The Adventures of Harlequin, by Francis Bickley, Selwyn & Blount (1923)

{Ed. Note: This article is from Books and Vines contributor DlphcOracl. A trade edition of the edition highlighted below can often be found for $25-50, making it a nice addition to our Affordable Treasures and Pleasures series}.

The Adventures of Harlequin is a tale about a young rogue which takes place in the Northern Italian town of Bergamo, between the Alps and the Lombard Plain. We are introduced to a prosperous, portly fruit-seller who has remained a bachelor well into his middle age.  One day his shop is visited by a beautiful young woman with black hair and eyes who stands admiring the fruits without making a purchase. When she returns the following day, thinking that the young girl may be too poor to buy fruit, he gives her an orange and an apple. Rather than eating them, she carries them away to admire. The fruit seller realizes that he is infatuated with this vivacious young woman and quickly asks her to marry him, which she agrees to.  She proves to be a light-hearted soul, always laughing and dancing, with a feathery gait as she tends to his fruit shop.

His new wife proves to be a boon to his fruit-selling business, arranging the fruits in unusual color combinations and pyramidal stacks.  Very quickly his business doubles and even more quickly they have a son.  The son inherits his mothers dark eyes, her carefree disposition, and her lightness afoot, so much so that he begins dancing before he can walk.  They name him Harlequin and, when he becomes older, his mother creates a beautiful suit made of diamond-shaped pieces of brightly colored cloth to match all of the colors of the fruit in the shop.  Young Harlequin proves to be full of mischief and becomes a resolute prankster, leading a group of like-minded boys (many older) throughout Bergamo wreaking havoc on anyone and everyone.  As he becomes older, his pranks become more numerous and elaborate, culminating in the setting off of fireworks and explosives during an important town procession, resulting in chaos and confusion.  Fearful that he has gone too far, he decides to leave Bergamo for awhile, filling his pockets with fruit and the contents of the fruit shop’s till and taking to the open road.

While journeying, he meets a man sitting alongside the road playing beautiful melodies on a mandolin, a rotund fellow known as Scaramouche.  He begins dancing to the melodies and astounds Scaramouche with his graceful movements, so much so that Scaramouche invites Harlequin to join him in his travels so that they may perform together.  Eventually they travel to Venice to seek their fortune.  Scaramouche sets up headquarters at his favorite inn, kept by Burrantino and his daughter Violetta.  As they begin performing together in Venice, Scaramouche and Harlequin attract increasing attention and invitations to perform begin to come from Venice’s wealthy merchants. Their fame results in an invitation to perform one evening at the palace of Lady Isabella, a wealthy heiress of noble lineage and a magnificent palace. Their performance is a great success but, during the course of the evening, Harlequin notices that the most attractive and beautifully dressed woman at the gathering is withdrawn and does not participate in the festivities. As they return to the inn Harlequin asks Scaramouche who she was and is told that she was the hostess, Lady Isabella.  Violetta later explains that Lady Isabella was betrothed to Lelio, one of the most noble and handsomest young man in Venice but was subsequently jilted. “Why?” asks young Harlequin. “I suppose he could not help it,” said Violetta. “He saw Columbine”.

Columbine is a beautiful, irresistibly charming young woman who is sequestered in her home by her father, Dr. Pantaloon, who is as homely as Columbine is beautiful.  He is aided in this by his assistant and housekeeper, the melancholy mime-like Pierrot.  During one of her rare excursions through town with her father Dr. Pantaloon, Harlequin sees Columbine for the first time and is instantly smitten.  The remainder of the story revolves around various plots and deceptions concocted by Violetta and Scaramouche to enable Harlequin to meet Columbine in an attempt to win her heart before she is forced by Dr. Pantaloon to marry the wealthy nobleman Lelio. The story is lightweight fluff and is forgotten quickly, lacking the human insight and/or the cautionary moral lesson which separates it from the great fables and folk tales of Aesop and the Brothers Grimm.  What is NOT forgettable, however, are a fabulous set of illustrations for this tale drawn by John Austen.

