Decorated initial T

he connection between the texts and their original, medieval appearance is strengthened by the inclusion of head and tail-pieces, decorative end-papers and borders, all of which are elaborate designs in the manner of early printed books. But Mason’s immediate inspiration was the interpretation of the past as it was practised by William Morris at the Kelmscott Press. Morris’s intricate patterns provided a template for Mason’s designs and for there is close connection between the younger artist’s title page for Renaud of Montauban and Morris’s treatment of the endpapers of his famous edition of Chaucer (1886, known as the ‘Kelmscott Chaucer’). Morris deploys a stylized interlace of vine leaves and stems, organized into a rhythmic arabesque, and Mason presents a similar composition of leaves and flowers. Once again, Mason adopts an existing language: his figurative illustrations draw on the tropes of Pre-Raphaelitism, and his decorative work is in the idiom of Arts and Crafts design of the 1880s.

Left: La Beale Isoud at Joyous Gard by Aubrey Beardsley. Middle: Alexander’s Tomb. Right: Selwyn’s Image’s brambles on the The Century Guild Hobby Horse. [Click on images to enlarge them.]

Yet Mason experiments with the conventions of a Morrisian style. He is particularly interested in the overlap between the floral designs of Arts and Crafts and the imagery of Art Nouveau, which in the nineties was being popularized by the work of Aubrey Beardsley, C. R. Mackintosh and others associated with the Glasgow School of Art. Though some of his borders conform to Morris’s congested imagery, others represent a synthesis between the competing styles: in Renaud helps to build the cathedral the frame is entirely in the idiom of Arts and Crafts, but in Duke Beauves asks pardon of the king the lines are simplified in the manner of Art Nouveau and include abstracted versions of a flower which recalls the heart or spade-like motif found in work by Charles Ricketts. Positioned at an historical moment when the aesthetics of Arts and Crafts were being replaced by a leaner, more abstract style, Mason maps the overlaps between neo-medievalism and a version of modernity.

He further experiments with the expressive qualities of his borders. In Morris’s printed books the borders are purely decorative; in Mason’s, conversely, they provide a commentary on the action depicted in the main image. The heart-shapes surrounding the scene where Duke Beauves pleads for mercy can be viewed not only as a decorative motif but as a universal symbol of compassion. Maugis the Magician is similarly framed in symbolic motifs, this time of magic, astrology and the supernatural, and for The Traitor he surrounds the murder with flowers that seem like knives and reflect on the brutal moment which is implied, but not shown directly. Mason’s interest in using decorative motifs for expressive purposes is given a final development, however, in his end-piece for The Story of Alexander. The text specifies the character’s death, but Mason takes up and symbolizes the notion of his eternal life in the form of a vibrant arboreal display. The final line notes how Alexander achieves a sort of immortality, though dead, ‘sitting in his chair of state’ (215) but the artist represents this moment in an image of the hero as an effigy, surrounded by spreading trees and bushes, the natural signs of regeneration and eternal life. Strongly reminiscent of the style of Beardsley, and a direct quotation of Selwyn’s Image’s brambles on the front cover of The Century Guild Hobby Horse, the illustration exemplifies the artist’s negotiation of styles.

Related material

Bibliography: Archival Material

Material in Minutes Books and slide collection of the Art and Design Archive, City University, Birmingham, UK.

Bibliography: Primary Material

A Book of Pictured Carols. London: George Allen, 1893.

The Century Guild Hobby Horse (1886–92).

Field, Michael [Katherine Harris Bradley & Edith Emma Cooper]. The Tragic Mary. London: George Bell, 1890.

The Quarto.Birmingham: Cornish Brothers, 1894–6.

Steele, Robert (translator). Huon of Bordeaux. London: George Allen, 1895.

Steele, Robert (translator). Renaud of Montauban. London: George Allen, 1897.

Steele, Robert (translator). The Story of Alexander. London: David Nutt, 1894.

Wilde, Oscar. Poems. London: Elkin Matthews & John Lane, 1892.

Bibliography: Secondary Material

‘Birmingham Municipal School of Art.’ Birmingham Daily Post (26 July 1892): 5.

Haslam, Malcolm. Arts and Crafts Book Covers. Shepton Beauchamp: Richard Dennis, 2012.

Morris, William. An Address by William Norris at the Distribution of Prizes to Students of the Birmingham Municipal School of Art. London: Longmans, 1898.

Valance, Aymer. ‘A Provincial School of Art.’ Art Journal (1892): 344–8.

Created 11 September 2019