The Artwork of Charles de Sousy Ricketts
Born in Geneva in October of 1866, Charles de Sousy Ricketts was a versatile British illustrator, author and printer known for his work as a book designer, typographer, and designer of theatrical sets and costume. He was the only son of Charles Robert Ricketts, a Royal Navy veteran and amateur painter, and Héléne Cornélie de Sousy, daughter of the Marquis de Sousy. Ricketts spent his formative years mainly in France and received his education through his governesses.
After the death of his mother in 1880, Charles Ricketts relocated with his father to London where, considered too frail for school, he became largely self-educated through reading and visiting museums. In 1882, Ricketts entered the City and Guilds of London Art School where he apprenticed to wood-engraver Charles Roberts. Later that year, his father died and he became dependent on the modest support of his paternal grandfather. On his sixteenth birthday, he met his lifelong partner Charles Haslewood Shannon, a fellow student three years his senior who was studying painting and lithography. The two men lived together in both a personal and professional partnership until Ricketts’s death.
After finishing their studies, Ricketts became a commercial and magazine illustrator; Shannon took a teaching post at London’s newly founded Croyton School of Art. In 1888, Ricketts took possession of painter James Whistler’s former house, The Vale, in Chelsea which soon became a gathering place of contemporary artists. Starting in 1889 until its final issue in 1897, Ricketts and Shannon produced “The Dial”, a journal of poetry, prose, and English Pre-Raphaelite and French Symbolist illustrations. This portfolio became a major publication of the Aesthetic Movement.
Charles Ricketts, in collaboration with Shannon, illustrated their close friend Oscar Wilde’s 1891 ”A House of Pomegranates” and the 1894 “The Sphinx”. Ricketts and Shannon worked together on the type and illustrations for editions of “Daphnis and Chloe” in 1893 and “Hero and Leander” in 1894. After initially running a small press, they founded London’s Vale Press in 1896 which published more than seventy-five books including a thirty-nine volume edition of Shakespeare’s work. Ricketts designed illustrations as wells fonts, initials, and borders specific to Vale Press. He also executed woodcut illustrations of Art Nouveau design and androgynous figures for their publications. After a 1904 fire at their printer Ballantyne Press destroyed their engraving woodcuts, Ricketts and Shannon made the decision to abandon publishing; Ricketts destroyed all the typefaces he had designed for Vale Press.
Beginning in the early 1900s, Ricketts placed his focus on painting and sculpture. He had a deep knowledge of earlier painters and was particularly influenced by the works of the Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau and the French Romantic painter Eugène Delacroix. Among Ricketts’s many paintings are the 1904 “Betrayal of Christ”, the 1911 “The Death of Don Juan”, “Bacchus in India” painted in 1913, “Jepthah’s Daughter” painted in 1924, and the 1915 “Montezuma”, now at the Manchester Art Gallery. Over the course of his career, Ricketts produced about twenty sculptures among which are “Silence”, a memorial to his friend Oscar Wilde, and two bronze works entitled “Paolo and Francesca” and “Orpheus and Eurydice”.
From 1906 to his death, Charles Ricketts was a celebrated theatrical set and costume designer. His first commission was for a private production of s double billing of Oscar Wilde’s plays, “Salome” and “A Florentine Tragedy”, at King’s Hall in Covent Garden. In 1907, he designed costumes and stage sets for Aeschylus’s “The Persians” also performed at King’s Hall. During the early 1900s, Ricketts designed both costume and sets for many commercial theater productions including Hugo Hofmannsthal’s “Electra” in 1908, “King Lear” at the Haymarket in 1909, and two of Bernard Shaw’s plays, “The Dark Lady of the Sonnets” in 1910 and “Annajanska, the Bolshevik Empress” in 1918.
After World War One, Ricketts continued his theatrical design with Shaw’s “Saint Joan” at the New Theater in 1924, “Henry VIII” at the Empire Theater in 1925 and “Macbeth” at the Princess Theater in 1926. He also designed costumes and sets for the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company’s 1926 production of “The Mikado” at the Savoy Theater. Most of Ricketts’s designs for “The Mikado” were retained by other designers of the company for more than fifty years. Ricketts final theater designs were for the 1931 production of Ferdinand Bruckner’s “Elizabeth of England” preformed at London’s Cambridge Theater and a production of Donald Tovey’s opera “The Bride of Dionysus” staged posthumously in Edinburgh after Ricketts’s death.
As a writer, Charles Ricketts published two monographs on art as well as essays and articles on a wide range of subjects for publications. Using the pen-name of Jean Paul Raymond, he wrote and designed two collections of short stories published in 1928 and 1933. Under the same pen-name, Ricketts wrote the 1932 “Recollections of Oscar Wilde”, an extremely personal memoir that was published after Ricketts’s death. Ricketts’s last years were were greatly effected by Charles Shannon’s serious fall and resulting permanent brain damage. The strain of the situation with the addition of overwork to finance the household contributed to the decline of Ricketts’s health and ultimately his death.
Charles de Sousy Ricketts died suddenly at age sixty-five from coronary heart disease on the 7th of October in 1931 at the Regent’s Park house. He was cremated and his ashes partly scattered in London’s Richmond Park, and the remainder buried at Arolo, Lake Maggiore in Italy. Charles Shannon outlived him by six years and died in March of 1937.
Note: The New York Public Library’s assistant curator Julie Carlsen, along with Henry W. and Albert A. Berg of the English and American Literature Collection, have written an interesting article on Ricketts and Shannon’s designs for the bindings of Oscar Wilde’s work published by Vale Press. The article can be found at: https://www.nypl.org/blog/2021/10/12/publishers-bindings-oscar-wilde-charles-shannon-charles-ricketts
Top Insert Image: George Charles Beresford, “Charles de Sousy Ricketts”, October 1903, Sepia-Toned Platinotype Print, 15.5 x 10.7 cm, National Portrait Gallery, London
Second Insert Image: Charles de Sousy Ricketts, Page from Ricketts’s “The Prado and Its Masterpieces”, 1923, Published by E.P. Dutton and Company, New York, Private Collection
Third Insert Image: Charles de Sousy Ricketts, Illustration and Text from Michael Field’s “The Race of Leaves”, 1901, Woodcut, The Ballantyne Press, Private Collection
Bottom Insert Image: George Charles Beresford, “Charles Haslewood Shannon and Charles de Sousy Ricketts”, October 1903, Modern Print from Original Negative, 11 x 15.7 cm, National Portrait Gallery, London