Scottish Design Icons: Jessie M. King

Scottish Design Icons is a series of small articles showcasing the big hitters of Scottish design. This month, Claire explores Glaswegian and Arthurian legend through the work of illustrator Jessie M. King.

Written by: Claire Hartley

I come from Glasgow, where “the tree never grew” and “the bird never flew”. You might also go as far as to say that pessimism is common there (which isn’t entirely beside the point here). If you ask me, there’s actually a highly optimistic disposition in us Glaswegians . . . even if it's overshadowed by our obligation to tell it like it is.

According to the stories of our city's Coat of Arms, it turns out that the bird did in fact fly again. You can see the Coat of Arms explored more in the Glasgow Banner by Glasgow Girls members Ann Macbeth and Jessie Newbery, and the brooch by Jack Cunningham in our permanent collection.

Another object to catch my attention was The Defence of Guenevere, and Other Poems (1904), by William Morris. When I saw this cradled nearby the Glasgow objects in our Scottish Design Galleries I wondered: who is this woman; what blights her so that she needs defending? She mustn’t have been Glaswegian, I thought . . . unless she was defending herself?

Morris, whose roots couldn’t be more different to my own, was seemingly a jack (or master?) of all trades. Hailing from Walthamstow, he studied Classics at Oxford. He went on to train as an architect before having an incredibly impactful career across design, culture and the arts.

Despite Morris’s impressive repertoire, what really drew me to this book was the striking and elegantly drawn image on the right leaf. It depicts Guenevere from Arthurian legend and was illustrated by Jessie Marion King. King is one of the most important illustrators to come out of Glasgow (I should have known) in the 20th century.

A glimpse of the open book in the galleries teased me enough to want to find out more. I looked up the full poem to get a better idea of what was being depicted. In a medieval written style and setting, The Defence of Guenevere asks the reader to decide whether or not they believe accusations that Guenevere cheated on King Arthur with Sir Lancelot. It seemed to relay that familiar battle between scepticism and optimism.

I cast my mind back to learning about the legend of ‘the fish that never swam’ in primary school, another triangular tale of infidelity between a King, his Queen and a Knight. That mess was untangled with a modest ring, extracted from the inside of a salmon which swam in the River Clyde, proving the Queen's virtue. I bet Guenevere wished her situation was as simple.

As I began to interpret The Defence of Guenevere, I drew my own conclusions about why it felt fitting that oor Jessie had illustrated it. Despite my jest about the Dear Green Place, I had really ought to have known the work of Jessie M. King.

A former student at the Glasgow School of Art, King’s early illustration work was celebrated and influential in Scotland and internationally. It certainly resonates with me over a century later, having studied the same discipline at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. King was a member of the Glasgow Girls and, although deeply influenced by Glasgow’s Art Nouveau style, she created distinctive illustrations with an added sense of fantasy.

The illustrations of Guenevere in the book portray her as a delicate and almost majestic woman. This might support the Queen’s argument that, of course, she could have done no wrong. I admire the way King has captured the essence of her character, both as illustrative practice and because I feel like she had Guenevere’s back.

With all that said, I can only conclude that Guenevere may or may not have committed adultery, King’s illustrations may or may not have been optimistically biased, and the bell may or may not have ever rung.

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image that represent two pages of V&A dundee website