Edmund Dulac (1882-1953) The multi-talented artist, Edmund Dulac, contributed more than a dash of French panache to the illustration of English gift books. Developing an exquisite palette and eclectic style, that referenced Japanese prints and Persian miniatures, he complemented the work of his chief rival, Arthur Rackham.
Edmund Dulac was born in Toulouse, in France, on 22 October 1882. His father was a commercial traveller who supplemented his income with some work as an art dealer and restorer. Also an amateur painter, he encouraged his son’s talents in the same field.
Educated at the Petite Lycée through the 1890s, Dulac then enrolled at the local university to study Law. At the same time, he took classes at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, initially to sustain a hobby.
However, after two years, he weighed his boredom with Law against success at art school (as marked by a prize). So, once he had obtained the intermediary degree of a B Litt, he persuaded his parents to let him attend the Ecole on a full-time basis. During each of the following three years he won an art-school prize. At the same time, he established himself as an Anglophile: taking English lessons from a fellow lodger, reading about English illustration and design, dressing in the English manner, and even changing the spelling of his Christian name from the French form ‘Edmond’. As a result, he became known among his fellow students as l’anglais.
In 1904, Dulac left for Paris, where - on the strength of a scholarship - he joined the Académie Julian under Jean-Paul Laurens (who had himself studied and taught in Toulouse). However, he remained in the city for just three weeks, hating its atmosphere and finding that he had already outgrown Laurens’ academic training. Though he exhibited portraits at the Paris Salon in 1904 and 1905, he returned to Toulouse, there embarking on a brief and unsuccessful marriage.
In the autumn of 1904, Dulac visited England in the hope of interesting publishers in his potential as an illustrator. He arrived at an opportune moment, there being a demand for illustrators who could respond to the innovative technology of three-colour half-tone printing. J M Dent was so impressed with his work as to immediately commission a set of sixty watercolours for a new edition of the novels of the Brontë sisters. And if the results provoked mixed reviews, they nevertheless made the artist’s name. He was soon invited to become a regular contributor to the Pall Mall Magazine.
Dulac settled properly in London in August 1905, taking lodgings in Holland Park and joining the London Sketch Club. Then, in the autumn of the following year, he took his portfolio to Ernest Brown of the Leicester Galleries to see if they might sponsor him as they had sponsored Arthur Rackham.
In 1904, the Leicester Galleries had commissioned Rackham to make a set of coloured drawings of Rip Van Winkle by Washington Irving and, while retaining the originals for exhibition, sold the reproduction rights to William Heinemann. This enterprise led to the establishment of the illustrated gift book, in which classic tales of wonder were presented in luxurious format.
Ernest Brown responded to Dulac, asking him to produce a set of drawings for Stories from the Arabian Nights, and then sold the rights to Hodder and Stoughton; in so doing, he instigated a rivalry which further strengthened a publishing phenomenon. When the resulting illustrations were concurrently exhibited at the Leicester Galleries and published with a text by Laurence Housman, in 1907, Dulac was revealed as a master of Orientalism, and a pattern was set for the production and presentation of his work. Of the books to appear soon after, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1909) exploited the same exotic vein. By contrast, Rackham was identified with an occidental, and specifically Germanic, folk imagination.
Dulac married in 1911, and a year later became a British subject. From about this time he became a member of the circle of Edmund and Mary Davis, significant patrons of the arts, and through them befriended Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon, and also W B Yeats. They offered Dulac a more sophisticated aesthetic environment than that of the London Sketch Club, and perhaps suggest better parallels for the range and character of his talents.
Until 1913, Dulac worked in a relatively naturalistic style with a subdued blue tonality. Then he gradually heightened his palette and stylised his compositions, drawing on a profound interest in Middle and Far Eastern Art. This was signalled by the publication of Princess Badoura, another of the ‘Stories from the Arabian Nights’ retold by Housman. That this direction was right for him was confirmed, in the autumn, when he and his wife joined the Davises on their yacht for a cruise through the Mediterranean. He was most seduced by the Arabic look of Siros and the Islamic culture of Tunis.
The development of Dulac’s work was marked not only by this refinement of style, but by an increasingly versatility. In the spring of 1914, he exhibited his first caricatures at the International Society. Then, soon after the outbreak of the First World War, he fulfilled a commission by the Daily Mail to design a set of charity stamps in aid of the Children’s Red Cross. Further projects emerged in the form of charity gift books, including Edmund Dulac’s Picture Book for the Red Cross (1915); the design – and also the music – for Yeats’s play, At the Hawk’s Well (1916); and writing of his own.
In 1918, Dulac saw the publication of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales, his last gift book for Hodder and Stoughton. However, it was as much a beginning as an end, its basis in late Greek vase painting extending an increasing preoccupation with flat, and often rich, decoration. The richness soon culminated in his illustrations to Léonard Rosenthal’s Au Royaume de la Perle (1919), a non-fiction history of pearls. Taking his cue from the opulence and opalescence of his subject, he introduced surfaces that appear enamelled, gilded and studded with gems. Much of his subsequent work may be related to Art Deco.
Dulac began to depend less on book illustration, and portrait painting became his major source of income. Equally skilled at exaggerating the human likeness, he contributed a series of caricatures to the weekly newspaper, The Outlook (1919-20), and occasionally crafted caricature models (firstly of George Moore in 1919). It was through the editor of The Outlook, E R Thompson, that Dulac met the translator Helen Beauclerk. As he became gradually estranged from his wife, Beauclerk took over as his companion; and when she turned to writing novels, in 1925, he illustrated the results. In the same period, he embarked on a long association with the Hearst magazine, American Weekly (1924-51), contributing many themed covers. Ever willing to test his versatility, he modelled his first medals (1926); decorated a smoking room for the great luxury liner, The Empress of Britain (1930); and designed various products, including a chocolate box for Cadbury’s and playing cards for De La Rue (both 1935).
On the outbreak of the Second World War, Dulac moved with Beauclerk to the Dorset village of Morcombelake to stay with her mother. With the founding of Free France, in 1940, he was visited there by Colonel de Gaulle who commissioned him to design banknotes and postage stamps. He considered this project the culmination of his career.
At the end of the war, Dulac returned to London, and again turned to book illustration, with a series of classic for children for the Limited Editions Club of New York. He completed three titles, including Milton’s Comus, which proved his last work and was posthumously published in 1954. He died on 25 May 1953, from a heart attack brought on by a demonstration of flamenco dancing. The Leicester Galleries held a memorial show in the December of that year.
His work is represented numerous public collections, including the British Museum, the Cartoon Art Trust, the Imperial War Museum, the London Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Fitzwilliam Museum, New York Public Library and Texas University.
Further reading: Edmund Dulac: Illustrator and Designer, Sheffield City Art Galleries, 1983; James Hamilton, ‘Dulac, Edmund [Edmond] (1882-1953)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 17, pages 168-170; Ann Conolly Hughey, Edmund Dulac. His Book Illustrations. A Bibliography, Potomac: Buttonwood Press, 1995; Colin White, Edmund Dulac, London: Studio Vista, 1976