The birth, life and acts of King Arthur (Le Morte d’Arthur), by Sir Thomas Malory, 1909 ed.

My first impression of this book was one of fascination and respect. I was very aware of how I picked it up and turned its pages, because its age compelled me to handle it with extreme care. However, I was surprised to see that it was published in 1909, because it didn’t have the worn and tired quality that I would expect of a book that’s over one hundred years old. The front cover reminded me of a fairytale because of its sinuous golden flower design with a forest green background. The illustrations on the inside remind me of a traditional storybook as well, because of their intricate organic lines and shallow depth of field. The surface of the cover is smooth, with subtle indentation for the flower design. The pages feel rough and dry to the touch, and the edges are very textured and ragged.

The book is approximately twelve inches by nine inches. Professor Flinchum gave me the following important insight while I was viewing the book: it was bound with buckram cloth, an indication that it was not a luxury edition; the paper is browning on the edges, an indication that it was made with a concentration of wood pulp; the edges of the pages are ragged which is common for books of this time period, because when they were first printed the pages had to be cut apart by a paper knife; some of the pages also show evidence of foxing, a type of mold that grows on aging books.

The book has been printed with a Modern style typeface, and the text has been justified on every page. The margins are approximately one inch wide, but the line spacing is very narrow. The book has been organized with chapter titles and page numbers. The beginning of the book includes a table of contents page. A glossary can be found in the back of the book as well. 

This book features a series of illustrations that have all been drawn in a similar style. They are characterized by high contrast, often with solid areas of black and white composing the background, and the figures and shapes are drawn with bold contour lines. Each one has a shallow depth of field and similar perspective.

The most distinctive illustration, The achieving of the Sangreal, is at the start of the book. The caption has been printed in a traditional script typeface. The drawing shows two knights kneeling before an angel in a forest. The image has a greater depth of field than the others, and features a visible horizon line. The figures are much more detailed than the other illustrations: shading has been used to show depth, and the linework is so precise that you can see the individual links in the knight’s chainmail. A piece of tissue paper has been inserted next to this page to protect the integrity of the ink, although a faint memory of the illustration can be seen on the following page where it stained the acid paper. 


There are many reasons why this copy of The birth, life and acts of King Arthur (also known as Le Morte d’Arthur) from 1909 is special and valuable to a rare collection. It is important as a story, an example of historic bookmaking, and an illustrated work. 

Le Morte d’Arthur is a classic tale of King Arthur that has greatly influenced how we think of the legend today. Written by Sir Thomas Malory during the Middle Ages, it is the first English-prose version of the story of King Arthur (The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica). It is composed of 21 books that describe the beginnings of King Arthur’s kingdom, the knights of the Round Table, the quest for the Holy Grail, and the fall of Arthur’s kingdom (Wight). Malory referenced a 14th-century French poem combined with other sources to write the story. The earliest known manuscript is dated between 1471 and 1483, within a decade of Malory’s death (Wight).

This book is also highly collectable because it is a historical relic of the printing industry. The text was first printed by William Caxton in the year 1485 (Wight). The version featuring Aubrey Beardsley’s work was produced by J. M. Dent & Co. of London in 1892, during the Art Nouveau period (“Morte d’Arthur”). This 1909 edition of the J. M. Dent publication was limited to 500 copies in the United States and 1500 copies in the United Kingdom, as stated by the inside pages. The label on the spine indicates that E. P. Dutton of New York, a publisher and partner of J. P. Dent & Co. (“Biographical History”), distributed this edition. Another fascinating detail is the stamp on the inside back cover from Paul Elder & Co. of San Francisco. The stamp proves that this particular copy was sold in one of their bookstores (Mostardi). 

The defining feature of this book, the illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley, are arguably what make Le Morte d’Arthur such a valuable piece of history. Aubrey Beardsley was an influential illustrator of the Art Nouveau period. This period is marked by an emphasis on organic lines, decorative floral and nature motifs, and flattening of space. Le Morte d’Arthur was Beardsley’s first commission, and was a defining moment for his career. The book contains over 300 of his illustrations, including chapter headings and vignettes (McGrath). Beardsley’s style, distinguished by bold contour lines and contrasting black-and-white, was striking and innovative for the time. His subject matter was avant garde and erotic in some cases. Following his work for Le Morte d’Arthur, Beardsley earned a reputation for illustrating Oscar Wilde’s infamous play Salome, and the magazine The Yellow Book (“Major Artists”).

The 1909 edition of Le Morte d’Arthur is a remarkable work and an important part of the Special Collections Library. It is a legendary medieval tale, published in a form that exhibits the historical developments of modern printing. Its physical design is a valuable example of the Art Nouveau style, and with its striking illustrations, it also marks an important moment in Graphic Design history.


Works Cited

“Biographical History.” E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc. Records: An Inventory of Its Records at Syracuse University, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries,

“Major Artists.” Art Nouveau, by Jean Lahor, Parkstone International, 2010, pp. 108–114.

McGrath, Mary. “The Life of Aubrey Beardsley.” Edited by Mark Lasner, The Life of Aubrey Beardsley, 1991,

“Morte D’Arthur.”, The Metropolitan Museum of Art,

Mostardi, David. “Paul Elder ‘Postage Stamps.’” Paul Elder & Company, 21 July 2012,

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. “Le Morte Darthur.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 19 Feb. 2018,

Wight, Colin. “Thomas Malory’s ‘Le Morte Darthur’.” The British Library – The British Library, The British Library, 13 June 2008,



Paul Elder & Co. postage stamp

Chapter heading

Front cover

Illustration, The achieving of the Sangreal

Publisher’s page