I recently found a 1st edition Sleeping Beauty, published in 1920 and illustrated by Arthur Rackham, in a second-hand bookshop; to me this was like finding a gold nugget in a gravel stream bed. I have previously written of my love for Rackham’s art (here) and this book is so beautiful and of a different style to his usual work that I just had to do a post on it.

This particular edition was written by Charles S. Evans, although this famous tale has a long history – most people will be familiar with the Grimm brothers version but that itself is based on a version by french fairy-tale writer Charles Perrault who in turn based it on a tale by Giambattista Basile (who’s stories are the basis of the recent film ‘Tale of Tales’) who actually got it from various folk tales. There are similar tales throughout European literature – including in Wagner’s Ring cycle (based on ancient Norse tales) where a Valkyrie is magically put to sleep surrounded by fire and in ‘Perceforest’ written in the 14th century with the tale of Zellandine and Troylus. Most of these earlier versions have the similar theme of the ‘sleeping beauty’ being raped by the prince (or king) while she sleeps resulting in her giving birth to a child(ren) unconscious.

But of real interest are the illustrations in this lovely book; Rackham has used silhouettes rather than full-colour paintings (except one) which are remarkably detailed and look quite three-dimensional despite being flat blocks of black ink.

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This first illustration appears opposite the title page and is the only conventional Rackham painting in the book, it pictures the princess in her magic-induced sleep surrounded by her namesake roses. This is not perhaps one of his best works but the figure herself and the fabrics are richly detailed and finished with his usual aplomb.

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Now we get onto the silhouettes – this is a cracker! The execution of the foliage is exquisite, the entire composition is perfect, the figures do not look flat and I have no idea how he accomplished the gaps between the small columns on the wall. This is the Queen by the way, about to meet a talking frog who informs her of her impending pregnancy – which is a technique every woman in the medieval period used.

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Now this is an interesting and stunning piece, the use of small blocks of pastel-colours to highlight the background and small details is just genius, the silhouettes are again outstanding – can you see the baby in the Queens arms? Or the smallest fairy hiding behind the tapestry? Drawing a scene like this normally is impressive, but drawing it so that it still works as just black outlines is beyond my understanding.

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This is possibly my favourite illustration in the book (or perhaps the one I used for the main image of the man in the brambles) This is the prince easily walking through the wall of thorns in which the rotting bodies (still with flesh on!) of previous heroes are trapped encoiled in the rose vines. I love the composition again and the coloured-in knight in armor is fantastic – the skill required to do this is remarkable. Rackham is well-known for his style of twisted, gnarly trees and plants so he fits this subject matter perfectly – the thorns look great, also the fact it is in silhouette allows Rackham to indulge in some gruesomeness not otherwise suitable for a child’s fairy-tale.

This is not a book you can just pick up in your local Waterstones; it is proper vintage and not cheap, so seeing as most people might not get to appreciate this artistry I have enjoyed sharing this with you and I hope you enjoyed it too.

 

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