The Sphinx.

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Oscar Wilde.


The Sphinx.


London: John Lane,




Designed and decorated by Charles Ricketts.

In 1967, at the Courtauld Institute, I wrote my masters dissertation on the book designs of Charles Ricketts. I was fascinated by Art Nouveau and by defining manifestations of it in Ricketts's work for commercially published books by Oscar Wilde and others in the early 1890s. In particular, for Wilde's poem The Sphinx, Ricketts made designs that were radical to the point of eccentricity.

The upper and lower covers are superficially similar but distinctively different, symbolizing the relationship of the narrator and the sphinx at the opening and the closing of the poem, respectively. The text is set in small caps throughout, and complementary sage-green and rust-red inks, as well as black, are used. The poem's couplets are placed in sometimes breathtaking amounts of space. Ricketts's illustrations are notable for their extreme Art Nouveau stylization and bizarre originality. Their iconography remains largely unexplored.

The whole, in its vellum and gold binding, with its extraordinary layouts and typography, is a true icon of the period, a strange and precious object, an epitome, in its marriage of author and artist, of form and content, of the movement known as Decadence.


Simon C. Wilson