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The Age of Enchantment - Dulwich Picture Gallery

Preview by Lizzie Guilfoyle

AN EXHIBITION of fantasy illustration, The Age of Enchantment. Beardsley, Dulac and their Contemporaries 1890 – 1930, is on display at the Dulwich Picture Gallery until February 17, 2008.

With the death of Aubrey Beardsley in 1898, the world of the illustrated book underwent a dramatic change. Gone were the degenerate images of scandal and deviance. The age of decadence was softened to delight rather than shock.

Whimsy and a pastel toned world of childish delights and an innocent exoticism unfolded in the pages of both familiar fables and classic children’s tales – those of Hans Christian Andersen, for example, and The Arabian Nights. They were published with lavish colour plates and fine bindings and were the coffee table books of a new age.

As a result a new generation of illustrators emerged. This new 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.

The masters of this new art form were artists like Edmund Dulac and Kay Nielson, whose inventive book productions, with those of Arthur Rackham, became legendary. Disciples gathered, like Jessie King and Annie French, the Scottish masters of the ethereal and the poetic; the Detmold Brothers, masters of natural fantasy; as well as those who remained in Beardsley’s shadow – Sidney Sime, Laurence Housman, Charles Ricketts, Harry Clarke and Alaistair.

Children’s stories were transformed by the imaginations of a group still bowing to the Victorians Walter Crane, Randolph Caldecott and Kate Greenaway and the fairies of Richard Doyle but these were now given a more colourful intensity by Charles Robinson, Patten Wilson, Anning Bell, Bernard Sleigh and Maxwell Armfield.

The Age of Enchantment is the first exhibition of its kind in Britain and the first worldwide for 20 years, the last being in New York in 1979. All works, and there are more than a hundred, are largely from British Museums and private collections, many of which have never before been seen publicly in Britain.

The Age of Enchantment is curated by Rodney Engen.

Admission: £8 adults, £7 seniors, £4 other concessions.

Times: Tuesday to Friday – 11am to 5pm.

Dulwich Picture Gallery, Gallery Road, Dulwich, London, SE21 7AD.