Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Edmund Dulac's Persian Pearls

By Stephen J. Gertz

Neither serpents, nor magicians, nor sickness, nor accidents can touch him who has and holds in honour a pearl born in the head of a serpent (Léonard Rosenthal, stanza 66, from Au Royaume de la Perle).
In 1919, Léonard Rosenthal (1872-1955), an internationally respected and acclaimed dealer of oriental pearls and precious stones based in Paris,  published  Au Royaume de la Perle (Paris: Payot), a 208-page 16mo volume with decorations by Claude Denis.

In 1920, Rosenthal commissioned Edmund Dulac (1882-1955) to provide illustrations for a large quarto deluxe edition. Published in Paris by H. Piazza, it was immediately translated into English and published in London by Nisbet & Co.

With Dulac's illustrations, the book was transformed into a pearl born in the head of a magnificent artist.

“His plates, truly genius, do much to bring a fanciful touch to an otherwise stark exposition on pearls” (Hughey).

Ann Hughey, who compiled the standard bibliography of books illustrated by Dulac, is a bit harsh regarding Rosenthal's text. Within the "stark exposition" lies a fascinating chapter devoted to oriental pearl legends and mythology, i.e:

The cloud pearl never reaches the earth; the gods seize it whilst it is still in the air. It is like the sun, a dazzling sphere the rays from which fill the whole of space (Stanza 67).

It eclipses the light of fire, of the moon, of the lunar constellations, of the stars and all the planets. As the sun is to the day, so is this pearl to the darkness of the night (Stanza 68).

The earth, adorned by the four seas, the waters of which glitter with the lustre of many jewels, the whole earth covered with gold, would scarcely attain to the value of this one pearl: such is my belief (Stanza 69).

He who, by reason of an act of virtue of the highest degree, becomes possessed of it, will remain without a rival in the whole world, so long as he retains it (Stanza 70).

“Edmund Dulac adapts his talents to the spirit of that which he is to render…In…The Kingdom and the Pearl he used the conventional Persian style without perspective, rich in decorative forms and jewelplike colours, bring out the beauty of minute things by the use of colour and graceful line” (The International Studio, Sept. 1926).

Dulac “at his best…fantastically Persian” (The Times).

In 1904, when Edmund Dulac, age 22, landed in London after winning prizes for his work awarded by the Ecole des Beaux Arts he hit the ground running,   was an immediate success, and was soon the most acclaimed book illustrator of his generation at a time when book illustration had entered its golden age. His only rival was Arthur Rackham.

By 1913, his romanticism-in-blue period had evolved into a vivid, highly exotic and idealized vision of the Orient, Persian art miniatures a major influence upon him. First budding in his illustrations for Stories from the Arabian Nights (1907) and Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (1909), his new orientalist style was in full flower with Princess Badura: A Tale From the Arabian Nights (1913); Sinbad the Sailor and Other Stories From the Arabian Nights (1914).

This was the elegant oriental exoticism that Rosenthal had in mind when he imagined what Au Royaume de la Perle might look like if richly illustrated. Dulac's was exactly the fantasy he saw in his head, the romance of  his beloved pearls made manifest in art, each plate a jewel.

He who, by reason of an act of virtue of the highest degree, becomes possessed of a copy of this book will remain without a rival in the whole world, so long as he retains it. Yet post it for sale on Ebay and you shall be accursed for all eternity.

A copy that recently passed through my hands had been rebound by Bayntun-Riviére in full black morocco with a royal crown centerpiece ornamented by twenty-six tiny, set-in cultured pearls. A simple strand of pearls against black remains classically elegant fashion. Women of taste who come across this copy will wonder whether to read the book or wear it.

[DULAC, Edmund, illustrator]. ROSENTHAL, Léonard. The Kingdom of the Pearl. London: Nisbet & Co., [n.d., 1920].

Limited to 675 copies, this being copy no. 44. Large quarto (11 x 8 ¾ in; 279 x 224 mm). xii, 150, [1], [1, printer’s slug] pp. Ten tipped-in color plates.

Bound ca. 1960 by Bayntun (Riviére) in full black crushed levant morocco with single gilt fillet border enclosing a frame of rolled gilt dots with corner ornaments within which is a double-fillet panel housing a royal crown centerpiece in gilt which is set with twenty-six tiny pearls. Raised bands with gilt rolls. Compartments with gilt-ruled frames enclosing gilt ornaments. Gilt-rolled edges. Broad turn-ins with gilt-rolls. Top edge gilt. Cockerell endpapers.

Hughey 54c.

Images courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, with our thanks.

Of related interest:

The ABC Book of Edmund Dulac.

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