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Kay Nielsen Illustrated Books

Collecting Kay Nielsen and his Rare Illustrated Books

Kay Nielsen (1886-1957) is one of the most celebrated Golden Age illustrators of the 20th century, renowned for his exquisite gift books and interpretations of fairy tales that reflect evocatively on light & dark, love, passion, loss and death.

He was born in Copenhagen to a family of actors and attended art school in Paris between 1904-1911 before moving briefly to the UK where he received his first commission by Hodder &Stoughton to illustrate ‘In Powder and Crinoline, Fairy Tales Retold in 1913.  For this collection of fairy stories he provided 24 colour plates and 15 monotone illustrations. In the same year The London Evening News commissioned 4 illustrations from Nielsen to accompany Charles Perrault’s Sleeping BeautyPuss in BootsCinderella and Bluebeard Christmas Edition.

His masterpiece came one year later in 1914, for the children’s collection of Nordic folklore East of the Sun and West of The Moon by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe for which he provided 25 colour plates that benefited hugely from being reproduced by a 4-colour process, alongside more than 21 monotone images.

Kay Nielsen’s next work was theatrical back in Denmark, creating stage sets in Copenhagen.  It was during this time that Nielsen worked on illustrations to accompany a translation ofScheherazade’s ‘Arabian Nights’ (One Thousand and One Nights), that had been undertaken by the Arabic scholar, Professor Arthur Christensen. This was followed in 1924 by illustrations for Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales, when he made use of the mille fleur technique in the 12 superb colour plates and 40 monotone illustrations that he provided.  Other fairy stories that he illustrated were Hansel & Gretel and Other Stories, Brothers Grimm and Red Magic, the latter including 8 colour and 50 monotone illustrations.

Late in his career in 1939 he began work for Disney and his illustrations can be seen in Fantasia’s “Ave Maria” and “Night on Bald Mountain” sequences.  Even though he was highly regarded and noted for his concept work he was let go, but not before his drawings were completed for The Little Mermaid which were finally used when the cartoon was made in 1989.

His drawings and illustrations are for the most part willfully flat; their depth comes from their dusky, warm colours and patterns. His figures are almost stereotypically Nordic: pale and androgynous. Despite his love of the solitary, he always manages to convey both community and a sense of the ‘otherness’ in his illustrations.

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