Aubrey Beardsley & Le Morte d’Arthur

On September 29, 2016, five rare pen-and-ink illustrations for Aubrey Beardsley’s first published work, Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, 1893-94, are coming to auction. The two-year publishing project was an exhilarating journey for the nineteen-year-old artist who experienced a rapid exploration and development of his artistic style.

Lot 4: Aubrey Beardsley, Rose Bush, pen and ink, 1893-94. Estimate $3,000 to $4,000.

At that time in fine English book publishing, William Morris’s Kelmscott Press produced exquisite limited editions that were the pinnacle of “the book beautiful” with their elaborate woodcut ornamentation and vellum bindings. Inspired by their success, London publisher and bookshop proprietor, J. M. Dent, wished to produce a similar type of book that could be printed on a larger scale and would be affordable to the greater public by utilizing new photomechanical line-block and half-tone block processes of reproduction. Malory’s LeMorte d’Arthur, the chivalric favorite text of the Pre-Raphaelites, was the perfect title.

Lot 7: Aubrey Beardsley, Three Stylized Leaves, group of two, pen and ink, 1893-94. Estimate $1,200 to $1,800.

Beardsley was introduced to Dent through their mutual friend and bookseller, Frederick Evans, and won the commission immediately. The publisher could see the force and quality of Beardsley’s monochromatic illustrations. He also figured the young and eager artist, then working as a clerk at an insurance agency, would be happy for the meager fee he could afford to pay for such a demanding task.

Lot 6: Aubrey Beardsley, Four Large Lilies, pen and ink, 1893-94. Estimate $2,000 to $3,000.

The twelve-part edition, which was later bound into a single volume, contained over 360 full- and double-page drawings, borders, chapter headings, and ornaments (five of which are offered in the upcoming sale); many of these were repeated, making a total of over 1,000 decorations. To please Dent and to emulate his artistic heroes, Beardsley’s first drawings were modeled after the Kelmscott artist, Edward Burne-Jones. This enraged Morris, who accused Beardsley of plagiarism.

Beardsley quickly pushed himself to explore his own style to differentiate himself from Burne-Jones.  He incorporated motifs from Greek vase painting, Japanese printmaking, caricature, and sixteenth century Italian illustration. These were often rendered in a sexually ambiguous and grotesque manner, sometimes completely disregarding Malory’s text and created to please himself. And because the book was not laid out in the sequence in which the illustrations were drawn, it is fascinating to leaf through it and see the juxtaposition of drastically different ranges of maturity, style, and detail.

The ornament drawings in our sale are remarkable because one can see Beardsley’s carefully hand-drawn flowers defined by brush strokes in black watercolor paint that fill large background areas which was a common design in Japanese woodblocks. These floral motifs hold specific symbolism and many, like the thorned rose bush, would resurface in his later work. Many of the ornaments, like those offered here, reflect themes in each chapter: for example, lilies represent purity and sweetness, themes explored in Book VI, chapter XII.

Beardsley suffered from genetic tuberculosis, and succumbed to the disease by the age of 25, only four years after the publication of his magnum opus. Le Morte d’Arthur remains one of his most beloved works and was, without doubt, his artistic coming-of-age.

Lot 5: Aubrey Beardsley, Three Stylized Clematis Flowers, pen and ink, 1893-94. Estimate $3,000 to $4,000.