In 1948, the Belgian artist and book illustrator Francoise Taylor created a series of eighteen engraved illustrations for Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. Original editions of the full series have been held for many years in the permanent collections of the Cabinet des Estampes in Brussels and the Cabinet des Estampes in Paris.
The pictures were never intended for any specific publication of Malory's tale. Le Morte d'Arthur was their inspiration, but they are fine-art pieces in their own right. All the same size, they were printed in London as limited editions, at their original plate dimensions of 25.4 cm wide x 35.5 cm high on 37 cm wide x 53 cm high creamy-grey heavy watercolour-type paper.
The artist, who is now well into her 80's, is no longer exactly sure how many editions were printed, but knows it was a small number, her custom being to print only so many editions as could be done without any loss of definition - especially important in this case because of the very fine quality of line evident throughout the series . Apart from the Brussels and Paris editions, she has in her possession, still, a very few of each picture, varying in number from two copies of some, to five of others, together with a handful of original proofs. There were probably no more than ten editions in all, of which a few must presumably have been sold in England during the 1950's.
Francoise Taylor was extravagantly gifted at drawing and at expressing the themes of a story in an intense and very original way. During her early artistic training at the Académie Royale in Brussels she won the first prize for drawing three years in a row, followed by a Diploma of the Highest Distinction at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d'Architecture et d'Arts Décoratifs. Her Morte d'Arthur series subsequently won her a Masters Degree in Book Illustration.
[Four further engravings are untitled]
The artist's idiosyncratic graphic style is instantly recognisable throughout her work, and nowhere more so than in her series for Le Morte d'Arthur. Engraving is the perfect medium for the delicate beauty of Francoise Taylor's line and the finely hatched tones and subtle washed areas used in modelling her subjects. The mixture of technique, accurate observation, and raw human emotion she played into her art - especially book illustration - makes her pictures unforgettable.
Most of the well-known pictures about the legend of King Arthur are British pre-raphaelite paintings created between the mid nineteenth century and the early twentieth. They include 'Piety: The Knights of the Round Table departing on the Quest of the Holy Grail' (William Dyce, 1849), (John Mulcaster Carrick, 'Morte d'Arthur' 1862), 'Sir Galahad' (George Frederic Watts, 1862), 'The Beguiling of Merlin' (Edward Burne-Jones, 1874), 'The Lady of Shallott' (John William Waterhouse, 1888), 'The Temptation of Sir Percival' (Arthur Hacker, 1894), 'The Accolade' (Edmund Blair Leighton, 1901), and 'King Arthur' (Charles Earnest Butler, 1903). Two personal favourites from the period are 'Morgan Le Faye' (Fredrick Sandys, 1864) and 'The Knight at the Crossroads' (Victor Vasnetsov, 1878 - not pre-raphaelite).
Victorian painting has long been unfashionable, being regarded as overly sentimental and in poor taste. Pre-Raphaelite painting grew from a spirit of disenchantment with modern life and a sense that art was capable of moral power and could express good and evil, and it coincided with a general revival of interest in the Arthurian legend. Themes from King Arthur, with the knight presented as the symbolic romantic hero, were therefore ideal, and Sir Thomas Malory would doubtless have approved.
A deluxe edition of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur was specifically illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley for the publisher J.M. Dent (London, 1893 - 1894). Beardsley, whose decorative style was more akin to Art Nouveau than to the classical traditions of art, produced over 350 designs, letters, ornaments, and full-page illustrations. A few copies of the original printings, which became known as 'The Dent-Beardsley Malory Collection', are still in circulation.
Francoise Taylor's twentieth century illustrations for Le Morte d'Arthur are of a very different genre: emotionally intense but devoid of sentimentality, characterising instead - and beautifying in the process - the violence and absurdity of armoured conflict.
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