Merlin Taketh the Child Arthur into His Keeping
26.5 x 20.8 cm.
Source: Malory's Le Morte Darthur, I, 6.
Beckwith, Victorian Bibliomania catalogue no. 37
Collection: John Hay Library, Brown University. Gift of John M. Crawford/ Class of 1937.
See commentary below.
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Courtesy Brown University
Commentary by Alice H. R. H. Beckwith
Sir Thomas Malory, who compiled and translated these stories of King Arthur from the French, and William Caxton (1422-91), the scholar and translator who introduced printing into England, were revered by nineteenth-century British bibliomaniacs such as Henry Noel Humphreys and William Morris (cat. 65) as fathers of English culture. Malory's text, as printed by Caxton in 1485, was used for J. M. Dent's 1893-94 version of Le Morte Darthur, augmented by Professor Rhys's introduction and by modernized spelling.
Malory's stories are important as examples of secular concerns and events taking over from sacred themes in the literature of chivalry. As Maurice Keen recently pointed out, the action of religious significance in this story—the quest for the Holy Grail—is embedded between the life of Arthur, including the Lancelot romance, and the scenes leading up to Arthur's death (Keen, 59). A parallel shift from sacred to secular themes in illuminated works occurs toward the end of the nineteenth century . A sensitivity to the nuances of changing taste led John Dent to select this particular work as his first publication with printed illumination. By 1893 the attempts by Ruskin and the Tractarians to claim the secular Middle Ages as well as the sacred for the Gothic Revival had succeeded, but by the same token the sacred associations of the Arts and Crafts Movement began to be submerged in the tendencies of the fin-de-siècle Art Nouveau style.
Dent's Morte Darthur stands at the crossroads between the Arts and Crafts Movement and Art Nouveau. When work on the book began ca. 1892, the publisher. Dent, and the twenty-year-old artist, Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898), were new to publishing. Dent, however, did have contacts in the book world. He lost his bookbinding establishment in a fire in 1889, whereupon he set himself up as a publisher (Walker, 12). Beardsley was recommended to Dent by the bookseller Frederick Evans (Wick, 29). The Morte Darthur was published in parts, with 1,500 copies on machine-made paper and 300 in a superior issue on hand-made Dutch Van Gelder paper. All three volumes of the superior issue were bound in vellum and stamped in gold. The John Hay Library copy is number 23 of the superior issue. By the time the book was complete, in June of 1894, Beardsley was famous for his drawings in Oscar Wilde's Salome, his cover for The Yellow Book, and an important essay mentioning him by Joseph Pennell in The Studio (Walker, 13), so it is not surprising that Dent's three-volume work with over 350 drawings by Beardsley was a success.
According to John Taylor, when William Morris saw Le Morte Darthur he was furious enough to consider legal action (Taylor, 94). Morris angrily called Beardsley's work a parody of his Kelmscott books. Undoubtedly Dent's selection of Malory's text rankled as well. Since the 1850s (Christian, passim) Malory's Le Morte Darthur had inspired the medievalist reformer in Morris, and it was on the list of the 100 best books he submitted to the Pall Mall Gazette when asked for recommendations (Cary 263).
Certain similarities are apparent in a comparison of Beardsley's illustration of Merlin accepting the child Arthur to Burne-Jones and Morris's Prologue to The Canterbury Tales (cat. 35). In both cases printed illuminated borders fill the margins of the page. The proportions of the margins are derived from the double-page opening seen in medieval manuscripts and revived in the printed illuminated works of Humphreys, Jones and others (see cats. 7, 8, 25, 26). However, the forms, placement of the printed text, method of printing, and mood break away from earlier prototypes. Walter Crane tried to explain the difference as a mixture of medieval forms with "a curious weird Japanese-like spirit of diablerie and grotesque as of the opium dream" (Crane, 177).
Beardsley's own imagination, his familiarity with Japanese prints, and the line-block photomechanical process of facsimile reproduction employed in Le Morte Darthur all contributed to the difference between his work and the productions of the Kelmscott Press. Line-block illustrations are limited to broad flat tones of black and white; no intermediate values are possible, nor are any intricate lines. Such a process was well suited to adaptations of the diagonal placement of forms and flat areas of color floating against an untextured background in the Japanese woodblock prints so popular in England and the Continent during the 1890s. This was, furthermore, a process that allowed Dent to bring printed illuminated books at a lower price to a larger audience than Morris reached with his Kelmscott productions.
In the present illustration, a wizened tree to the left of Merlin, the magician, punches upward through the picture space, its leaves appearing to leap the white border at the head of the illustration. This is not the carefully controlled horizontal recession from foreground to background characteristic of Burne-Jones's Chaucer Prologue, but rather the Art Nouveau sense of space, stylized, abstract, and flat. There is a strangeness about the spiky-haired figures with knife-edged folds in their clothing that makes one wonder what is going to happen to the baby they hold. It is, however, the border which most vividly evokes Crane's so-called "opium dream." Dragon-like monsters fiercely bite one another in the midst of painfully sharp leaves. The viewer is caught off balance by the almost calm sweep of smaller leaves leading to the slender gutter side of the margin. This is a parody of the continuous dragon interlace of Hiberno-Saxon illumination. Never was such a border imagined by the designers of the nineteenth century before Beardsley, yet in its ferocity and strangeness his design captures an important aspect of Malory's tales, which are filled with portrayals of human and supernatural wickedness.
Related Material: Other Illustrations and Decorations from Morte d' Arthur
- Peacock (chapter heading)
- Merlin & Nimue
- a Beale Isoud at Joyous Gard
- The Achieving of the Sangreal
- How Sir Tristram drank of the love drink
- Satyr (chapter heading)
- Figure with long hair (chapter heading)
Beckwith, Alice H. R. H. Victorian Design: The Illuminated Book in Nineteenth-century Britain. Exhibition catalogue. Providence. Rhode Island: Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, 1987.
Christian, John. The Oxford Union Murals. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1981.
Keen, Maurice. Chivalry. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1984.
Malory, Thomas. Le Morte Darthur The Birth Life and Acts of King Arthur of His Noble Kings of the Round Table. Their Marvelous Enquests and Adventures, the Achieving of the San Grael and in the End the Le Morte Darthur with the Dolorous Death and Departing out of this World of Them All. Introduction: Professor Rhys. London: J. M. Dent, 3 vols., 1893-94. Illustrator, Illuminator and Binding Designer: Aubrey Beardsley. Printer: Tumbull & Spears, Edinburgh.
Walker, R. A. Le Morte Darthur with the Beardsley Illustrations. Bedford: Privately printed, 1945.
Wick, Peter A. The Turn of a Century, 1885-1910. Cambridge: Houghton Library, 1970.
Last modified 24 December 2013