The period in art history now referred to as the Golden Age of Book Illustration occurred in London at the end of the nineteenth century and in the dawning years of the twentieth century — growing out of the reassessment of Book Arts fostered by the Pre-Raphaelites and the Arts-&-Crafts movement, and aided by advances in printing techniques that made the publication of sumptuously illustrated volumes suddenly economically feasible. As a result, a number of the greatest book illustrators the world has ever known were clustered in London during those years: Walter Crane, Arthur Rackham, Edmund Dulac, Charles and William Heath Robinson, Charles Ricketts, Lawrence Housman, Henry Ford, Jean de Bosschère, and many others — including a young Dane named Kay (pronounced "Kigh") Nielsen, who turned up in the city in 1911 at the tender age of twenty–five with a series of black–and–white drawings inspired by Beardsley under his arm.
Kay had been born into an illustrious theater family in Copenhagen in 1886, growing up with the trappings of wealth and fame and a strong interest in the arts. (His father was the director of the Royal Danish Theater, his mother was a much–revered actress, and visitors to the Nielsen household included Ibsen and Grieg.) At eighteen, Kay left Copenhagen for Paris to study art in Montparnasse. It was there that he, like so many art students, discovered Aubrey Beardsley's work, with its fine use of line and ornamentation and its aura of dark romance. Beardsley's drawings made a considerable impression on him, containing as it did two of the things he loved best: imagery from myth and folklore, and the strong influence of Japanese art. Under Beardsley's spell, Nielsen produced a series of morbidly romantic black–and–white drawings titled The Book of Death, portraying the tragic love of Pierrot for a languid young dying maiden. Moving from Paris to Beardsley's homeland, Kay mounted a major London gallery exhibition of the series in 1911. Mixed in with these darker drawings were designs for watercolors based on classic fairy tales — the art for which the young painter would henceforth be best known.
On the strength of this work, Kay soon received his first English book commission: In Powder and Crinoline, a volume of fairy tales retold by Arthur Quiller–Couch. The book appeared in 1913, instantly garnering wide acclaim. A year later, when he was just twenty–eight, Kay published the work that would be his most famous: East of the Sun, West of the Moon: Old Tales from the Norse. With these two volumes, Kay Nielsen came out from under Aubrey Beardsley's long shadow into a style that was all his own — one that incorporated the influence of Romantic Art, Art Nouveau, Japanese woodcuts, and Chinese prints, yet gave them a chilly Nordic elegance and a modernist look. The original paintings from these two volumes were exhibited in London in 1915 (book artists depended on the sales from such shows, for they earned very little from the published works), and then formed the core of a Nielsen exhibition in New York two years later.
In 1917, Kay traveled from New York back to Copenhagen and became, during the post–war years, deeply involved with the theater again. Collaborating with his close friend Johannes Poulson (now known as a pioneer of Danish cinema, but then a young stage actor and producer), he designed elaborate sets and costumes for Adam Oehlenschlaeger's Aladdin at the Danish State Theater, as well as for a lavish production of Scaramouche, with music by Sibelius. It was during these years, between1918 and 1922, that the artist also created his sensual illustrations for The Arabian Nights, incorporating a melange of influences from Eastern art to the Italian Renaissance. Publication plans for the series fell through, but the paintings were shown in a London exhibition in 1924, along with new illustrations for a volume of Hans Christian Andersen tales.
Kay married his beloved, charismatic wife Ulla Pless–Schmidt in 1926, and the two of them lived in grand style for the next decade in Copenhagen — where Kay, due to his popular books and innovative theater work, was now a celebrity just as his mother and father had been. In 1936, the theater work led to a prominent job in Hollywood, creating designs for Max Reinhardt's Everyman at the Hollywood Bowl. When this job was done, Kay stayed on in California at the request of Walt Disney to design the "Bald Mountain" sequence of the animated film Fantasia. When war broke out in Europe again, Ulla joined Kay in Hollywood and the couple settled in, with their two Scotty dogs, to a new life in America. At first, it was a life as luxurious as the one they'd left behind — but gradually, Kay's working relationship with Disney Studios deteriorated. And when he turned to his own art again, he found, to his astonishment and despair, it had fallen quite out of fashion.
Then began a long stretch of years where jobs were few and far between, and Kay's once highly sought after paintings became impossible to sell. "His disadvantage," writes Hildegarde Flanner, a friend and neighbor in southern California, "lay in the narrowness of his range in a day that was suspicious of fantasy — unless neurotic or Joycean — that 'the Golden Age of Illustration' in which his name had been notable along with those of Morris, Beardsley, Boecklin, Pyle, Rackham, Dulac, and their brotherhood had closed, and however vital his skill in decoration, he had no ease in self–promotion. In other times his talent and reputation might have carried him without anxiety for the rest of his life, yet already in the forties of the century and his own middle–fifties his successes, both European and American, were all in the past and apparently behind him, and he was living obscurely in a mortgaged cottage in the foothill suburbs, with no prospects ahead. Apprehension about money became chronic, and also there was the crucial matter of ill health. In spite of his tall appearance of well–being, Kay was not strong and Ulla, since no one dares be sick without plenty of cash, did not mention the fact that she was threatened with diabetes."
Ulla and Kay tightened their belts, moved into the modest cottage near Flanner, and set about living with as much gentle grace and style as they could muster on a small and dwindling income. It was then that Flanner first met the couple — astonished to find that her neighbor was the very artist whose books she had most treasured in her childhood.
"As I came to know him," Flanner writes, "he appeared to be the model of his tall heroes, and like them seemed puritanic, as much monk as painter, never quite coming out of the hieratic forest. . . . Asked today what they recall most about him people invariably answer, 'He never said an unkind word about anyone.'"
Despite their financial worries, the Nielsen house was a warm and lively place, filled with friends, art, conversation, and the charmingly exotic Danish customs with which they kept their homeland close. It was also filled with baby chicks, for the couple attempted to breed and raise Cornish game hens to supplement their income — but after a while this business failed too. And still Kay's art didn't sell.