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Petra Clark, Illustration as Play: Charles Ricketts and the “Woman’s World”

2015 September 3
by lucinda matthews-jones

Petra Clark is a PhD candidate at the University of Delaware whose research interests lie in late-Victorian print culture, particularly women’s periodicals, Aestheticism, illustration, and art criticism. The working title of her dissertation is Reading Aestheticism: Visual Literacy in Late-Victorian Women’s and Girls’ Periodicals. This post accompanies her article, “‘Cleverly Drawn’: Oscar Wilde, Charles Ricketts, and the Art of the Woman’s World,” which appears in the September 2015 print issue of the Journal of Victorian Culture and can be downloaded here.

The influential magazine Woman’s World (1887-1890) is perhaps most remembered for its famous editor, Oscar Wilde, as well as for being a venue for promoting proto-feminist writing and issues, and when I first approached it, these ideas were the ones wished to devote my attention to. Of course, as with many research endeavours, that is not where I ended up.

I was idly skimming through the table of contents for the first year of the magazine, when I spotted a familiar name: “C. Ricketts.” Having just finished revisions on an article for the 56.1 English Literature in Transition, 1880-1920 about the artist, designer, and publisher Charles Ricketts and his magazine the Dial, I was intrigued by Ricketts’s unexpected presence in the pages of a women’s magazine, where he was credited with two full-page illustrations: “The Toilet of a Lady of Ancient Egypt” (in the July 1888 issue), and “A Lady of Pompeii” (in the October 1888 issue). I turned to these images, admired them, and thought I might then get on with my reading—and I did try. Yet, at that point, I was too finely attuned to Ricketts’s lines, and could not but notice header after footer after initial letter that resembled his style.

This then became the project from which my article for the Journal of Victorian Culture grew. I was fascinated by these designs that at first seemed insignificant, but which upon closer inspection contained a wealth of details, allusions, and even jokes. Reading the Woman’s World through its illustrations became a sort of scavenger hunt for me, not just for Ricketts’s illustrations themselves (many of which are not signed or otherwise clearly attributed), but for their significance as visual communication at a further level. Despite their subjects being dictated by the articles for which they were commissioned, many of Ricketts’s illustrations are nonetheless highly personalized, even going so far as to suggest his relationship with other artists.

One such interaction that particularly stood out was Ricketts’s with Gustave Fraipont. Fraipont was a Belgian-born French artist who contributed illustrations to a number of magazines during this period, and created many headers for the Woman’s World over the course of its run, particularly for the “The Latest Fashions” and “Paris Fashions” sections of each monthly instalment. Fraipont’s header designs for earlier issues emphasized feminine accessories such as fans, lace, powder puffs, and ribbons. At some point during 1889, Ricketts seems to have been given the “The Latest Fashions” headers to do, which is where things get interesting. Ricketts too draws the same sort of items as Fraipont, but adds in mischievous putti who gambol across the header and, more often than not, disrupt the order of the toilette with their own uses for these items (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Woman's World, v. II, p. 353.

Figure 1: Woman's World, v. II, p. 353.

Such plump imps were a common element in Renaissance and Baroque art, so employed here, they at once invoke high art as well as the sentimental, while undermining both. It is unclear whether Ricketts was mocking such figures that may have appeared in pre-existing designs by Fraipont, or if he just found the putti a convenient vehicle to playfully engage with the work of the older artist. In any case, Fraipont’s subsequent headers for “Paris Fashions” began to feature his own putti, though it is likewise difficult to know why: possibly he decided to fight putti with putti, or he recognized the appeal of Ricketts’s designs and sought to assimilate them into his own. These dozen or so putti headers become more and more ridiculous as each artist took his turn, finally reaching a fever-pitch of absurdity and excess before dying down (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Woman's World, v. II, p. 585.

Figure 2: Woman's World, v. II, p. 585.

In one of these putti headers, Ricketts embedded another delightful little surprise: the initials “CHS,” scratched faintly into a heart-shaped mirror (Figure 3). These letters no doubt stand for Charles Haslewood Shannon, Ricketts’s collaborator and life partner, to whom Ricketts pays covert homage to in several designs for the Woman’s World. Ricketts did the same elsewhere, such as in an illustrated ballad in the December 1889 issue of Atalanta, where he has carved Shannon’s initials within a heart in the bark of a tree with his own nearby (reproduced in Maureen Watry’s book The Vale Press).

Figure 3: Woman's World, v. III, p. 178.

Figure 3: Woman's World, v. III, p. 178.

Again, as with the putti-feud, I was left to speculate about the viewer for whom Ricketts as creating these highly personal and, at the time, highly controversial details, or whether he even cared that anyone else noticed them, even Shannon. After all, how likely was it that Shannon read the Woman’s World or looked at Ricketts’s proofs of these illustrations to receive their little communications? Ricketts’s designs frequently included layers of meaning for general and coterie audiences (as I have demonstrated in my recent article for English Literature in Transition), but the whimsical details in these headers perhaps mostly had the effect of amusing Ricketts himself—and, of course, me as well.


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