seems to be some sort of reproduction of Ricketts's original design, but it isn't. It is based on a badly redrawn image. See for example the star after Gray: it should have been a group of seven dots representing a flower. See the circle between Dorian and Gray: in the original there is a circled dot. The binding depicted must be a private binding, a modern one probably, and certainly a rebound copy.

Has the author of this new study on Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray ever seen the original edition?

Decoration by Charles Ricketts 
Binding with a badly drawn decoration after the design by Charles Ricketts
Both images are from a private collection. A better choice of illustrations would have made this a better, and more correct, book.

Note, 1 December 2016:
Michael Seeney was so kind to point out that the author of the book believes that the first illustrated edition dates from 1908, but Stuart Mason, in Art and Morality, lists an earlier one: an illustrated Russian translations from 1906. These illustrations are by Modest Durnov (1868-1928), who has been described as 'a dandy in the English style'.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

278. A.S. Byatt Visits Ricketts Exhibition and Book Room of Museum Meermanno

Last Thursday, the writer A.S. Byatt visited The Hague as part of a Dutch tour. Next December, she will receive the Erasmus Prize in the Royal Palace of Amsterdam, and in the build-up to that ceremony, a number of activities have been organized, including an interview.

A visit to Museum Meermanno, the House of the Book in The Hague, was scheduled for the afternoon of 17 November. After a refreshing lunch in the former kitchen of this mansion turned museum, and an introduction on the history of its collections by Rickey Tax (acting director), Mrs. Byatt - Dame Antonia Susan Duffy - was shown the long book room on the first floor.

A.S. Byatt in Museum Meermanno, 2016
[Photo: Ineke Oostveen]
The same afternoon a Dutch translation of her new work, Peacock & Vine. Fortuny and Morris in Life and at Work (2016) was to be launched at the British Embassy in The Hague. As a surprise, the museum proudly showed her a complete collection of William Morris's Kelmscott Press in a book case manufactured by Morris's workshop.

Kelmscott Press book case, Museum Meermanno
[Photo: Ineke Oostveen]

A.S. Byatt and Peter John Duffy, with Paul van Capelleveen and Shanti van Dam
in front of the Kelmscott Press book case, Museum Meermanno, 2016
[Photo: Ineke Oostveen]
Obviously, the writer who had recently studied the life and fabric designs of Morris was pleasantly surprised to see all his books together in a matching case. One of the books was handed to her, John Ruskin's The Nature of Gothic. She has quoted a few phrases from this book in her own Peacock & Vine.

A.S. Byatt holds a Kelmscott Press edition of The Nature of Gothic,
Museum Meermanno, 2016 [Photo: Ineke Oostveen]
Of course, the edition of Chaucer's tales was also presented to her, along with some smaller books.

Paul van Capelleveen, A.S. Byatt and Peter Gordon Duffy,
with Chaucer's works, Museum Meermanno, 2016 [Photo: Ineke Oostveen]
After this, Byatt also visited the small exhibition about Charles Ricketts where she was delighted with the drawings and stories. 

It was wonderfully rewarding to show the books and exhibits to an author who visibly enjoyed the objects and surroundings, and who thanked us for these 'revelations'.

A.S. Byatt, signed copy of Peacock & Vine (2016)


Charles Ricketts’s Mysterious Mother
By J.G.P. Delaney and Corine Verney

Design: Huug Schipper|Studio Tint, The Hague
48 pages, full colour, illustrated, including a photograph of Charles Ricketts as a boy never published before
Edition: 100 copies

Price: € 40,- (including handling and international postage). Price in Europe: € 35,-.

To order copies please contact
Paypal payments accepted (

Select Europe or International

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

277. An Indispensable Supplement to Charles Ricketts's Biography

An indispensable supplement to the biography of the artist, book designer, publisher and art critic Charles Ricketts (1866-1931):

Charles Ricketts’s Mysterious Mother
By J.G.P. Delaney and Corine Verney

When Delaney published his biography of Charles Ricketts in 1990, he had had considerable difficulty with Ricketts’s mother. There was little information about her to be found, and what was there was inconsistent. Some said that Ricketts’s mother had been born in France, but was of Italian and Spanish origin; others stated that she was Neapolitan, with some French blood, and generally, she has been described as French.

Ricketts felt a deep affection for his mother, who died when he was fourteen. At sixteen he lost his father. He argued that he had a deep bond with France. 

