‘My beautiful one, my love, my pet; you can teach me the religion of love! I the great lover, you the distant young love of my life – I am prepared to die in the beauty and ardour of your kiss!’ The eighteen-year-old Jeanne-Aurélie Grivolin, on holiday in Cherbourg, reads a letter from her older Parisian lover and believes every word. Except that neither the lover nor Mademoiselle Grivolin actually exist beyond the imagination of a schoolteacher from Lyons, Roger Pillet (1886–1918), who wrote Les oraisons amoureuse shortly before his early death. It was first published by Lyons publisher Deux-Collines in 1919 with illustrations by Pillet’s friend Pierre Combet-Descombes, and as well as the fantasy love-letters included a short ‘biography’ of Jeanne-Aurélie Grivolin, even giving her dates as 1784–1869.

And the book with its invented saccharine love-letters might well have disappeared from view, except that publishers kept eyeing the text with its excellent lover-to-lover gift potential, especially when suitably illustrated. René-Louis Doyon’s publishing house La Connaissance produced a limited edition illustrated by Yan Bernard Dyl in 1926, and when the large Paris publisher Denoël reprinted it in 1938 they also sold the English-language rights to Constable; when he discovered it James Bond author Ian Fleming gave an inscribed copy to his ‘secret’ lover Maud Russell. Constable translated Oraisons as Breviary of Love; being the private journal written at Lyon and Cherbourg during the years 1802–3 of Jeanne Aurélie Grivolin; the (good) translation was by Michael Sadler.

One of the Domergue illustrations from the 1951 edition

That was not the end of the Oraisons, however. In 1951 Collection du Lierre produced a new limited edition with ten very-1950s colour illustrations by Jean-Gabriel Domergue, and in 1957 the high-quality art publisher Les Heures Claires invited Bécat to produce a new portfolio to accompany Pillet’s colourful text. Bécat clearly enjoyed the commission, and freed from the constraints of a tight narrative produced some of his best and most mature work; it was to be one of the last books he illustrated.

The Bécat-illustrated Oraisons was published in a limited numbered edition of 650 copies, cased in a cream étui (slipcase).

We are very grateful to Talisman Fine Art (www.talismanfineart.com)  for these illustrations.