Birth, Life, and Acts of King Arthur, The

The “Superior Issue” on Dutch Handmade Paper of Beardsley’s “Morte Darthur”

[BEARDSLEY, Aubrey, illustrator]. MALORY, Sir Thomas. 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, with the Dolourous Death and Departing out of This World of Them All. The text as written by Sir Thomas Malory and imprinted by William Caxton at Westminster the Year MCCCCLXXXV and now spelled in modern style. With an introduction by Professor Rhys and embellished with many original designs by Aubrey Beardsley. [London: J.M. Dent & Co.], 1893-1894.

First edition thus. One of 300 numbered copies of the “superior issue” on Dutch handmade paper (this copy being number 172), out of a total edition of 1,800 copies. Three quarto volumes (9 15/16 x 7 13/16 inches; 253 x 197 mm.). xc, 290; [4], [291]-664; [4], [665]-990, [1], [1, blank] pp. With two photogravure frontispieces on India paper mounted (in Volumes I and III), eighteen wood-engraved plates (printed on French handmade etching paper), including five double-page, numerous text illustrations, and approximately 350 chapter headings, borders, and initials, all after designs by Beardsley (according to Lasner, there are “43 borders (some repeated), 288 chapter headings, initial letters, and ornaments (many repeated)”). Title vignettes and initials printed in red.

Near contemporary half emerald green crushed levant morocco, ruled in gilt, over pink marbled boards. Spines in six compartments with five gilt-ornamented raised bands, lettered in gilt in two compartments and dated in gilt at foot, the remaining compartments decoratively paneled in gilt, top edge gilt, others uncut, marbled endpapers. Light rubbing to extremes. Spines uniformly sunned to antelope brown with no loss to gilt. Small bookplate to front paste down endpapers. Some minor browning and offsetting, heavier on the French etching paper which exhibits some spotting to margins not affecting image, as usual. An excellent copy.

“Seeking to emulate the books of the Kelmscott Press, John Dent in 1892 offered Beardsley £200 for twenty full-page illustrations, about one hundred smaller designs in the text, and nearly three hundred fifty initial letters for Le Morte Darthur. In accepting this formidable commission, the artist anticipated, corrected as it turned out, ‘a year’s hard work.’ His chief model when he began was his friend and patron Burne-Jones, but as he progressed, his designs became almost a parody of the Gothic style. Learning that William Morris had ‘sworn a terrible oath against me for daring to bring out a book in his manner,’ Beardsley maintained that, ‘while his work is a mere imitation of the old stuff, mine is fresh and original’” (Ray, The Illustrator and the Book in England).

“The work was issued from June 1893 to November 1894 in 12 parts, in two types, an ordinary issue of 1,500 copies in green wrappers priced at 2s. 6d., and a special or ‘superior’ issue (sometimes wrongly termed ‘large paper’ in booksellers’ catalogues and even by the publisher) of 300 numbered copies on Van Gelder paper in grey wrappers at 6s. 6d. The entire edition consisted of 1,800 copies. When, in 1894, the parts issue was due to be completed, subscribers were offered the opportunity to have their sets bound in binding-cases bearing new cover and spine designs by Beardsley. According to a slip placed in Part XII, owners of both ordinary and special issue (“Large Paper”) copies had the choice of buying cloth cases from Dent or sending their sets to Dent to be bound. Purchasers of the special issue who wanted their sets bound in the recommended vellum, however, had to send them to Dent. The binding configuration was two volumes for the ordinary issue, and three volumes (because of the thickness of the paper) for the special. Copies bound by the publisher had the wrappers removed and included a silk ribbon place-marker in each volume” (Lasner, p. 16).

Of this, Beardsley’s first major work, John Lewis states: “In Le Morte D’Arthur Beardsley learnt his job, but the result is no bungling student’s work…If he had never illustrated another book, this edition of Morte D’Arthur could stand as a monument of decorative book illustration” (in The Twentieth Century Book, pp. 148-149).

Lasner, Beardsley, 22. Ray, The Illustrator and the Book in England, 314. Item #00926

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