Charles Ricketts as art critic for The Burlington Magazine

Between 1904 and 1909 Charles Ricketts wrote twenty articles for The Burlington Magazine. He began in June 1904 with a brief, dismissive review of a book on Velazquez by W. Wilberforce and A.R. Gilbert, to conclude in 1909 with a long eulogy in memory of his recently deceased friend, the painter Charles Conder. These two pieces are representative of Ricketts’s writings for the Burlington, spanning between old-masters and modern art and endeavouring to construct a dialogue between them.

Ricketts was interested in and equally able to engage with artists as diverse as Dalou, Pisanello, Conder, Meunier and Velazquez. A successful painter himself who collected and studied ancient art, Ricketts’s passion for old-masters paintings and his preference for a style of art which still followed the ancient figurative canon has been so far interpreted as a late product of a Victorian Aestheticism – Ricketts himself described his works as by ‘an undiscovered master of the nineteenth century’.[1]

But there are more timely aspects in Ricketts’s writing and the fact that he chose to contribute to the Burlington is significant, as this newly founded journal had a novel approach, for Britain, to art history. Since its first issue in March 1903, the Burlington proclaimed its interest for ancient art and the most current subjects of art historical debate: Italian and Northern European art, especially the late medieval and early Renaissance artists then known as ‘primitives’. The Burlington introduced document-based, historicist art writing indebted to formalist ‘new criticism’, German scholarship and Morellian connoisseurship.

Scientific connoisseurship was based on the works of the Italian scholar Giovanni Morelli who had developed a ‘system’ to identify the authors of works of art based on the analysis of small pictorial details such as nails, ears or folds in the drapery. The focus in the Burlington was to reconsider artists, such as Leonardo and Botticelli, treated as emotional cult figures by the poetic criticism of the aestheticist movement, with a new formalist and documentary methodology and taking full advantage of the new comparative possibilities offered by photographic reproductions of works of art.

For Ricketts too, the main method of study of ancient art was a detailed formal analysis which would lead to its attribution. In a letter of September 1906 Ricketts recurs to the very contemporary vocabulary of Morellian analysis to confute an attribution to Hubert van Eyck as he invites the viewer to examine ‘the hands, the feet, the folds of the drapery’ of this painting (Stigmatization of Saint Francis, now attributed to Jan van Eyck, illustrated here).[2]

This philological approach found its parallel in contemporary art practice: there was a similar interest in renewing art through the investigation of its primary sources and the rediscovery of long lost techniques, as expressed in the work of Christiana Herringham , her translation of Cennino Cennini and her revival of the ancient technique of tempera. Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon too had similar aims in their revival of painting. Likewise, in Ricketts’s writings on contemporary art modern masters were inserted in a chronological formalist reading of art history and compared to ancient artists.

For instance, the sculptor Constantin Meunier is seen as similar to those ‘sober craftsmen who carved the Labours and the Months in Gothic cathedrals’ and carrying the same ‘male energies as Donatello’.[3]

A similar need to understand the formal components and subjects of ancient art and transform them in a contemporary emotional statement can be seen in his series of the passion of Christ of 1902-1905. In his ‘Descent from the Cross’, the colouring, foreshortening and grouping recall clearly Italian Venetian art, but the lack of eye contact, absence of facial expression, the highly idealised, gloomy landscape create an atmosphere of reverie closer to early twentieth-century sensibility.

Ricketts ceased to write for the Burlington following his disagreement with Roger Fry, one of the magazine’s most influential founders, when Fry assumed the joint editorship of the magazine with Lionel Cust in 1909. As Fry wrote to R.C. Trevelyan: ‘Ricketts has resigned from the Burlington Consulting Committee because I am editor! Isn’t he funny? I hope I may persuade him to relent; not that he is important but I have a foolish liking for him’.[4]

Famously Kenneth Clark had described Fry and Ricketts as critics belonging to two opposite schools, but for a few years shortly after 1900 Fry and Ricketts had much in common and were active in the same milieu.[5] They exhibited their work in the same gallery, Carfax and Co., wrote for the same journal, The Burlington magazine, and their writings on art had much in common too. Fry and Ricketts both favoured the period between 1400 and 1700, Italian art in particular, and both had an understanding of the importance of the art of the past for the present, as Ricketts poetically described: ‘nothing beautiful and welcome in human endeavour is without ascendancy in the best of our experience, which we call the art of the past’.[6]
This common ground was to find a fraction since Fry had embraced the art of Cézanne and Post-Impressionism, favouring a visual vocabulary of formal primitivism that still recourred to ancient art but avoided the old-master inspired subjects, composition and subtle tonal colourism still preferred by Ricketts. Fry’s support for Cézanne was ‘The last straw’, Ricketts wrote: ‘There are frigid forms of mental prostitution which no lover of the old masters and fine moderns ought to abide’.[7]

Ricketts was never to write for the Burlington again.

BP, April 2014.

With many thanks to Paul Van Capelleveen, who has allowed me to re-publish this piece I wrote for his blog in April 2012.


Charles Ricketts, Descent from the Cross, London, William Morris Gallery.

