The Elegance of Kay Nielsen

Kay Nielsen is an illustrator from the era of Arthur Rackham and Edmund Dulac. Though equally as talented, for most of his career he remained in the shadows of these two giants.

Nielsen arrived from Europe to Britain after the meteoric rise of Rackham and Dulac, five years too late to capitalize upon the popularity of the deluxe gift book, as did both Rackham and Dulac. World War I was the other factor that hindered his career. The public quickly lost interest in extravagant books and Nielsen did not yet have the public cache of Rachkam and Dulac to see him through the difficult transition to other forms of artistic work and public fickleness.

Yet, with only four books published, two before World War I, Kay Nielsen was considered creatively on par with the Rachkam and Dulac.

While Rachkam and Dulac art styles are quite distinct, there is a common ground, one might even say a gravity, to their characters and environments that links them together and distinguishes their style from Nielsen’s.

Kay Nielsen’s work is more ethereal. It possesses an influence of Eastern art – Japanese wood block prints – and in certain respects resembles fashion artist Erté. Both artists use similar shapes, linework, colour and a slightly flattened perspective.

For all his talent, Nielsen never achieved financial security. He would move back to Europe, work in theatre; move to America and paint a series of murals. Even a job working for Walt Disney on Fantasia went horribly wrong. The two men, Nielsen and Disney, did not see eye-to-eye and often clashed.

Sadly, Nielsen died in poverty, forgotten by the public, his passing ignored by local newspapers. It wasn’t until his work was republished in 1977 that people began to rediscover and take further notice of this marvelous talent and ensure that he would not again be forgotten.


Kaja Blackley is the author of Maggie MacCormack and the Witches’ Wheel now on sale: