Faithful Infidelity: Charles Ricketts' Illustrations for Two of Oscar Wilde's Poems in Prose
The artist, collector, and critic Charles Ricketts (1866–1931) has often been characterised as a reactionary voice in early-twentieth-century debates about modern art. Although he responded conservatively to modern-art developments such as those embodied by the term 'Post-Impressionism', his work in book design and illustration exemplifies progressive strategies of decoration that reconfigure the relationship between author and illustrator as one of collaborative authorship. Ricketts' illustrations are autonomous narratives that not only reproduce the meanings of the texts they represent, but also parody and elaborate on them. Moreover, Ricketts' book designs and illustrations represent a complex resistance to and working out of Oscar Wilde's views on art, language, and orality. Wilde regarded visual art as inferior to language because the latter can embody the graphic and is free from the former's fixity in time and materiality. Ricketts' illustrational strategies are designed, not only to reinforce his own autonomy, but also to disprove Wilde's description of visual art as limited compared with language. Ricketts' progressive strategies of design are epitomized by his unpublished illustrations for Wilde's Poems in Prose“ (1894), a text which dramatises the centrality of voice to Wilde's poetic endeavour and allows Ricketts directly to challenge Wilde's denigration of the visual arts.
By focusing on two representative examples, Ricketts' drawings for 'The Disciple' and 'The House of Judgment', and by providing close readings of both image and text, this piece traces Ricketts' illustrational methods and reveals their debts to Wilde's own theories of orality, language, and visual arts, charting Ricketts' divergences from Wilde's texts and highlighting the critical dialogue implicit in the illustrations. Ricketts' drawings for the Poems in Prose“, currently held at the Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery in Carlisle, have never been published together as a set, and the juxtaposition of the two drawings here is a preliminary attempt to set these illustrations in conversation with each other.