In the early twentieth century several English publishers issued a series of collector’s editions of children’s literature. These gift books, specially bound in gold-tooled vellum, were elaborately illustrated with coloured plates by the best illustrators of the time such as Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Hugh Thomson, and Heath Robinson. One of the most stunning is East of the sun and west of the moon illustrated by the Danish illustrator, Kay Nielsen.
Nielsen (1886-1957) was born in Denmark and studied art in Paris. He was influenced by the styles of Aubrey Beardsley, Edward Burne-Jones and the influx of Japanese art that was spreading to the West at this time. East of the Sun and West of the Moon (London: Hodder & Stoughton, ) was his second book and is considered to be his masterpiece and one of the most beautiful illustrated children’s books ever produced.
Nielsen’s burgeoning career was interrupted by World War I, and never really recovered. His publisher, Hodder & Stoughton tried unsuccessfully to reinvigorate the market for gift books after the war and in 1924 and 1925 issued two further fairy tales books illustrated by Nielsen, but these were on a more modest scale and the demand for extravagant books of this type had gone. Nielsen fell into obscurity and died in poverty in 1957.
This set shows the 25 watercolour plates included in East of the sun and west of the moon held in the Alexander Turnbull Library.
Image caption top of page: ‘No sooner had he whistled than he heard a whizzing and a whirring from all quarters, and such a large flock of birds swept down that they blackened all the field in which they settled’
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