The Art of Book Design: Le Morte D’Arthur

Sir Thomas Malory. Le Morte Darthur. Illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley. Limited First Edition, J. M. Dent and Sons, 1893.

Sir Thomas Mallory. Le Morte Darthur. Illustrations by Aubrey Bardsley. Limited First Edition, J. M. Dent and Sons, 1893.

Marcus submitted this book a very long time ago and I’ve been holding off using it because there is so much more to this book than its very beautiful cover. The book is filled with the most incredible illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley and I’d like to showcase them,  so I’ve decided to change things up a bit. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to dive into this book and savour it, a few delightful illustrations at a time. The book has been republished many times, but in the above photos, Marcus is holding his very rare, limited edition (only 300 copies made).

Bearsley was only 19 when he began the artwork for this book and was working as a clerk in an insurance firm at the time. Dent saw the artist’s potential and hired him on cheaply, hoping to produce a high-quality edition that was affordable for the masses. Beardsley’s artwork exceeded all expectations. In all, there are over 1,000 illustrations and decorations in the book and many have gone on to live in fine art collections around the world. Beardsley died of tuberculosis a mere 4 years later, but he left behind an incredible body of work. I can’t possibly show all 1,000 decorations in the book, but I will show you the best of the full and double-page illustrations plus a selection of borders and chapter headings to give you a good overall flavour of the grotesque, macabre, erotic world that Beardsley created.

edit, July 7/20. The edition that Marcus is holding is from 1893 and not 1927, as I had originally noted, and I’ve made the correction. Thanks to Flex for the wealth of information.

Le Morte Darthur, Dent and Sons, 1927.

Let’s start with a look at the detail of a few monograms and full-page border decorations.

Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley. Morte Darthur. Dent and Sons, 1927.

Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley. Morte Darthur. Dent and Sons, 1927.

Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley. Morte Darthur. Dent and Sons, 1927.

Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley. Morte Darthur. Dent and Sons, 1927.

Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley. Morte Darthur. Dent and Sons, 1927.


Artwork via: Enchanted Booklet



  1. kestrel says

    So amazing… and how sad the artist died so young, and was not paid much for his work.

  2. says

    Just a note about my edition of the book: I inherited it from a serious book collector friend of my father’s. Bibliophile catalogs record that there was a superior edition of the Morte in this format, in gilt-pressed red morocco leather, numbering 300. You will notice, if you are perceptive, that mine is white. It does not exist. There’s a good chance that it was a copy that the publisher ordered for their own collection, or to give to Beardsley. Somehow it wound up in the possession of an elderly European nobleman whose collection went up at Sothebys in the 1930s and my father’s friend obtained it, through an unlikely accident, for next to nothing.

    Just because it’s an amazing story, this is how that happened: my father’s friend was a ravenous bibliophile, a lawyer, and old Maryland aristocracy. He was in London to negotiate the purchase of a cargo ship and was carrying a bank draft for a large sum of money. Since he got to London a few days early he decided to check out an auction of rare books that was being held at Sotheby’s. When he got there, he discovered that nobody was bidding, because nobody had brought money -- it turns out that the British Museum’s rare books curator was going to be there, with a purse of money from the queen, intending to buy the lot. But the lone American didn’t know that, and started bidding and, based on the bank draft he was carrying, bought most of it. It turned out that the unfortunate curator was hit by a car crossing the street and was in a hospital and not Sotheby’s that day. So, this huge collection of unique rare books wound up in a gentleman’s personal library in Baltimore, Maryland and eventually (with the exception of my copy of Morte) at the rare books collection at his alma mater in Chapel Hill, NC. My will stipulates that when I am done, my volumes will join the rare books collection at Johns Hopkins University.

    There was a largeish edition of morocco-bound lesser copies of Morte which can be had on Ebay, periodically, for reasonable sums. It’s a great gift for a bibliophile if you know someone with that particular affliction.

  3. brucegee1962 says

    Beardsley’s pornographic book Under the Hill is pretty shocking, even by today’s standards. Interesting dude.

  4. flex says

    That looks like the J. M. Dent 3rd London edition, published in 1927. It was a limited run of 300 copies. The photo above indicates it’s a 1927 first edition, but that’s not possible as Beardsley was dead by 1927 (he died at the age of 25, in 1898).

    The first edition has a fascinating history. It was first published as a serial, sold as a subscription in 12 parts in paperback over a period of 18 months in 1893-1894. At the end of the subscription the publisher’s suggested that the owner’s send their copies back to the publisher for binding. There were 1500 sets published on standard paper and 300 sets published on special hand-made dutch paper. Most of the unsold sets were also bound by the publisher for sale. The publisher generally turned them into 2-volume sets of of a cream-colored binding with gilt decoration. They looked pretty much like the book shown here, but they are pretty easy to distinguish as the 1893/4 set splits the book into two volumes, chapters I-VII in book one and chapters VIII-XI in book two. If Marcus’s book includes all XI chapters, it’s most likely the 1927 3rd edition. Some sets were privately bound, so not all bindings are alike for the 1893/4 edition.

