There was an appetite in the early twentieth century for luxurious collections of children’s stories, often bound in gold-toothed vellum, to be given as gifts. Brilliant artists of the day including Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac were commissioned to illustrate them. Perhaps one of the finest creations to emerge from this golden age of illustration was an edition of East of the Sun and West of the Moon which boasted twenty-five colour plates and many more monochrome images by Kay Nielsen, a young Danish artist who had studied in Paris before moving to England in 1911. The compendium consists of fifteen fairy tales gathered by the Norwegian folklorists Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe on their journeys across mid nineteenth-century Norway. Translated into English by George Webbe Dasent (1817–1896), the stories — populated by witches, trolls, ogres, sly foxes, mysterious bears, beautiful princesses and shy country lads turned heroes — were praised by Jacob Grimm himself for having a freshness and a fullness that “surpasses nearly all others”.
The Great War interrupted Nielsen’s career and he never quite reached the same heights as an illustrator afterwards. But his work did embellish some further collections of stories, notably by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. In his fifties he moved to Hollywood to work for Walt Disney and some of his illustrations graced the “Night on Bald Mountain” and “Ave Maria” sequences of Fantasia (1940). He was let go by Disney in 1941 and spent the final sixteen years of his life in poverty.
Originally printed in London in 1914 Nielsen’s East of the Sun and West of the Moon saw a number of reprints over the years and decades, most recently in 2015 when Taschen published a glorious edition with three accompanying essays (illustrated with dozens of rare artworks by Nielsen), exploring the history of Norwegian folktales and Nielsen’s life and work.
Below we’ve picked out some favourites from the book’s stunning series of colour plates, mainly sourced from the Internet Archive’s 1922 New York version featured above but also some from Wikimedia Commons.