This week sees the anniversary of the birth of both William Morris and Jessie M King, so it seems appropriate to celebrate by devoting the latest Inspiring Illustrations blog post to our 1904 copy of The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems, written by Morris and illustrated by King.
The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems, written in 1858, was Morris’ first book and one of his best-known works. It is said to be the first book of Pre Raphaelite poetry to be published.
Jessie M. King was one of the most important Scottish illustrators of the 20th century and studied at the Glasgow School of Art. In 1885 Francis H. Newbery became the new director and headmaster of the School. An important figure in the Arts and Crafts movement in Scotland, Newbery believed in equal opportunities for women in art. He saw the importance of teaching practical skills and established a Decorative Arts department employing artist-craftsmen to teach crafts such as pottery, bookbinding, wood-carving, glass staining and needlework. This creative atmosphere became the centre of the uniquely Scottish form of the “Art Nouveau” movement that became recognised in Europe as the “Glasgow style.”
In 1899, while still a student, King was offered a part-time post as tutor in the department of Book Decoration and Design. She demonstrated the art of bookbinding, the use of ornamental lettering and illustration. It was during this time that her career as an illustrator took off.
In 1904 Jessie received commissions for two books from John Lane. The more important of the two was to produce the cover design, 24 full-page illustrations and page decorations for William Morris’ The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems.
The binding is in dark red cloth and on the front cover is a gilt-decorated Guenevere, radiant with a halo of stars, her arms outstretched (above left). The full-page illustrations contain many elements that would become associated with much of Jessie’s work.
The lettering was done in a style first developed for needlework designs by Jessie Rowat, who later became Newbery’s wife. This lettering was to become one of the many features of the ‘Glasgow Style’ and was based on lettering found on seventeenth-century tombstones.
Jessie’s exquisite line drawings had a dreamlike quality to them, sweeping lines and solid swathes of black reminiscent of the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley. Some areas were drawn entirely out of dots bringing the feeling of otherworldliness into her illustrations. Obsessed by medievalism and fairy tales she drew knights, fair maidens and angels clothed in fashions borrowed from the Middle Ages, the Far East or Celtic folklore. She incorporated ornate figures and enriched areas with intricate detail, combining various stylized motifs into her designs. Flowers, including the Glasgow Rose, swallows, leaves, stars and petals all suggest an awareness of the works of the Arts and Crafts, Pre Raphaelite, and the Art Nouveau movements.
The page decorations were charming – strings of roses and stars, swooping swallows and delicate lilies. These devices were used again and again in other aspects of Jessie’s works, as designs for her silverwork or as decorations on her ceramics or fabrics.
Other examples of Jessie M King’s illustrations that can be found in our collections include George Buchanan’s Jephtha, R.W. Emerson’s Friendship, and various editions of The Studio: an illustrated magazine of fine and applied art.
Reading Room Administrator