    The 1927 Dent edition, which I think the above pictures show, included some additional Beardsley illustrations which were not used in the first edition. The publisher, J. M. Dent and Co., originally wanted to use William Morris as illustrator, but they couldn’t afford him. A bookseller who knew both Beardsley and Dent introduced them to each other. Dent liked the look of Beardsley’s work, and offered, giving Beardsley his big break. Today I suspect that Beardsley may be more well known than William Morris.

    This book is a bibliophile’s dream. And I should come over to this blog more often. Not to lecture like I did tonight, but because I love beautiful books.

  5. says

    Thank you so much for that explanation! I’m (obviously) not an addicted bibliophile, and I haven’t researched this stuff (and wouldn’t know where to look)

    They looked pretty much like the book shown here, but they are pretty easy to distinguish as the 1893/4 set splits the book into two volumes, chapters I-VII in book one and chapters VIII-XI in book two. If Marcus’s book includes all XI chapters, it’s most likely the 1927 3rd edition. Some sets were privately bound, so not all bindings are alike for the 1893/4 edition.

    My set is 3 volumes! The first one has chapters 1-7, as you say. The second volume has 8-12 and the third 13-End. I guess it’s as you say, a privately bound set.

  6. flex says

    @Marcus, #5,

    That suggests that it’s not the 1927 edition, but a rare copy of the 1893/4 edition. I’m curious about the third volume. The cover shown in the OP looks very much like those the publisher (Dent) used for binding the 12 subscription paperbacks, but the publisher appears to have typically bound them into two volumes, not three. The first volume usually contains pages 1-455, while the second volume completes the work with pages 456 -- 990. If your three volume set is split differently it would be a fascinating example of a privately bound set.

    Another thing to check is that by 1927 publishers almost always included the publication date in the book. In 1893 it was common, but not universal, and limited-run art books were notorious for not including a publication date. The text was familiar to educated people at the time, the only reason to purchase this book was for the beauty of it. The text used is very close to the 1485 Caxton edition, with only minor updates from the late-middle English Mallory originally wrote in. There are some other books from the time which benefited by improved translations but this was not one of them, this was printed as a work of art.

    I have a couple books from this period which are missing publication dates (I have much older books which include publication dates, so was not a universal lack). Bibliophiles were supposed to be educated enough to just know when certain books were published, without needing a reminder from the publisher. My 1889 Folio-size Dante’s Inferno illustrated by Gustave Dore also lacks a publication date, while my 1872 copy of Augustus De Morgan’s A Budget of Paradoxes has one. The difference is that the Dante was intended as artwork, not as reference. According to some people in the arts-and-crafts movement adding a date ruined the timeless aspect of the book. Pure snobbery as far as I am concerned. The send-up that Gilbert and Sullivan did on the arts-and-crafts movement in their comic operetta Patience is spot-on (and the music is some of Sullivan’s most lyrical).

    For what it’s worth, I’m not a obsessive bibliophile. But books speak of books, and I like to trace the development of knowledge backwards, so when I find a reference in a book I’m reading to another book I often follow it up. I can’t afford to spend much money on books, but I do know how to research them. Used books are getting cheaper all the time as the demand is drying up. So if you specialize and know exactly what you are looking for you can find some amazingly cheap, but beautiful books.

    Not that you could find OP book for cheap; that book is legendary, valuable, and worth it.

  7. says

    So, I checked and there’s a frontpiece with the publisher’s logo and name and whatnot on it, and the date MDCCCXCIII -- 1893. It’s definitely three volumes.

    There are sets of the 1893 superior edition on a couple of internet booksellers and even on Ebay.

  8. voyager says

    Thanks Flex,
    for sharing all that information. It found it fascinating. I had difficulty finding information about Marcus’ exact edition and now I know why. The closest I could find was the Dent of 1927, but I’m pleased to find out that the book is an even more rare 1893 edit. I’ll edit the photo captions to reflect the correct year of publication.

    What a great story, Marcus. Talk about being in the right place at the right time. I wonder if Her Majesty was a trifle upset about losing out?

  9. pomamasid says

    I realize this post is three years old but have been trying to figure out the iterations of this particular edition for a couple of weeks now and I think I *maybe* got it? I have seen a couple of copies that are in three volumes, they all seem to have brighter covers than the ever so slightly more common two volume. It seems the Beardsley illustrated translation was originally in 12 paper volumes. I have seen it written that once the volumes were collected they could be sent back to the publisher and be bound together. My copy (I just got myself a copy of volume one of two which is what sent me down this rabbit hole of specifics) has the beginning page explanation that there were 1500 ordinary copies printed and 300 printed on dutch handmade paper. My current guess is that the handmade paper is heavier and they were bound in three volumes with a fancier vellum binding whereas the ordinary paper is two volumes with a cloth cover. The vellum is why the binding is so much brighter than the cloth binding that i acquired. Definitely coveting your copy, both it being more rare but mostly that it is complete. Having the first volume to page through I now want to be able to physically see *alllllll* the art as it was originally printed (most copies are way beyond my price range, I lucked out with the first volume). At any rate, was glad to find a convo about it as I was piecing together descriptions from various copies for sale. TTFN

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