“Front Cover” (1892) wood engraving by Charles Ricketts

Wikis > "Front Cover" (1892) wood engraving by Charles Ricketts

Cover of The Dial Volume 2

The Dial’s second volume featured a redesigned cover, a new subtitle, and an invigorated artistic ideology. This cover, a woodcut illustration by Charles Ricketts, embodies the artistic direction and ideology of the magazine, as outlined in The Unwritten Book, an unsigned editorial by Charles Ricketts. 

As an example of Ricketts’ concept of document, the front cover contains many references that may be familiar to the audience, but do not illustrate a narrative in the magazine nor generate a singular, unified narrative within the image. Instead, it combines and includes elements that reference ideas as disparate as the merits of woodcut, artistic idealism, the aesthetics movement, French symbolism, queer identity, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the arts and crafts movement, and more. 

To uncover these meanings, a close reading is necessary.

In the top left of the cover appear a sundial and a bell, which reference the title of the publication as well as alluding to the previous volume’s cover. In their position of top-left, they are the first symbols that the reader may see, and the eye moves away from these symbols just as the editors have moved away from the editorial strategy of their first volume.

The wooden beams that take up the left half of the image show detailed wood grains forming an architectural structure. The details of the wood show how intricate wood engraving illustration can be, and represents wood as a source of artistic merit. It also may be championing the arts and crafts movement, which is an artistic movement as well as an architectural one, that aimed to move away from the 19th century surge in commercially-accessible ornamentation. It advocates for a move towards traditional craftsmanship and high-quality workmanship, an ideal that this volume embodies in its limited print run, high cost, hands-on attention to detail, and editorial direction.

The illustration features references to different kinds of art, and advocates for these art forms as sources of pleasure and artistic merit. We can see the wooden structure (architecture, wood engraving), the feather quill (writing), the viol (music), the paintboard (fine arts and painting), the sculpture (sculpture, philosophy), the clay pot (pottery), and the scissors and woman’s robe (costume design, theatre). These are all art forms that the editors participated in and had a vested interest in, but also argue that the merit of the magazine lies in its artistic breadth and attention to every detail as a cohesive, artistic whole.

The image of Icarus, pinned above the paintboard, showcases a work of art within a work of art. The embedded nature of this art shows how art can have multiple meanings and that the references to art styles don’t necessarily have a single meaning. As subject matter, Icarus flew high to the sun, and this lofty idealism was his downfall. In this image, he has yet to fall, and his soaring idealism may represent the lofty artistic ideology of the creators and their goals for the magazine. As a painting within an illustration, it shows the breadth and creativity of the creators and how this magazine is a total work of art. In The Unwritten Book, Charles Ricketts writes that document exists so that “the present touches wings with the past”, and this image may reference this concept through Icarus’ wings and also through the story of Icarus as mythical past. 

The frame on the floor houses the initials of CR, Charles Ricketts, the illustrator and editor of The Dial. It is integrated as an item in the image, but its place on the floor (and not hung or pinned, like Icarus) show that the identity or prestige of the author is not the foremost concern of the magazine. Much like the table of contents placed at the end of the magazine, in small type with wide margins, the magazine sets out to stand alone as a work of art, not relying on the names of its artists nor seeking commercial fame. The author is necessary, but incidental, and a hung place of prominence is neither the goal nor an achievement to the illustrator. 

The woman’s profile appears similar to some illustrations and paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, and both Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon deeply admired the Brotherhood and reference their work throughout their illustrations and appreciated their artistic ideology, especially in their anti-establishment attention to detail.

The feather in the woman’s hand may reference the use of feathers as a covert symbol of homosexuality. This symbolism appears in the painting by Edmund Dulac, Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon as Medieval Saints. In this painting, Charles Ricketts is holding a large peacock feather, and this is a subtle and maybe even satirical wink at Ricketts’ homosexuality. While this painting was created almost thirty years after The Dial’s publication, it shows that the creators were at some point aware of the symbolic meaning of feathers, and may have included it at this time.

Finally, Charles Ricketts had both French and English parents, and he incorporates elements of French Symbolism into his art. Birds were often used as symbols of change or transfiguration, and the many birds that appear in the top of the image show the sweeping changes that have occurred between the first and second volumes of The Dial. Likewise, flowers were also used as unique symbols, with each type of flower signifying different ideas. While I cannot point to the exact type of flowers that appear in this cover, there are many strewn on the ground, attached to the wooden architecture, in the painting of Icarus, in the scroll that holds the title, and in the woman’s hair. 

Ultimately, this cover is an incredible achievement in its breadth, detail, and in how it uses the medium of wood engraving to convey such an intricate level of detail. The contents of the illustration both exemplify and argue for Ricketts’ concept of document, a concept that aims for artistic depth through reference and symbolic representation.

Ricketts, Charles, H. “Front Cover.” The Dial, vol. 2, 1892, [i]. Dial Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra 2019-2020. The Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/dialv2-front-cover/