Readers of Books and Vines may remember the name John Austen from earlier articles on the Limited Editions Club (LEC) publications of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie QueenWilliam Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair and Tobias Smollett’s The Adventures of Peregrine Pickle all of which are illustrated by Austen.  John Austen was born in Kent, England in 1886 and initially shared a fascination with the decadent, Gothic style of Aubrey Beardsley.  The illustrations in this book were done early in Austen’s career while still influenced by Beardsley’s work.  However, unlike Beardsley’s work many of these drawings and illustrations have a lighter, often whimsical hand, perfectly appropriate to this slight fable.  In addition to the more typical dark, heavily textured Art Nouveau images typical of Beardsley there are elegant fine-line drawings and several illustrations which introduce flat coloration, a combination of styles not seen in Beardsley’s work.  Although not nearly as well known as his later work as an illustrator for the LEC and Heritage Press these illustrations are amongst John Austen’s finest work.

The book I have photographed (my personal copy) is a limited edition, one of 250 copies with a yellow cloth spine, decorated paper over boards with a special harlequin-styled pattern, signed by John Austen.  However, a trade edition was issued and this can often be found for between $25 to $50, depending on condition.  This remains one of the most distinctive and beautifully illustrated books I have encountered and it makes a wonderful addition to any collection.  So………settle into your most comfortable chair, pour yourself a glass of wine and forget about whether Greece’s secession from the European Union will plunge Western Europe into financial Armageddon, forget about whether an unscrupulous billionaire can circumvent and trivialize a proud, one-thousand year old democracy, forget about whether Wall Street’s ‘Masters of the Universe’ can continue stuffing their pockets with tens of millions of dollars while creating nothing of societal value.  Let young Harlequin dance his way into your heart for a pleasant evening of escapist literary diversion.


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The Adventures of Harlequin, Selwyn & Blount, Front board with paper title
The Adventures of Harlequin, Selwyn & Blount, Binding, spine with paper label and harlequin-styled boards
The Adventures of Harlequin, Selwyn & Blount, Color illustrations inside front board and free end-plate
The Adventures of Harlequin, Selwyn & Blount, Fine-line drawing
The Adventures of Harlequin, Selwyn & Blount, Colophon
The Adventures of Harlequin, Selwyn & Blount, Full color illustration opposite the title page. Harlequin and Columbine with Pierrot in the background
The Adventures of Harlequin, Selwyn & Blount, Title page
The Adventures of Harlequin, Selwyn & Blount, Contents
The Adventures of Harlequin, Selwyn & Blount, Sample page #1 with illustration of baby Harlequin
The Adventures of Harlequin, Selwyn & Blount, Sample Page #2 – Pierrot answering Dr. Pantaloon’s front door
The Adventures of Harlequin, Selwyn & Blount, Sample Page #3 – Harlequin dancing with Columbine as Pierrot watches
The Adventures of Harlequin, Selwyn & Blount, Final page

6 thoughts on “The Adventures of Harlequin, by Francis Bickley, Selwyn & Blount (1923)

  1. Calla Editions, a Dover Publications imprint, issued a pretty decent reprint of Austen’s Hamlet in 2010. This is as weird and wonderful a set of Shakespeare illustrations as was ever penned. A powerful study of Claudius watching the play could be out of a storyboard produced by Beardsley for one of Akira Kurosawa’s kings-at-bay epics, while a cute, bare-breasted Ophelia peeping through trees looks startlingly like evidence that Kate Greenaway had momentarily contemplated an aberrant career change. Full and half-page illustrations are interspersed with vignettes of, inter alia, putti, herms, nymphs and skulls. The book is an astounding achievement, not least because Austen’s artwork, for all its exuberance, is so perfectly balanced by the skilful restraint of the typesetter as to make this an incomparably readable text.
    But…it would indeed be something to find a fine copy of the original.

  2. Robert:

    John Austen’s work as an illustrator has two distinct phases —- his earliest work, when he was still influenced by the work of Aubrey Beardsley and his later work as an illustrator for the LEC and the Heritage Press. I strongly agree with your assessment.

    His earliest work has a playfulness, an imagination and a “freedom” that is not readily apparent (if at all) in his work for the LEC and Heritage. His later work, while still quite accomplished, is more formal and more commercial.

    Incidentally, if you enjoyed looking at the illustrations for “The Adventure of Harlequin” these are not quite his finest work. That honor, in my opinion, goes to his magnificent illustrations for “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark”, also published by Selwyn & BLount (London) in the 1920’s. These are even more Beardsley-esque and are quite special. This book is near impossible to find in decent condition, however.

  3. Gorgeous book, Chris! I always thought Austen’s Peregrine Pickle illustrations were his finest work, but now I must revise my opinion. These are not only beautiful, but totally in the spirit of the work itself.

    I must keep an eye out for this one.

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