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Mr. Ricketts’s New Books

“Milton – Early Poems.” London: published by Ricketts & Hacon at the Sign of the Dial. 1896.
“Epicurus, Leontion, and Ternissa.” By Walter Savage Landor. London: published by Ricketts & Hacon at the Sign of the Dial. 1896.
“The Poems of Sir John Suckling.” London: published by Ricketts & Hacon at the Sign of the Dial. 1896.

It is a matter of some strangeness that two men of such different temperaments as Mr. Whistler and Mr. William Morris should have produced the first two modern books endowed with an element of proportion and beauty—Mr. Whistler’s “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies” and Mr. William Morris’s “The Roots of the Mountain” both appearing almost simultaneously in 1890. A few months after this Mr. Ricketts followed suit with some books for Messrs. Osgood & McIlvaine, remembered more, perhaps, for their bindings than for their format, if, indeed, they are remembered at all, in the light of what has happened since. With the formation of the Kelmscott Press and its unique combination of conditions, the period of experiment or merely tasteful arrangement of material (in itself most admirable) ceases, and we find a serious effort to make the book not only what it had been in the past, but to add to these old lost conditions of thoroughness a new element, brought there by the artist fashioning the book in its every page and particle.

    About contemporary with the Kelmscott books appeared the Vale editions of “Daphnis and Chloë” and “Hero and Leander.” These must be considered apart from the myriads of volumes with which England and America have for the last few years been flooded, containing more or less ӕsthetic illustrations—illustrations that we are assured are imagined in relation to the text. The Vale books were not only anterior to these, but they, moreover, contained original engraving, and perhaps, when the revival of the art of wood-cutting sets in, their importance will be more fully recognized. Although the page of type was controlled by the artist, it did not satisfy Mr. Ricketts’s exigencies. In the books we have before us he has designed an entirely new type.

    That this desire for perfection in every part is due to enthusiasm and not to fashion (indeed, work so thorough as this should make the fashion) is the last thing that people will realize, and it is curious that those who are for ever prattling of “finish” are the most backward to recognize this quality, when placed before a work of art. Mr. Ricketts’s work is finished as only that of the scholar who knows the limitations as well as the possibilities of his material can be.

    His Vale type is singularly round and legible; in some particulars it would seem to be more like that of Spira than any other, though we have heard that Jenson has been the governing influence. Theoretically the fault of the beautiful old classical founts would be that of resembling writing too closely; Mr. Ricketts has given us a distinctly cut type rather than a written one, suggesting a relationship to the cut design accompanying it. We sympathize with the innovation, if it may be called so, in the small g, though we confess to be somewhat doubtful about that in the small u. We know of no book which appears to us of nobler build than the early poems of Milton. The beautiful and extremely important frontispiece bears on “L’Allegro” and “II Penseroso”; here we have “the pensive nun devout and pure,” and “The delightful folly without father bred.” We are inclined to regret that this illustration does not face the two poems. The woodcut itself is a splendid example of the pure woodcut—that is, white cut out of black, not conceived pettily, like Bewick, but done with marvellous breadth and exquisite skill. The handling is entirely individual and new, and is certainly not the drawn line of the great German school. The edition mainly followed has the advantage of having been originally corrected by Milton himself, and thus to represent the poet’s spelling. A notable variation between this edition and the current one occurs in the “Ode to the Nativity,” where

    “orbed in a rainbow, and like glories wearing
        Mercy will sit between,”

is rendered

    “Th’enameld arras of the rainbow wearing
        And Mercy set between.”

We are also spared the corrections of Milton’s text to suit modern notions of scansion.

    The Landor is a beautiful little piece of bookmaking, and Messrs. Ricketts and Hacon have done wisely in choosing what is probably the finest of all Landor’s imaginary conversations. The workmanship and design of the border on the front page is beyond praise; it is probably one of the most perfect books of its size ever published.

    “The Poems of Sir John Suckling” promises to be the best edition so far of this better known than edited English gentleman and poet. It is refreshing to find this un-Bowdlerized; and, with its border of honeysuckle, and its binding of flowered paper, it is perhaps the most attractive of the first three of Messrs. Ricketts &, Hacon’s Vale books. Indeed all the bindings are too tasteful for the merely temporary purpose we understand they are intended for, and it will prove a temptation not to part with the boards.

    That Mr. Ricketts will never achieve the success with the public which has attended the productions of unlearned disciples, as, for instance, Mr. Anning Bell, is certain. He is too great a scholar, too fine a craftsman, to appeal to any considerable audience. Strength is too often measured by size, so the power of his art may be easily passed over. We would not for one moment undervalue the noble and accomplished work of Mr. William Morris, one of the greatest Englishmen of the century; but we are at the same time sensible of the greater modernity of Mr. Ricketts, and of his wider catholicity of taste as a designer and a bookmaker. The younger men of our generation are too often accused of arriving at easy ends easily. Mr. Ricketts has not only grappled with extraordinary material difficulties, but has, unaided by anyone excepting only his friend, Mr. C. H. Shannon, already produced an amount of work which would, we believe, astonish Mr. Morris himself. The number of woodcuts (thirty-six) in “The Daphnis and Chloë” alone is something considerable, Blake being celebrated for eighteen. With the knowledge of all times, Mr. Ricketts is perfectly of his own.

MLA citation:

“Mr. Ricketts’s New Books.” Rev. of The Dial, The Saturday Review, 4 July 1896, pp. 17-18. Yellow Nineties 2.0 , edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2020.