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Grolier Club Exhibitions


Aubrey Beardsley. Design for Border for Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur. Ink over pencil on paper, [1892].

Having received little formal art training in his schooldays, Beardsley first taught himself to draw by copying. Even at the beginning of his professional career, which followed one year of evening classes at the Westminster School of Art, the impulse to reproduce what he saw and liked was irresistible, and what he liked were the medievalist designs of Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris—evident from this drawing of entangled leaves, vines, and flowers. The appreciation of talent was mutual in the case of Burne-Jones, who took an avuncular interest in the aspiring artist. It was decidedly not so with William Morris. When the art critic Aymer Vallance (1862­–1943) brought Beardsley to meet him, and Beardsley displayed a portfolio of his work, Morris was unimpressed and let his guests know it.

Prospectus for Sir Thomas Malory, The Birth, Life, & Acts of King Arthur, of His Noble Knights of the Round Table, Their Marvellous Enquests and Adventures, the Achieving of the San Greal, and in the End, Le Morte Darthur… [London: J. M. Dent, 1893].

When the firm of J. M. Dent commissioned Beardsley to illustrate this deluxe edition of a classic of medievalism, little did it know what it was in for, although the prospectus offered hints. Throughout this lengthy project, Beardsley’s style and interests were evolving. What began with tributes to Burne-Jones’s work for Morris’s Kelmscott Press moved in unexpected directions. Instead of just Arthurian knights of the Middle Ages, images inspired by classical mythology kept creeping in, and irrelevant naked figures invaded the designs. The influence, too, of recent encounters with Japanese prints soon was visible. Beardsley grew bored with having to churn out literally hundreds of drawings to fulfill his contract and increasingly indulged his changing tastes, as he turned from Pre-Raphaelite-ish aestheticism to decadence.

Sir Thomas Malory. The Birth, Life, and Acts of King Arthur, of His Noble Knights of the Round Table, Their Marvellous Enquests and Adventures, the Achieving of the San Greal, and in the End, Le Morte Darthur… Embellished with Many Original Designs by Aubrey Beardsley. London: J. M. Dent, 1893–1894.

Special issue bound in vellum. Frederick H. Evans’s copy with two original Beardsley drawings and Evans’s photograph of the original design for the wrapper of the parts issue.

The story of King Arthur and his knights, as written by Sir Thomas Malory (c. 1405–1471), involved visionary aims and daring quests that ended tragically. Beardsley’s massive project of designing and illustrating this edition of Malory’s narrative could have gone the same way. The tuberculosis that afflicted him from childhood onwards produced severe illness and lung hemorrhages, even as he was fulfilling J. M. Dent’s commission. But he persevered, and the substantial sum he received from the publisher allowed him to quit his hated day job as a clerk in a London insurance company. (To say he was unsuited to such work would be an understatement.) He owed his liberation in part to the bookseller and photographer Frederick H. Evans (1853–1943), who had brought Beardsley to the attention of J. M. (Joseph Malaby) Dent (1849­–1926). This copy of Le Morte Darthur belonged to Evans.

Aubrey Beardsley. Design for Front Wrapper of the Parts Issue of Sir Thomas Malory, Le Morte Darthur. Ink and pencil on paper, touched with Chinese white, [1892].

While Beardsley was turning out one drawing after another to accompany Malory’s Arthurian chronicles, he was, despite his poor health, simultaneously taking on other paid visual work. The effects of exhaustion, inattention, and inexperience—at the time, Beardsley was still a youth of twenty—showed in this drawing. Not only did he misspell the title of the volume as La Mort Darthure, but the sloppy lettering that he produced in haste required obvious touching up. This sort of correction was possible, thanks to the new processes of photomechanical reproduction, which Beardsley embraced ardently. He became not merely an advocate for them, but their apostle. Modernity demanded speed, volume, and the mass marketing of artistic goods, and Beardsley’s gaunt, elongated visage was soon the dominant public face of modern design.