Commentary by Hilary Morgan
Orpheus and Eurydice' brings together many of Ricketts's interests, both antiquarian and personal. Greek themes had interested him from the first in his book designs, sculpture and painting. In the early 1920s, when the present work was developed, he painted the 'Trojan Women' (Manchester City Art Gallery) and 'Diomed with the Horses of Achilles'.
His collection contained Greek pots, Tanagra figurines and Classical sculpture. Before he produced the present work he had published an essay on Greek dress in The Saturday Review in 1909, and designed several plays requiring Greek costume: Lawrence Binyon's Paris and Oenone (1906), von Hofmannstal's Electra (1908) for Mrs Patrick Campbell, andAlcestis, Medea and Iphigenia in Tauris (1920) for Mrs Penelope Wheeler.
He was also fascinated by the Orpheus and Eurydice story, probably for some of the same reasons that it had interested Watts, also because Ricketts, whose other paintings included such works as 'Montezuma', Donjuan' and the 'Betrayal of Christ' was preoccupied with the theme of the tragic hero, left isolated and lonely. Ricketts's best known sculpture, one of the small bronzes he exhibited in the Carfax Gallery in 1906, also represents 'Orpheus and Eurydice', but at their final parting (1905-1906; a version is in the Tate Gallery). The present picture does not represent this more common subject. When Ricketts was finishing the picture for the 1923 Summer Show at the Royal Academy, he wrote to a friend:
'The Orpheus and Erudicy - how is her name spelt? - are not in the act of parting. She is a ghost following him in a spring-lit landscape, watched by Hermes.'(Rickettes to Bottomley, 21 February 1923)
This dramatic design and the theatrical gesture reflect not only Ricketts' interest in the theatre but also the 'sense of design, the emotions of awe, melancholy and compassion' which he tried to attain in his work.
The versatility and varied achievements of Charles Ricketts are symbolized by the fact that he could paint with one hand while he was writing with the other. As his biography shows, painting was only one of the fields in which he achieved distinction. In the midst of this varied activity, he worked steadily at his painting and created an individual style in the Symbolist tradition which made some use of stylistic features drawn from the work of Daumier, Delacroix and Gustave Moreau but was primarily an expression of his own tragic view of life.
Sir Edmund Davis (1862-1939), the first owner of the present work, was one of the major British collectors of his generation. Born in Australia and educated in France, he settled in London. His collection of paintings included, among the Old Masters, Rembrandt's 'Saskia at her Toilet', three Canalettos, three Van Dycks (including a portrait of Queen Henrietta Maria), several Gainsboroughs, a Velazquez, a Hogarth and a Reynolds. The collection also contained important nineteenth century works, including two of Rossetti's early watercolours, oils by Millais and three important works by Whistler, of which the most famous was 'At the Piano' (exhibited Royal Academy 1860; Taft Museum, Cincinnati, Ohio). It also contained six Rodin sculptures and paintings by Watts, Corot, Boudin and Daumier. Sir Edmund was particularly important as a patron of contemporary British art. In addition to making his own superb collection, he made major donations of British art to public collections.
Ricketts and Shannon were the unpaid and unofficial advisers who helped him to form a collection of such superb quality. He was also an enthusiast for their own works and owned seven paintings by Shannon, and seven bronzes and eight paintings by Ricketts including the present work. He offered them a flat in Lansdowne House, which he built as an artists' centre in 1902, and in 1918 he offered them the Roman-Norman keep at Chilham as a country retreat.
Exhibited: London, Royal Academy, 1923, Summer Exhibition, number 203; Bradford Art Gallery 1928, 35th Spring Exhibition, (Modern British Paintings and Sculpture) number 25, (£500); Manchester, 1933, Works by Orpen, McEvoy, Ricketts, number 76; London, Royal Academy, 1933, Commemorative Exhibition of the Works of Late Members, number 339
Provenance: Sir Edmund Davis, E.P. Bateson.
Manuscript letter from Ricketts to Gordon Bottomley (21st February 1923).
Morgan, Hilary and Nahum, Peter. Burne-Jones, The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Century. London: Peter Nahum, 1989. Catalogue number 175.