Stigmatization of St Francis, photograph as published in The Burlington Magazine, 1906, now attributed to Jan van Eyck, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Writings of Charles Ricketts for The Burlington Magazine:
(edited by Paul van Capelleveen)

1. C.R., [Review of: Velasquez. By Wilfred Wilberforce and A.R. Gilbert], in: The Burlington magazine, vol. 5, no. 15 (June 1904), p. 322.
2. Charles Ricketts, ‘The masterpieces by Velazquez in the Imperial Gallery at Vienna’, in: The Burlington magazine, vol. 5, no. 16 (July 1904), p. 338-341, 343, 345, 347.
3. Charles Ricketts, ‘Fantin-Latour’, in: The Burlington magazine, vol. 6, no. 19 (October 1904), p. 17-18. [Obituary.]
4. C. Ricketts, [Review of: Rubens. By Max Rooses], in: The Burlington magazine, vol. 6, no. 22 (January 1905), p. 330-331.
5. Charles Ricketts, ‘Watts at Burlington House’, in: The Burlington magazine, vol. 6, no. 23 (February 1905), p. 346-350.
6. C.R., [Review of: The Dürer Society. Seventh series], in: The Burlington magazine, vol. 6, no. 24 (March 1905), p. 502-503.
7. Charles Ricketts, ‘The portrait of Isabella Brant in the Hermitage’, in: The Burlington magazine, vol. 7, no. 25 (April 1905), p. 83-84. [Letter to the editor.]
8. Charles Ricketts, ‘Constantin Meunier’, ‘II, His aim and place in the art of the nineteenth century’, in: The magazine of art, vol. 7, no. 27 (June 1905), p. 181-182, 186-187. [Part I was written by R. Petrucci.]
9. Charles Ricketts, ‘Dalou’, in: The magazine of art, vol. 7, no. 29 (August 1905), p. 348, 353-354.
10. C.R., [Review of: Pisanello. By G.F. Hill], in: The Burlington magazine, vol. 8, no. 32 (November 1905), p. 141-142.
11. C.R., [Review of: Giotto. By Basil de Selincourt], in: The Burlington magazine, vol. 8, no. 32 (November 1905), p. 142-143.
12. C.R., [Review of: Dürer Society. Eight Series], in: The Burlington magazine, vol. 8, no. 35 (February 1906), p. 362.
13. Charles Ricketts, ‘Adolph von Menzel’, in: The Burlington magazine, vol. 9, no. 37 (April 1906), p. 51-52. [Review of: Adolph von Menzel. Abbildungen seiner Gemälde und Studien].
14. C. Ricketts, ‘Early German art at the Burlington Fine Arts Club’: ‘III, Dürer and his successors’, in: The Burlington magazine, vol. 9, no. 40 (July 1906), p. 264-267-268. [Part I was written by Lionel Cust; part II was written by Aymer Vallance.] [Exhibition review.]
15. C. Ricketts, [Letter on an attribution to Hubert van Eyck:  Pictures in the collection of Mr. John G. Johnson, of Philadelphia], in: The Burlington magazine, vol. 9, no. 42 (September 1906), p. 426. [Preceded by a letter from Herbert P. Horne.]
16. C.R. [Review of: Oxford Union Society. The story of the painting of the pictures on the walls, and the decorations on the ceiling of the old Debating Hall, Oxford. By Holman Hunt], in: The Burlington magazine, vol. 10, no. 46 (January 1907), p. 262-263.
17. Charles Ricketts, ‘Puvis de Chavannes: a chapter from ‘Modern painters’, in: The Burlington magazine, vol. 13, no. 61 (April 1908), p. 9-12, 17-18.
18. Charles Ricketts, ‘The Franco-British exhibition’, ‘The French section’, in: The Burlington magazine, vol. 13, no. 64 (July 1908), p. 192-195. [Followed by ‘The British section’, written by Robert Ross.] [Exhibition review.]
19. C.R., [Review of: Auguste Rodin, l’oeuvre et l’homme. Par Judith Cladel], in: The Burlingtin magazine, vol. 14, no. 72 (March 1909), p. 368-369.
20. Charles Ricketts, ‘In memory of Charles Conder’, in: The Burlington magazine, vol. 15, no. 73 (April 1909), p. 8, 13-14.

Ricketts published 9 book reviews, 2 exhibition reviews, 5 articles, 2 letters and 2 obituaries in The Burlington magazine, of which only seven were published again in Pages on art (1913): he revised his obituaries of Fantin-Latour and Conder (p. 89-94 and p. 1-14) and his articles about Watts (p. 95-113), Meunier (p. 115-124), Dalou (p. 125-135) and Puvis de Chavannes (p. 55-79). In his first volume of art criticism he also included slightly rewritten versions of the Von Menzel and Rodin reviews (p. 137-145 and p. 83-88). However, thirteen of his contributions to The Burlington magazine were not published again by Ricketts.



[1]J.G.P. Delaney, Charles Ricketts. A biography. Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1990, p. 142-143.

[2]The Burlington Magazine, September 1906, p. 426.

[3]The Burlington Magazine, June 1905, p. 182.

[4]Letters of Roger Fry. Denys Sutton (Ed.). London,  Chatto and Windus, 1972, vol. 1, p. 309.

[5]Kenneth Clark, ‘Foreword’, in: Stephen Calloway, Charles Ricketts. Subtle and fantastic decorator. London, Thames and Hudson, 1979, p. 6.

[6]The Burlington Magazine, April 1909, p. 8.

[7]Delaney, p. 246 (letter to Sidney Cockerell, 6 January 1910.

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