Charles de Sousy Ricketts (1866-1931) &
Charles Haslewood Shannon (1863-1937)
Charles de Sousy Ricketts was born in Geneva in 1866. The son of an English father and a French mother, he spent his childhood and youth in Switzerland, England and France. Mainly educated at home, he settled in London in 1880 and entered the City and Guilds Art School in Kennington in 1882. It was here, on his sixteenth birthday, that he met his lifelong partner Charles Haslewood Shannon. Three years his senior, Shannon was born at Sleaford in Lincolnshire in 1863. Both Ricketts and Shannon studied printmaking at the City and Guilds Art School in Kennington.
Artistic and personal partners for more than fifty years, Ricketts and Shannon designed and illustrated books, established an occasional art journal, The Dial, in 1889 and founded the Vale Press in 1894. Named after their house, The Vale, in Chelsea, they published a total of about 75 books, including a complete reprint of the works of Shakespeare. Following a fire in 1899, when most of the book stock and decorative materials were destroyed, they closed Vale Press in 1904.
Key figures in the London art world since the 1890s, Ricketts and Shannon moved in a wide circle of artist friends. These included the poet and playwright Gordon Bottomley, the book illustrator Edmund Dulac, the portrait painter William Rothenstein and, most famously, Oscar Wilde. The meeting of these friends resulted in an abundance of portraits, amongst which Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon as Medieval Saints, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum.
Ricketts and Shannon also worked as illustrators for Wilde. Ricketts, for example, illustrated The Sphinx in 1895. In 1932 he also wrote Recollections of Oscar Wilde, homage to the man he considered the most remarkable man he had met.
While Shannon worked as a book illustrator and printmaker throughout his life, winning a first-class gold medal at Munich in 1895 and a first-class silver medal in Paris in 1900, Ricketts also excelled as an art critic and historian, painter and sculptor, and jewellery and theatre designer. Among his most important works for the stage count the first English production of Wilde’s Salome (1906), which was boycotted by the press, and the first English production of Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan (1924), which widely was regarded his greatest achievement. Elected an associate of the Royal Academy in 1922, Ricketts was made a full member of the Royal Academy in 1928.
But Ricketts and Shannon continued to work together, also as collectors. Together they formed one of the most magnificent collections of old master drawings and paintings, Egyptian and Greek antiquities, Japanese woodblock prints and Persian miniatures. In 1920, the two connoisseurs made a particular find. Attending an anonymous sale at Christie’s on 30 January 1920, they immediately spotted that lot 267, a portrait of Archbishop Laud, was not by the ‘studio of Van Dyck’, as indicated in the auction catalogue, but by Van Dyck himself. They bought the painting and proudly displayed it in their London drawing room.
Sadly, Shannon fell off a ladder in 1929. He suffered brain damage and required extensive nursing. Struggling to meet costs, Ricketts decided to sell the portrait, but never found a buyer. Devastated by Shannon’s suffering and exhausted from work, Ricketts died of a heart attack in 1931.
When Shannon died in 1937, the Ricketts and Shannon Collection entered the Fitzwilliam Museum by bequest. Again the quality of the portrait of Archbishop Laud was not recognized. Only in 1979, when the museum decided to celebrate the achievements of Ricketts and Shannon, was the painting brought out of storage. It was at this time that staff recognized that the painting was quite possibly by Van Dyck. Cautiously catalogued and shown as a ‘contemporary studio repetition’, it was cleaned after the exhibition and confirmed as an original by Michael Jaffé in 1982. Now widely considered superior to the version in the Hermitage in St Petersburg, Van Dyck’s portrait of Archbishop Laud in the Fitzwilliam Museum is testimony to a level of connoisseurship lost with Ricketts and Shannon.
E. Binnie, The Theatrical Designs of Charles Ricketts, University of Michigan Press, 1985
J. Darracott, All for Art: The Ricketts and Shannon Collection (exh. cat.), Fitzwilliam Museum, 1979
J. Darracott, The World of Charles Ricketts, Methuen, 1980
J. Delany, Charles Ricketts: A Biography, Clarendon Press, 1990
J. Delany, ‘Charles de Sousy Ricketts’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004-8
R. Gordon Norton, The Illustrator and the Book in England from 1790 to 1914, Dover Publications, 1992
M. Jaffé, ‘Van Dyck Studies I: The Portrait of Archbishop Laud’, The Burlington Magazine, vol. 124, no. 955, 1982, pp. 600-607
Do you have an interesting history to add to the above story?
Post your history/comments here.