Charles Ricketts, RA (1866-1931) Charles Ricketts was one of the leading exponents of Aestheticism, devoting ‘tout pour l’art’ as a creator, critic and collector. In his own work, he proved particularly groundbreaking in the areas of book production and stage design, though he was also a significant painter, sculptor and writer. Charles Ricketts was born in Geneva on 2 October 1866, the son of a retired English naval officer, who painted marine subjects, and the daughter of the marquis de Soucy. He spent most of his early years in Switzerland and France, and was educated mainly by governesses. Following the death of his mother, in Genoa in 1880, he returned to London with his father and sister, though his father died three years later, and left him in the care of his paternal grandfather. By then, he had entered South London School of Technical Art, where he met his lifelong companion, Charles Shannon; their studies included wood-engraving, under Charles Roberts, and life drawing.
Together they made a conscious decision to isolate themselves, and work to an aesthetically eclectic agenda set against the growing influence of Impressionism. During the 1890s, while Shannon developed as a painter, Ricketts contributed drawings to various periodicals, and began to illustrate books. The most famous of these were for his friend, Oscar Wilde, including A House of Pomegranates (1891), Poems (1892) and The Sphinx (1894). With Shannon, he founded an occasional magazine, The Dial (1889-97), illustrated Daphnis and Chloe (1893) and Hero and Leander (1894) and launched the Vale Press (1894-1904), for which he designed three fonts and many woodcut decorations and illustrations, so becoming one of the most important books designers of his generation. From 1904, Ricketts concentrated on Romantic subject painting (influenced by Gustave Moreau and Eugène Delacroix), sculpture and stage design. He was elected an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1922 and a full Academician in 1928. During his lifetime, he was probably best known for his stage designs, including the first productions of Wilde’s Salomé (1906) and George Bernard Shaw’s St Joan (1924). Respected as a connoisseur and collector, Ricketts was adviser to the National Gallery of Canada (1924-31), an organiser of some major exhibitions and writer of stylish essays and fictions. From 1929, he came under the strain of nursing Shannon – who had suffered badly in a fall – and finally died at their home at Regent’s Park on 7 October 1931. Shannon outlived him by six years, and their superlative collection was then bequeathed to The Fitzwilliam Museum.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including Tate and the V&A; and the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford), Cartwright Hall (Bradford), The Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge), Manchester Art Gallery and Tullie House Museum & Art Gallery (Carlisle).