Visions of beauty and decadence: Rare publications illustrated by Jean de Bosschere

Three of Jean de Bosschere's titles published between 1923 and 1925

Three of Jean de Bosschere’s first edition Bodley Head titles published between 1923 and 1925

On the left is my small collection of first edition books illustrated by Jean de Bosschere, published by John Lane and the Bodley Head between 1923 and 1925. They measure approximately 10 inches by 6 1/2 inches, with between 216 and 280 pages, octavo with deckle edges. I have recently sold them to Peter Ellis Bookseller, 18 Cecil Court, London WC2N 4HE, where these and other books illustrated by Jean se Bosschere can be seen and purchased.

Jean de Bosschere was a Belgian book illustrator who was at his most productive between 1923 and 1930. His work was very much in the spirit of Fin de Siecle Decadence, and therefore it is no surprise that one of his publishers was John Lane and the Bodley Head Ltd., a company set up in the late 1880s famous for publishing  the “Yellow Book” series which featured illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley.

Bosschere’s work was strongly influenced by Beardsley, which is evident in his black-and-white plates and vignettes. However he comes into his own with the lavish colour plates –  sophisticated, erotic, and with a stunning graphic use of saturated colour. The pioneering Victorian technique of chromolithography for the coloured plates lent a particular vibrance and richness to his illustrations. Chromolithograph plates were printed with great skill, built up with layers of heavily pigmented inks which were sometimes enhanced with glistening bronze powders. The effect has never since been equalled. To my mind, it was the collaborative partnership of between a brilliant designer and extraordinary craftsmen that created what I think of as exquisite galleries of art and literature, enclosed within the gilded portals of a book. Exploring such fragrant inner worlds is a satisfying sensuous experience that inspires one’s own creativity. And old books do smell so nice too!

The Golden Asse of Lucius Appuleius, title page and frontispiece illustration, 1923

The Golden Asse of Lucius Apuleius, detail of title page and frontispiece illustration, 1923

My first encounter with one of these extraordinary books was some 25 years ago, when I found in a second-hand bookshop a pristine 1925 copy of  “The Love Books of Ovid” – a translation of the Latin “Ars Amatoria”. I had never heard of Jean de Bosschere, and neither, I believe, had many other people. It seemed that after the 1930s he had sunk into relative obscurity, even though he continued to work sporadically as an illustrator and a writer. Maybe he just fell out of fashaion.

The illustrations speak for themselves, as does the quality of the publication, lavishly furnished with fourteen chromolitho plates – seven polychrome and seven mezzotint; furthermore the book is liberally enlivened with black-and-white plates, chapter headings and vignettes. I was lucky to have found a pristine first-edition copy, complete with dust-cover. The text is a Latin classic, written at the beginning of the first century A.D., full of good advice about love, courtship and seduction, with an appendix containing recipes for beautifying skin creams. However with ingredients like white lead, “windy beans”, nitre and pounded stag’s horns, I would not recommend trying them.

"The Love Books of Ovid" 1915, frontispiece and title-page

“The Love Books of Ovid” 1925, detail of frontispiece and title-page

In the intervening years, Jean de Bosschere books have begun to gain more popularity with collectors, though finding copies of these already rare early publications in good condition with all of the original plates is increasingly difficult. Sadly many have been mutilated in the past in order to sell the prints as art – I maintain that a beautiful book is a work of art in its entirety and should be preserved and enjoyed as it was intended.

I did find two more fine publications in the early Bodley Head series – the 1923 “Golden Asse of Lucius Appuleius” – a quaint seventeenth century translation of a Roman romp by an obscure Latin author, and a translation of “The First Temptation of Saint Anthony” by a very young Gustave Flaubert, featuring the Devil and the Seven Deadly Sins, (1924). Below is a gallery of selected illustrations and text from the three books.