“HIS STRONGEST ILLUSTRATIONS”: FIRST EDITION, SUPERIOR ISSUE OF BEARDSLEY’S KING ARTHUR, HIS FIRST ILLUSTRATED BOOK—AN OUTSTANDING COPY IN ORIGINAL PARTS(BEARDSLEY, Aubrey)
Birth, Life and Acts of King Arthur [Le Morte Darthur]
MALORY, Thomas. The Birth, Life and Acts of King Arthur, Of His Noble Knights of the Round Table.
(London: J.M. Dent), 1893-94. Twelve parts. Quarto, original gray pictorial wrappers, uncut. Housed in two matching custom clamshell boxes. $12,500.First edition, “superior issue,” of Aubrey Beardsley’s magnificently illustrated version of Malory’s masterpiece, number 116 of only 300 copies on handmade Dutch paper, with 15 full-page and five double-page illustrations, as well as over 20 rubricated initials, over 40 borders and nearly 300 in-text decorations throughout. An outstanding uncut copy in the original parts with original pictorial wrappers, rarely seen in this condition.
“Each century has produced its own version of the Arthurian tapestry, but Malory’s will never be forgotten” (PMM 29). William Caxton published Malory’s epic in 1485. “William Morris’ view of a book as a unified work of art with all the visual elements in harmony… resulted in the production of several profusely decorated Malorys, generally in limited editions. An immediate response to the Kelmscott books was J.M. Dent’s Morte Darthur
(1893-94),” containing 20 illustrations “by the then-unknown Aubrey Beardsley. Though a Burne-Jones influence was evident in the early chapters, Beardsley soon developed the Art Nouveau style characterized by whiplash line, abstract floral motifs and starkly contrasted black-and-white forms. Far more original was his treatment of content, for his knights, lethargic and spiritless, are completely dominated by their mistresses and the fays. Far from glorifying chivalric romance, Beardsley satirized it, shocking Victorian sensibilities with his effeminate heroes, androgynous nudes, lecherous satyrs and sensual angels” (Lacy, 46). This was Beardsley’s first illustrated book, originally published in two issues, both in 12 separate parts: 300 numbered copies in gray wrappers printed on Van Gelder paper (the present copy, known as the “superior issue”—later bound in three volumes due to the thickness of the paper); and 1500 copies in green wrappers (later bound in two gilt-decorated cloth volumes). It uses the Caxton version as its original, with modern spelling. “Morte d’Arthur brought [Beardsley] instant recognition and the artistic leadership of a decade often known as the ‘Beardsley period’… The Malory drawings are his strongest illustrations” (The Artist and the Book 16). Beardsley’s brilliant career was tragically short; he died four years later.
Lasner 22.Spines of first two parts leaning slightly; a few volumes with marginal foxing. Interiors fine, with the usual mild offsetting from illustrations. Expected minor edge-wear to original wrappers. A superb copy in the original parts, most uncommon and desirable thus.