British fantasy illustration at the Dulwich Picture Gallery

The Age of Enchantment: Beardsley, Dulac and their Contemporaries 1890-1930,” curated by Rodney Engen. Dulwich Picture Gallery, London. Through Feb. 17.

This group of artists was intent upon borrowing from the past, especially the fantasies of the rococo, the rich decorative elements of the Orient, the Near East, and fairy worlds of the Victorians. Artists include Edmund Dulac, Kay Nielson, Arthur Rackham, Jessie King, Annie French, the Detmold Brothers, Sidney Sime, Laurence Housman, Charles Ricketts, Harry Clarke, Alaistair, Charles Robinson, Patten Wilson, Anning Bell, Bernard Sleigh and Maxwell Armfield. In The Observer, Lauren Cumming reports that the “Dulwich Picture Gallery makes a point of showing what’s known as illustration every winter. But they don’t call it that and when one sees the original works full-scale, the sense that they are independent, do not hang upon the every word of some text, is conclusive and very striking.” Read more.

In The Guardian, novelist AS Byatt looks beyond the bright-cheeked children and pretty dolls of the Edwardian illustrators to examine the menace that lurks within. “The Victorian fairy painters knew all about the inhumanity of fairies. They inherited a supernatural world from Fuseli’s visions of nightmare. The great, mad Richard Dadd painted both The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in Come Unto These Yellow Sands and Contradiction: Oberon and Titania. His fairies swarm and are all sizes, like Kirk’s minutest corpuscles. Their faces are strange, their preoccupations mysterious, their doings dangerous.”

Brian Sewell reports in the Evening Standard that this show will bore the pants off kids, although having just taken my eight-year-old to the Richard Prince show at the Guggenheim, I can attest that a little naughtiness goes a long way toward engaging kids in art. “If this was indeed, as I suppose, an exhibition intended to enchant children during the Christmas holiday, to extend their perceptions of Santa Claus, the Advent calendar, the Christmas crib, the pantomime and Midnight Mass, the ancient pagan elements jostling the Christian, then those in charge at the Dulwich Gallery should have strangled the curator at an early stage in his preparations. His plodding employment of creaking scholarship, the sense of dull didacticism rather than delight, may well be suitable for such a show later in the year, but not now. This is an entirely personal response on my part believing, as I do, that there are many children in whom the fires of connoisseurship can be lit through fine illustrations in books addressed to them – but Beardsley’s Yellow Book is adult stuff, and so too are the Ballets Russes (parents should go straight to John Richardson’s biography of Picasso, volume three, out now, if they want their little ones to know the ins and outs of Diaghilev and co); and many of the subjects verge on mysticism and symbolism manipulated to express ambiguous states of mind, of fear and longing, and of dreams and ecstasies beyond the experience of children.”

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