Magazine article The Spectator

Casting a Spell

Magazine article The Spectator

Casting a Spell

Article excerpt

The Age of Enchantment: Beardsley, Dulac and their Contemporaries 1890-1930 Dulwich Picture Gallery, until 17 February

Taste is strictly divided over the enchanted visions currently on view at Dulwich. It seems that people are rarely indifferent to this kind of imagery; it either delights or revolts. I must admit that I went more in the spirit of inquiry than enthusiasm. I found a densely hung exhibition -- it's the kind of show you really ought to have a lorgnette for -- which makes a surprisingly wide appeal, for the work on view is more varied than I'd anticipated.

The show begins with Beardsley and the Age of Decadence, illustrated by a wall of his drawings. These are not the naughty schoolboy ones, but the exquisite arrangements of line like 'The Peacock Skirt', 'The Abbé' and 'The Battle of the Beaux and the Belles', an illustration for Pope's 'Rape of the Lock' which is a masterpiece of stippling. We are also shown artefacts: Beardsley's drawing table, fine bindings and a rather fabulous pair of velvet curtains embroidered with Chinese peacocks in gold and silver thread.

The peacock theme continues into a watercolour by Edward and Maurice Detmold, twin child prodigies, done when they were just 13. There's also a group of intricate but less exciting Laurence Housman ink drawings, very rococo in mood and somewhat too fanciful.

In the second room we are shown the Gothic shadow of Beardsley, as instanced by the monsters of Sidney Sime. Pretty ghastly stuff in my opinion, but the fine black ground to 'The Felon Flower', with its less crowded composition, is certainly impressive, if not as powerful as Beardsley's designs. The Irishman Harry Clarke comes nearer to the master, while a group of spare, stylised drawings by Charles Ricketts sounds a different and curiously more exotic note. The third room takes us into three-dimensional work with a fluid Art Nouveau bronze sculpture of 'The Sirens' by Raoul Larche and a ceramic of 'Undine' by Emil Gregoire. Here are more books and an attractive if ethnic-looking doll's house. Arthur Rackham is also here to cast a real spell: look at his subtle and distinctive use of colour and atmospheric line in 'Lizzie, Lizzie, have you tasted, For my sake the fruit forbidden?' This is the fairy world beloved of the Victorians, but rendered more than acceptable by Rackham's formal magic, in spite of the goblins. …

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