You’ve Got Mail: “The Finest Collection of 19th Century Drawings in Private Hands”

Houghton Library Blog 2013-04-05

Last month Houghton Library acquired a small group of letters and postcards from Charles Ricketts (1866-1931) & Charles Shannon (1863-1937) to the Irish artist and collector Cecil French (1879-1953). These letters were acquired with the Louis Appell Jr. Fund for British Civilization because they are full of current affairs, news and gossip in the world of British art. These letters are now Houghton Library MS Eng 1738.

Ricketts and Shannon were artists and designers and founders of the Vale Press, one of the English private presses inspired by William Morris’s Kelmscott Press; Shannon’s portrait of William Butler Yeats hangs in the Houghton Library Reading Room.

Letter from Charles Rickets to Cecil French, 1928. MS Eng 1738

On 23 March 1928 Ricketts wrote to French about his recent trip to New York:

When in America I was shown the finest collection of 19th century drawings in private hands, where Shannon & I hang with Rossetti, Burne Jones, Orpen, John. There were 10 Ricketts! The glory of the collection was a room full of Blakes, Job series, over flow of the Dante Series, some 20 stupendous Ingres which had cost an average of £1,000 a piece, 5 water colours by Gustave Moreau, stupendous Daumiers, important Menzels, Puvis [de Chavannes], Degas, Chasserieau, Keen, nearly all Beardsley – Salome set- and a small room given over to B[urne]J[ones]’s Pan & Psyche – one of the loveliest designs in the world – Dawn, Night, Rossetti’s Blue Closet, the Morris watercolour etc. etc. I regret to say hundreds of Sargents, Beardsley’s, Rops but on the whole the best things in the right place and knocking the modern stuff to bits.

Ricketts does not name the American collector, but from his description we know that it belonged to Grenville Winthrop (1864-1943), Harvard Class of 1886. Winthrop bequeathed his collection to the Fogg Museum and it was and is as truly spectacular as Ricketts description indicates. Winthrop’s bequest remains the largest single gift of its kind to any university. It had a transformative effect on the Fogg and on teaching and learning about art at Harvard. Ricketts description of the collection 15 years before it came to Harvard gives us an indication of its prominent role in the world of contemporary collecting as “on the whole the best things in the right place and knocking the modern stuff to bits.”

This post is part of a feature on the Houghton Library blog, “You’ve Got Mail,” based on letters in Houghton Library. A Houghton staff member selects a letter from the diverse collections in the Library and puts that letter into context. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the You’veGotMail tag.

[Thanks to William Stoneman, Florence Fearrington Librarian of Houghton Library, for contributing this post.]