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A Damosel with Peacocks In a Garden

Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898)


Pen and ink

6 ½ x 3 ½ inches

Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur, London: J M Dent & Co, 1893-94, Vol 1, Page 69, Heading to Book II, Chapter XIII, 'How Balin and the Damosel met with a knight which was in likewise slain, and how the Damosel bled for the
custom of a castle'; Vol 2, Page 332, Heading to Book VIII, Chapter XXIV, 'How Sir Tristram demanded La Beale Isoud for King Mark, and how Sir Tristram and Isoud drank the love drink'

'The Illustrators. The British Art of Illustration 1837-2015', Chris Beetles Gallery, November 2015-January 2016, No 42

Aubrey Beardsley and Morte D’Arthur

The demanding task of illustrating Sir Thomas Malory's epic Morte D’Arthur (1893-94) launched the career of Aubrey Beardsley. He was required to emulate the Medievalist style developed by Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris for Morris's Kelmscott Press, the pre-eminent publishing venture of second generation Pre-Raphaelitism. And, while the scale of the project tested his patience, and led him to parody his model in order to keep up his interest, he still created a striking set of images that retain the spirit of Kelmscott, most notably in his floral decorations.

By the time that he began to work on
Morte D’Arthur, Beardsley had met both Burne-Jones and Morris. On 12 July 1891, he went with his sister, Mabel, to one of Burne-Jones' 'open studios' at his home in West Kensington, showing the artist a portfolio of his work, and receiving the encouraging response that ‘I seldom or never advise anyone to take up art as a profession, but in your case I can do nothing else' (reported by Beardsley in a letter written to A W King on 13 July 1891).

A year later, on a Sunday afternoon, ‘in the spring or early summer of 1892', Beardsley joined Aymer Vallance on a visit to William Morris's house in Hammersmith. Vallance was a member of Morris's circle and, knowing that he was in search of illustrators for the Kelmscott Press, suggested that Beardsley make a drawing of the title character from Wilhelm Meinhold's
Sidonia von Bork, a translation of which Morris was planning to publish. However, Morris was unenthusiastic about this and the other drawings in Beardsley's portfolio, and merely remarked, 'I see you have a feeling for draperies, and I should advise you to cultivate it' (Aymer Vallance, in The Magazine of Art, 21 May 1898, page 363).

During 1892, publishers began to hear that the Kelmscott Press was preparing to issue
The Work of Geoffrey Chaucer, though it was formally advertised only in the December of that year, and did not appear until 1896. In response, I M Dent planned to publish a new, illustrated edition of Morte D’Arthur, a canny choice of text, for the famous compilation of tales concerning King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table had already proved key to the Pre-Raphaelites. Furthermore, like the works of Chaucer, Morte D’Arthur had first appeared in print in the fifteenth century in an edition by William Caxton, the inspiration for so many English printers and publishers.

However, though it was ‘designed in imitation of Morris's mock-medieval Kelmscott Press style' and woodcut technique, Dent intended to print his edition ‘at a fraction of the price by using photomechanical reproduction processes for the illustrative material' (Sturgis 1998, pages 107-108). In order to proceed with the venture, Dent needed to find an appropriate illustrator. He was explaining this difficulty to his friend, the bookseller, Frederick Evans, on a visit to Jones & Evans, 77 Queen Street, Cheapside, when Beardsley walked in. Beardsley worked as a clerk in nearby Lombard Street and, during his lunch hour, had become a frequent visitor to the shop, gradually getting to know Evans, and giving him drawings in exchange for books. His arrival suggested to Evans 'that there was the young man for the "Morte'', and he 'introduced him to Mr Dent as the illustrator of his "Morte D'Arthur"'. Though Beardsley initially 'looked bewildered', Dent was sufficiently encouraged to ask him to make ‘a specimen drawing as soon as possible, and if it was successful he should at once have the commission' (as reported by Evans in a letter published in
The Saturday Review, 1913, page 394).

Beardsley chose as his subject the climax of the book, 'The Achieving of the Sangreal', and produced a spectacular showpiece that revealed his close study of the work of Burne-Jones. Even though it combined tonal washes with the pen lines, making it unsuitable for reproduction by the line-block process, it completely convinced Dent, who offered Beardsley an irresistible deal. This specimen drawing would eventually appear as the frontispiece to the second volume. The book was to be issued to subscribers in 12 monthly parts, from June 1893, in 1500 ordinary copies, with 300 copies on Dutch handmade paper. Initially presented in card covers, the parts would then be bound in volumes, the ordinary edition in two and the more limited edition in three.

Beardsley agreed to Dent's original contract, which had offered ‘£50 for the 20 odd full page drawings, £25 for the 40 small drawings & designs & 5/- each for the initial letters', approximately totalling 350 drawings (according to a letter from Beardsley to Dent of about 8 October 1892). This major commission enabled him to resign his clerical position and begin to establish himself as a major modern artist. According to Haldane MacFall, ‘Beardsley flung himself at the achievement of the Morte D'Arthur with almost mad enthusiasm' (MacFall 1928, pages 28-29), and produced most of the decorations that Dent wanted during the second half of 1892. When he began to tire of the demands of this large-scale project, Dent then attempted to rekindle his interest, first by drawing up a more generous formal contract for the Malory project, then by issuing another commission, that for the three-volume series of
Bon-Mots. The grotesque, even sinister, vignettes with which he decorated the series revealed a Japanese inspired strain in his art, and suggested how quickly he could absorb and outgrow each new influence in developing his style. Certainly, Beardsley was outgrowing Kelmscott, and perhaps with good reason. Close to Christmas 1892, Valance made a failed attempt to persuade him to go back to Morris and win him over. All he would do was agree that Vallance could show Morris a printed proof of The Lady of the Lake telling Arthur of the Sword Excalibur. On seeing it, Morris became very angry that the young, inexperienced artist that he had dismissed six months earlier was now 'mastering the Kelmscott idea and in one fell drawing surpassing it and making the whole achievement of Morris's earnest workers look tricky and meretricious and unutterably dull'. He called it 'an act of usurpation’ and ‘was prevented from writing an angry remonstrance to Dent ... Only at Sir Edward Burne-Jones's earnest urging' (op cit, page 31).

By April 1893, Beardsley was trying out new expressions of his style, as was signalled by Joseph Pennell's illustrated article on the artist in the first number of The Studio. This stage in his career has been summed up as his wanting ‘
Salome and wickedness' (Crawford 2004, page 543), a reference to the illustration to Oscar Wilde's Salome that he had made speculatively, but which would lead to his providing images for a complete edition of the play, which was published in the following year, and proved something of a succès de scandale. By contrast, Morte D’Arthur received little in the way of critical response, mainly because of the serial nature of its publication. Nevertheless, its slow appearance between June 1893 and November 1894 did allow Dent to continue pressing Beardsley to complete the illustrations and, when that failed, to reuse the most ornamental of the designs, sometimes more than once.

The result of this repetition is actually to give unity to the work, and to emphasise Beardsley's genius for decoration, especially floral decoration. His friend, Robert Ross, noted in a sensitive early monograph of the artist, that 'The initial- and tail-pieces are delightful in themselves, and among the most exquisite of his grotesques and embellishments’ (Ross 1909, page 43).

Mounted with acid free museum board, enclosed by a fluted half inch gilded oak frame, and protected by uv screening glass.

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