Kay Nielsen. EAST OF THE SUN AND WEST OF THE MOON. Old Tales from the North. Hodder & Stoughton, London 1914.
Current Selling Prices
One of the great works from what is now known as 'the golden age of book illustration.' This was from about 1905 to 1930. It is sometimes said that the rising costs of producing these elaborate illustrated books finished them off, certainly by the 1930s there was less money about and these books were always expensive. They started to become expensive again in the 1960s and by the 1970s they were seriously collected. Ancient auction records reveal the venerable Charing Cross bookseller Joseph's paying £4 for a copy of the signed limited edition (500 numbered copies) in October 1950. By 1960 they were paying about £6 - but in 1974 we see them paying £85 for a copy of the ordinary edition. By that time the great promoters of these standard Illustrated books were the fabulous Harrington brothers then selling out of an antique arcade on the King's Road. All early auction results show Joseph's as almost the only buyers of Nielsen (and all the other "Golden Age' illustrators.) Joseph's expert David Brass eventually segued to Heritage in Los Angeles which, for a time, became the epicentre of illustrated book collecting.
In the early 1970s I was selling books from a barrow on the Portobello Road and every other punter wanted 'Dulac, Rackham, Nielsen' possibly in the mistaken idea we had never heard of them and would knock them out for a fiver each. Also in the great canon of desired illustrators was Heath Robinson, Charles Robinson, the Detmolds, Jessie M King (my favourite) Willy Pogany, Harry Clarke and bringing up the rear Rene Bull, Warwick Goble and dog man Cecil Aldin. They also wanted 'The Ship that Sailed to Mars' by William Timlin and, from an earlier age, Beardsley and Beerbohm.
Kay Nielsen 1886 - 1957 (his name is pronounced Kye as in Rye) was a Danish born artist who studied art in Paris. His artistic influences must include John Bauer, the great Swedish fairy tale artist. Echoes of his forests and trees lurk in the backgrounds of many of Nielsen's paintings. He was also a follower of Art Nouveau and The Birmingham School, as exemplified by Jessie M. King. Other inputs include Hiroshige and Beardsley. Houfe in his magisterial 'Dictionary of British Book Illustrators' adds:
'...he was a brilliant colourist and a highly decorative illustrator, his works formed into frieze-like patterns, are closest to Middle Eastern designs and therefore akin to Leon Bakst or Edmund Dulac. He uses stippling effects and elaborate rococo motifs which are reminiscent of Beardsley, but also the swirling lines of Vernon Hill and the more sculptural lines of incipient art deco...'
Good to see Vernon Hill mentioned - his astonishing work is hardly known today. Houfe lists many 100s of interesting illustrators but the majority of collectors are only interested in about a dozen bankable names. Other collectable illustrators include this random Britcentric selection-- Austin Spare, Frank Pape, Beresford Egan, Horton, Alasdair, Bosschere, Jack B Yeats, Rex Whistler, Marie Laurencin, Frans Masereel, W.T. Horton, William Strang, Robert Gibbings, Balthus, Edward Wadsworth, William Nicholson, Edward Burra, Eric Gill, McKnight Kauffer, Lucian Freud, John Minton, Keith Vaughann, Glyn Philpot, Gwen Raverat, Eric Ravilious, Fougasse, Fish, Bawden, Phil May, Ronald Searle, H.M. Bateman, David Jones, etc., etc.,
VALUE? A 'very fine copy' made $27,000 + commission in 2000, in the same year a soiled copy made $13000 with commission. One imagine the silk ties were present in the former copy. Three copies of the limited are currently for sale between $20,000 and $30,000, none fine. Vellum tends to soil or brown with age, so fine copies are things of wonder. The ordinary trade edition (blue) is much prized - it is undated but known to be 1914 and it is hard to find a bright copy for less than £1000. A copy in a modern cloth facsimile binding is a 'Buy it Now' at Ebay at £1450. This kind of binding renewal is unpromising and forces the collector to always have to admit its presence because of its unnatural newness. Nielsen illustrations, presumably broken from his books are said to go for 'hundreds of dollars' - also on Ebay.
Outlook? Auction results indicate a slight softening of his prices, Heritage with its meretricious shop on Melrose stuffed with Rackhams is no more, but the vogue for collecting standard Golden Age illustrated books shows no real sign of abating. However some cash rich book collectors, a fickle bunch, may have now moved on to modern first editions, classic literature, fine bindings and photography.