In Charles Ricketts’s Mysterious Mother, the remarkable, moving, and hitherto untold story of Ricketts’s mother, will reaveal the truth about her origin. Delaney writes: Ricketts’s mother was not named ‘Hélène de Sousy’, she was not the daughter of the marquis de Soucy, she was not French in origin, nor was she illegitimate. She was born in Rome, and ten years older than one imagined.

Design: Huug Schipper|Studio Tint, The Hague
48 pages, full colour, bound by Van Waarden, Zaandam
Illustrated, including a photograph of Charles Ricketts as a boy that has never been published before
Edition: 100 copies
Price: € 40,- (including handling and international postage). Price in Europe: € 35,-.

To order copies please contact
Paypal payments accepted (

Select Europe or International

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

276. Cats and mice

A photo from the archive of The British Museum blog (25 September 2015):

Mummified cat, drawing of mice by Charles Shannon (The British Museum)
A mummified cat next to some drawings of mice by Charles Shannon and a drawing of cats.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

275. The Label on a Sea-Nymph

In July 2015, I noted that an early painting by Charles Shannon had not been sold at an Irish auction. This was 'A Sea Nymph', an undated painting, apparently signed 'CHS'. The signature of the painter nor the label on the back of the painting, as reproduced by the auctioneers, could be deciphered. 

[See blog 205 A Sea Nymph by Charles Shannon.]

Charles H. Shannon, 'A Sea Nymph'
The current owner of this painting has now come to the rescue.

Monogram 'CHS', for Charles Hazelwood Shannon, 'A Sea Nymph'
The painting did not sell at auction; it was later acquired from the original owner by the buyer. It is he (who desires to stay anonymous), who just now has sent me some images of the monogram 'CHS' (ascertaining the authorship of Shannon), and of the label on the back.

Label on the back of 'A Sea Nymph'
The label is that of the firm of J.J. Patrickson, 120, Fulham Road, South Kensington. According to the current owner, the firm was in business there between 1920 and 1961, and he wonders if the frame is original, 'as the canvas is also unlined'. [See also: British Picture Framemakers, 1600-1950 online.]

The label tells us that the firm had versatile ambitions, as was usual: they did 'restoration & renovation of oil paintings & engravings', they could supply 'old frames, copied, cut down & enlarged', and they had 'mouldings for the framing of photographs, etchings, watercolours, engravings, etc., always in stock'.

The painting might have had an interesting provenance: when was it sold by Shannon? Who acquired it? Who had it framed (and perhaps later reframed)?

[Thanks are due to the current owner, who mailed me the images on 1 November 2016.]

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

274. Christ Seen From Behind

Last Saturday, we visited the Fra Bartolomeo (or Bartolommeo, 1472-1517) exhibition at the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen in Rotterdam. Dozens of drawings illustrate his working method for religious paintings: pencil and ink studies of arms, draperies, bended foots of patrons, saints and other figures. The Rotterdam museum has the largest Fra Bartolomeo collection in the world, which mainly consists of hundreds of drawings that were gathered into two albums by the Florentine collector Niccolò Gabburri (1676-1742).

A large altar piece dominates the exhibition rooms. The upper part of this 'Madonna della Misericiordia' (1515) from the collection of the Museo Nazionale di Villa Guinigi, Lucca has an image of Christ with his arms outstretched representing the crucifixion.

Fra Bartolomeo, 'Madonna della Misericordia' (1515)
Two small sketches illustrated the working process for this part of the painting. Several sketches of the head of Christ and his naked torso with the outstretched arms show that Fra Bartolomeo studied every detail and considered several options, before he started on the painting.

Elsewhere in the museum, in a dark cellar like long room, a selection of drawings from other Renaissance artists such as Albrecht Dürer are on display from the museum's print room. Included is yet another sketch by Fra Bartolomeo: 'Studies for the upper half of the body and right arm of the crucified Christ seen from behind', executed in black chalk, heightened with yellow on ochre prepared paper (inventory number I 563 N39).

Fra Bartolomeo, study for Christ (Museum Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam)
Earlier I tried to find such images of Christ seen on the back, because Ricketts included an image of the crucified Christ seen from behind as the last image in Oscar Wilde's The Sphinx (1894) - see blog 92 'With the back to the viewer'

Charles Ricketts, illustration from The Sphinx (detail)
This is a very rare example of Christ with the back to the viewer. Fra Bartolomeo never depicted Christ in this position, but needed to study the musculature from all angles. The museum's description of this image states:

A wooden crucifix that belonged to the preacher Savonarola was probably the inspiration for the type of crucified Christ that Fra Bartolommeo developed in his early years. Given the precision with which the tension in the muscles and tendons is depicted, this early drawing must have been made from a live model. Fra Bartolommeo has drawn the right arm a second time, focussing on light and shade.

