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The Genius of Aubrey Beardsley

In September 1893 there appeared a new art periodical called The Studio; and, to the scandal of all established art lovers, the principal section was devoted to the drawings of an unknown boy of twenty-one named Aubrey Beardsley. The scandal was not due simply to the fact, regrettable enough in that age of solid reputations, that he was young and unknown, but to the character of the drawings themselves. Aestheticism had already shown its head. Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience was more than ten years old; but nothing, not even The Picture of Dorian Gray, which had been published in the preceding year, had been so openly and defiantly fin de siècle as these four drawings by Aubrey Beardsley.

Unhealthy, the word most often used, was not without justification. As Pater, the father of English aestheticism, said of a famous passage in Coleridge, “What a distemper of the eye and mind! What an almost bodily distemper there is in that!” That is not true of one of the drawings in The Studio, called Les Revenants de Musique, a good deal the mildest of the four, because the whisper of temptation is extremely faint. But Beardsley’s other drawings not only lacked the manlier virtues; they positively suggested vice as a more interesting alternative; and they did so with an adolescent intensity which communicated itself through every fold and tightly drawn outline of an ostensibly austere style. No wonder Beardsley’s drawings became a kind of catmint to adolescents, and continued to be so for almost thirty years.

I was one of the adolescents thus bewitched. Sixty years ago I was producing pastiches of Beardsley with an excitement which I have seldom felt since. I remember my housemaster discovering one of them in my desk, and saying, “It’s erotic and neurotic, and I won’t have it in my house.” My housemaster’s comment, although correct as far as it went, was incomplete; and I like to think that my interest was not only sexual but that I had already recognized Beardsley’s extraordinary powers of design.

It was, of course, his original talent that accounted for Beardsley’s influence on the pioneers of modern art, on Munch, Klee, Kandinsky, Diaghilev, and Picasso himself, to say nothing of such minor artists as Félix Vallotton; all owe a demonstrable debt to Beardsley. It is a formidable list, and I think justifies us in taking a fresh look at an artist who, if he is remembered at all, is remembered for somewhat questionable reasons.

The facts about his early life have recently been collected in a scholarly manner by Brigid Brophy.1 He was born in Brighton in August 1872. His father was a consumptive, with a small private income, “not out of the top drawer”; his mother was a Miss Pitt, a local charmer, known on account of her extreme slenderness as the bottomless Pitt; and Beardsley’s famous drawing of Mrs. Patrick Campbell is done with such love, and is so unlike its ostensible subject, that I incline to think it was an ideal image of Mrs. Beardsley. She was the dominant influence on his life, and was absolutely unshockable. She lived on in Brighton until 1923, but like an ass I never went to see her. Brigid Brophy rightly stresses the importance of Brighton to Beardsley’s pictorial imagination. One finds in his drawings not only the crazy rococo-cum-chinoiserie of the Pavilion, but the severe frontality of the Brighton terraces.

As a boy he also had a passion for acting. Mr. C.B. Cochran, who was his companion in the Brighton Grammar School, told me that he had a program of a play they put on together. It said “Producer Aubrey V. Beardsley, scenery and costumes by Charles B. Cochran.” Unfortunately, he always forgot to show it to me—but he swore it was that way round. Beardsley was also an insatiable reader; Max Beerbohm always said that he was the best-read man he had ever known. His favorites, even at school, were Ben Jonson, Restoration dramatists, Racine, Molière, Balzac, Manon Lescaut; strange choices for a boy of fifteen. On leaving school he entered an architect’s office. He seems to have been there for not more than a few months, but it was the only training in art to have any effect on him. Not only are the architectural settings in his drawings done with a professional hand, but there is in many of them, the Platonic Lament for Salomé is an example, an architectural sense of space which was to influence one of the founders of modern architecture, Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

All the memories of Beardsley’s life (one can’t call them biographies) say that he was helped by Puvis de Chavannes, and in one of his first evolved drawings, The Kiss of Judas, there is a reminiscence of the background of Puvis’s Pauvre Pecheur, that masterpiece of imaginative painting that was later so deeply to influence Picasso. But no one says precisely when he went to Paris or what he saw there. Did he see the work of Odilon Redon? Or of Gustave Moreau? Redon’s use of symbolic shapes and Moreau’s pictorial furniture come to mind when one looks at Beardsley’s work, but it is possible that he had never seen them, because in art, as in literature, he was not in the least interested in his contemporaries; and if he arrived at similar results it was by following independently the same route, that is to say by reinterpreting certain artists of the quattrocento, notably Mantegna, in a vein of romanticism. The dwarf to the left of Botticelli’s early Nativity in the National Gallery was undoubtedly a favorite, and Crivelli’s disenchanted St. Catharine has a preciosity as shocking as any Beardsley.

In his admiration for the linear, decorative style of quattrocento art he was, of course, only prolonging the direction of the later Pre-Raphaelites; and a visit to Burne-Jones changed his life. Burne-Jones, at the time the most successful artist in England, had very sensibly closed his studio and received no visitors. But he saw Mabel Beardsley’s red hair from the window, and let the young couple in. Beardsley had his portfolio with him, and the moment Burne-Jones saw its contents he said, “You will become a great artist.” They spent the rest of the day there, and came home, Beardsley tells us, “with the Oscar Wildes—charming people.”

