The River Thames has played a somewhat unfortunate role in the history of English typography. In a bitter dispute between the once partner-printers Thomas Sanderson-Cobden and Emery Walker, the former had dumbed the type along with its punches and matrices of their Doves Press into the river in order to stop Walker from using them. The founder of the Vale Press would also toss his type designs into the Thames.
After the death of William Morris, fine press printers looked beyond the medieval era, seeking the clarity of the Venetian Renaissance masters. They designed sparser text pages dependent upon good typography thus encouraging a new generation of type design. Historical type-faces were studied and revived, new punches were cut, and new types were cast. Some designers, working between the worlds of the private and the commercial press, were able to bring better quality to the mass market. Others were more exclusive, happy to work for a niche market for which they did not have to sacrifice any of their principles. Charles de Sousy Ricketts was a versatile wood engraver, author and printer. Born in Geneva to a French mother and an English father, he spent much of his younger years in France and Italy. In 1882, he began his studies in art at the City and Guilds Technical Art School in Lambeth, London. There he met painter and lithographer Charles Shannon, his lifelong partner. Together they founded The Dial: An Occasional Magazine, introducing French Symbolism into Britain. After receiving a complimentary copy of this ‘periodical devoted to art’ Oscar Wilde paid a visit to the editors and told them that the journal ‘is quite delightful, but don’t bring out a second number, all perfect things should be unique’. In fact four more issues were published between 1892 and 1897. Wilde’s interest in his work led to Ricketts’s first commissions as a book designer. In 1891 he designed six books including The Picture of Dorian Gray and The House of Pomegranates. Throughout the early eighteen-nineties Ricketts continued to develop his skill as a designer of bindings.
Ricketts is remembered for his work as book designer and typographer with the Vale Press, named after his house The Vale (previously occupied by Whistler) in Chelsea, and his work in the theatre as a set and costume designer. He started publishing work by both classical and contemporary authors. Unlike the Kelmscott Press, Vale Press was more like a publishing house. Ricketts hired printers and typesetters to create his books, but they had to work under his own high standards. The printing was carried out by Ballantyne Press under the supervision of Charles McCall. The publication of Daphnis and Chloe (1893) and Hero and Leander (1894) represented a significant typographical advance in Ricketts’s work. He succeeded in creating a harmonious partnership between text and illustration. Encouraged by the results, Ricketts embarked on his quest to become ‘a publisher in earnest’. His desire to be a printer, publisher, and bookbinder was finally realized when William Llewellyn Hacon, a wealthy barrister, agreed to make an initial investment. Vale Press publications were a mixture of literary classics, work by friends, and books Ricketts enjoyed reading. The first book issued from the Vale Press was Milton’s Early Poems in 1896. One of the dilemmas he had to face up to was that classic editions and aesthetic considerations are difficult to reconcile. It was Ricketts’s stated aim that Vale publications were to give a faithful reprint of first editions. Editorial intervention would be minimal, and only blatant errors were to be corrected. In other words, Vale reprints of the classics lacked any substantive critical apparatus. As a consequence, none of the editions the house produced have proved to be of textual significance.
In 1899 Ricketts summarized the ideas and ideals behind his work in a Defense of the Revival of Printing. The forty-six books produced in the eight years of the Vale Press’s existence (from 1896 to 1904) constitute some of the most notable examples of the printing revival of the 1890s. Each incorporated type-fonts, frontispieces, border decorations, illuminated letters, and in some cases wood-engraved illustrations and bindings, designed and overseen by Ricketts personally. Even the papers bore his watermarks. The Vale Press volumes were bound in one of three styles: sober blue paper boards, patterned paper boards, and white buckram. The patterned papers for the Vale Press books were printed by Lucien Pissarro. Leading writers such as Wilde, John Gray, Thomas Hardy, W. B. Yeats and Thomas Sturge-Moore were eager for Ricketts to decorate their books or design stagings for their plays. Samuel Bing, Camille Pissarro and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec numbered among his admirers on the Continent. The working relationship with Oscar Wilde remained a close one. Ricketts and Wilde were in many ways kindred spirits. The designs for Wilde’s The Sphinx mark one of the high points of late-Victorian publishing. Another splendid example of Ricketts’s skills was the 1901 publication of The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam in the famous translation of Edward Fitzgerald, of which 310 copies were printed on handmade paper. Ricketts represented the spirit of the nineties. In his life and work, he embodied an aesthetic devotion to art and beauty coupled to an abundance of creative energy.
Ricketts used three typefaces of his own design which were cut by Edward Prince. His Vale typeface was used in most of the books, although a smaller face known as the Avon font was designed by him to print Shakespeare’s plays. His final typeface, the Kings’s font, was a mixture of experimental letterforms of which even his admirers were critical. The most ambitious undertaking of the Vale Press was the publication of a complete Shakespeare in thirty-nine octavo volumes produced in 310 sets with marginal decorations by Charles Ricketts to the first leaf and then to a selection of others in each work . The Vale Press stopped operating in 1903. The last book published was Danae: A Poem by Thomas Sturge Moore in 230 copies on handmade paper with three illustration by Ricketts. That in itself was unusual. While many of the Vale Press books contained decorative title page borders and initial letters by Ricketts, very few of them had illustrations. In 1904, Ricketts privately published a final bibliography of the Press’s activities in which all three typefaces are represented after which he tossed all his type and the matrices used for casting the type into the Thames. After that, Ricketts turned his talent to painting, sculpture, theatre design, and art criticism. His art historical advice was eagerly sought by collectors and museums (in 1914 he declined the Directorship of England’s National Gallery). Together with Shannon, he formed one of the more important private art collections of the early twentieth century, much of which was later absorbed into the Fitzwilliam Museum at Cambridge.