There seems to be no relation to the paintings and other studies. Can Ricketts have known an image of this drawing?

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

273. A Dedication Copy of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray

In 1932, Elkin Mathews Ltd., London, published catalogue Forty-Two, Books of the "Nineties". Included were six books by the Victorian author Eugene Lee-Hamilton (1845-1907).
Eugene Lee-Hamilton as an invalid (1889)

For twenty years, Lee-Hamilton led the life of an invalid, after he suddenly lost the use of his legs in 1873. He was nursed by his mother, but from time to time his half-sister Violet Paget (the writer Vernon Lee) also looked after him. Gradually, some improvements in his situation were noted, but a complete recovery occurred only after his mother had died.

He alluded to this recovery in a letter to Oscar Wilde included in the catalogue that was published by Elkin Mathews in 1932. A copy of Sonnets of the Wingless Hours (1894) was inscribed "To the author of Salomé, a little tribute of admiration. Florence. May '94'. This was before his complete recovery in 1896.

This copy came from the collection of A.J.A. Symons, an ardent collector of the 'nineties'. Inserted in it was a letter from Lee-Hamilton to Oscar Wilde, in which he gave some details of 'his miraculous recovery and thanking Wilde for a gift of The Sphinx upon which he makes detailed observations’. No letters from Oscar Wilde to Lee-Hamilton seem to have survived.

The copy of The Sphinx is now offered for sale. Sotheby's is selling The Library of an English Bibliophile and in Part VI of these sales (scheduled for 20 October) lot no. 185 describes the copy that Oscar Wilde had sent to him. The dedication reads:

Eugene Lee-Hamilton | from his | friend the author. | in memory of | one delightful | afternoon and | many delightful | sonnets. | June | 94

Sotheby's estimates that this copy will fetch £20.000-£30.000.

Dedication by Oscar Wilde to Eugene Lee-Hamilton (1894)
Note, 30 October 2016:
The book fetched £37.500.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

272. A Parable Painted by Charles Ricketts

In 1945, a painting by Charles Ricketts was sold at Sotheby's Parke-Bernet Galleries in New York. It was acquired by The Newark Museum (New Jersey). This week the museum is selling the painting to benefit the acquisitions fund. The painting is called 'The Prodigal Son', and measures 44.5 x 57.2 cm. Christie's auction of 12-13 October, lists the painting under lot number 23, and expects to sell it for an estimated US$ 3,000-5,000. 

Charles Ricketts, 'The Prodigal Son'
Ricketts had used several subjects from the Parables for his paintings, and this is one of them. He also executed two wood-engravings on this subject for his Vale Press publication of The Parables from the Gospels (1903). 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.

Ricketts's birth was registered at Geneva, where his parents were staying at the time. Of course, his birth was also registered in the British Consular's administration: Ricketts was British by birth. 

However, Christie's, in their catalogue of Sale 12198 ('Living with Art'), calls him a 'Swiss' artist. I am not confident that Ricketts would have liked that. From the recent publication, Charles Ricketts's Mysterious Mother, we may gather that Ricketts was born in Geneva, moved to Great Britain, France, and Italy, before finally returning to London where he would live for the rest of his life. His mother was Italian, with a drop of Spanish blood, and had lived in France before she met Ricketts's father in Naples.

The book about the European background of Ricketts's mother was presented in Museum Meermanno a week ago. (Price, including postage: €40).

Presentation Museum Meermanno, 1 October 2016
Front row: Corine Verney (author), Huug Schipper (designer) and Paul Delaney (author)

Photo: Aafke Boerma/Museum Meermanno
Christie's also sells a second Ricketts painting from the holdings of The Newark Museum. This is 'The Horses of Achilles', estimated to sell for US$5,000-7,000.

The museum states that these deaccessions are a logical step, as the museum, since its establishment in 1909, 'has always focused on painting and sculpture by American artists, especially because at the time we were founded it was difficult for modern American artists to exhibit or be acquired by many American museums'. 

However, a selection of European works of art were given to the museum by several patrons. These donations resulted, as the museum says, 'in a random assemblage of non-American painting and sculpture of varying quality and having no relationship to the focus of the American art collection'. 

Thirty years ago, it was decided to sell these European paintings and sculptures.

'All proceeds from deaccessioning become part of an endowment dedicated to acquisitions'.

So, the Ricketts paintings had to go.

[Note, 14 October 2016:
Prices realized are: US$1,000 (The Prodigal Son) and $3,000 (The Horses of Achilles).]