Of all the artists who sacrificed their talents to the timidity of Victorian taste, Burne-Jones was the most gifted. Although he lacked the passion of Rossetti, he had far greater skill and more varied invention. But remembering what Rossetti’s undisguised sensuality had cost him in abuse, he decided to exclude his own very intense feelings for the body on the pretext of a kind of idealism. As a result even his finest works, like the Orpheus drawings, have a disembodied prudery which has been the death of them.

Beardsley felt this instinctively. In his first beautiful exercise in the Burne-Jones manner, The Procession of Joan of Arc (characteristically influenced by Titian’s woodcut of The Triumph of Faith as well as by Mantegna), he already put the bodies back (and strangely provocative bodies) into the Burne-Jones drapery. And in his next drawing, The Litany of Mary Magdalene, his annoyance at Burne-Jones’s sacrifice to respectability has led him to open reaction. This is the first example of that obsession with evil which dominates Beardsley’s art, and of which I shall have more to say when I come to the drawings for Wilde’s Salomé. It is Burne-Jones gone to the devil; but it remains Burne-Jones (with an admixture of Mantegna). How deeply the subject was embedded in his imagination is shown by the fact that he came back to it two years later, when his own style was fully formed.

Beardsley is one of the numerous artists who did not have to wait for recognition. His technical skill alone secured it; and at the age of twenty, under the superficial impression that he was a second Burne-Jones, he was commissioned by J.M. Dent to decorate an edition of the Morte d’Arthur. It was to be a sort of commercial Kelmscott Chaucer. The commission, which seemed like a stroke of luck, for it released him from an insurance office, was in fact a misfortune. Beardsley had to produce hundreds of decorations and elaborate borders. It took him two years, during which time he had entirely outgrown his Pre-Raphaelite phase; and the later drawings show signs of boredom and irresponsibility. Even those which are done with love are singularly unsuitable. No wonder William Morris was displeased by this macabre parody of his style. But what an incredible piece of design for a boy of twenty is the border of she satyrs! It is drawn with a flow equal to Morris, and with an appreciation of physical life which he could never achieve. And in the course of this grind Beardsley did master the balance of absolute black and ornamental texture which was to be one of the foundations of his style.

Long before work on the Morte d’Arthur was finished, Beardsley had shown his portfolio—that small black portfolio which he carried around like a carte de visite, and placed silently, with a bow, in the hands of those who showed any interest—to C. Lewis Hind, then the least objectionable critic in England; and Hind had said, “You are a genius and I shall reproduce them in my first number of The Studio.” One of them, supposed to represent Siegfried (a Siegfried who never gave tongue in Bayreuth), still contains memories of Burne-Jones in the elegantly un-Wagnerian figure and in the Pollaiuolo landscape. But, Oh! Burne-Jones, thou art translated! These diabolical black wings which sprout from all over the figure of Siegfried are very far from Burne-Jones’s virtuous chrysalis shapes and so, of course, are those fleurs du mal growing out of the black lake.

In so far as they have any origin other than Beardsley’s imagination they are Japaneseries; and it is through Beardsley, in fact very largely through this drawing and another in The Studio, The Birthday of Madame Cigale, that a degraded type of Japanese ornament was reinterpreted, so that it became part of a new European style. Many know the story: how in 1862 the Japanese, breaking out of their isolation for the first time, sent quantities of decorative objects to the International Exhibition; how these horrific artifacts (for Japanese art was thoroughly corrupted long before Commander Perry anchored in Uraga Bay) remained unsold and the stock was taken over (it is said on William Morris’s advice) by Arthur Lasenby Liberty.

Such was his success that the style which we call art nouveau was known in several other European countries as the style liberty. From Liberty’s come all these unstructural plants and the stitchery of vagrant lines which gives to every area the character of damascene or brocade. There is an even more obvious reference to the Oriental department in the predella of The Birthday of Madame Cigale. But the severe and economical line with which these far from admirable characters are drawn informs us that Beardsley had found a new source of inspiration—one which was to mean incomparably more to him than Japaneseries—the fifth-century Greek vases in the British Museum.

In Revenants, also published in The Studio, the economy, the parallelism, and the fastidious placing of each accent suggest yet another influence—one from which no intelligent young artist in the Nineties could easily escape: Whistler. Beardsley’s few published letters almost all mention Whistler, but even without them we could not fail recognize the source of these plain rectangular bands, and of a very unaccommodating chair. Even now we hardly realize how much the simplicity which distinguishes modern interior decoration from that of any other epoch derives from the desire for perfection of that imperfect genius. The plain distempered walls and single flower on its spindly table were the first steps in that suppression of ornament which culminates in Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson

Beardsley was well aware of his debt to Whistlerian economy, and with his usual mischief, repaid it by his drawing of the Maestro, unmistakable with eyeglass and patent leather shoe, but with his white lock turned to a satyr’s horn. Not surprisingly, Whistler spoke disparagingly of Beardsley. “Why do you get mixed up with such things?” he said to Penell. “Look at him. He’s just like his drawings, he’s all hairs and peacock plumes—hairs on his head, hairs on his finger ends, hairs in his ears, hairs on his toes.” He was obviously thinking of the Siegfried. But when later he was induced to look at some of Beardsley’s drawings, he said, “Aubrey, I have made a mistake. You are a very great artist.” Beardsley wept. All Whistler could do was repeat, “I mean it, I mean it.”

Not only Whistler’s dandified austerity but also the richness of his Peacock Room had its effect on Beardsley. Peacocks, of course, were everywhere in the Nineties, and play a leading part in the iconography of art nouveau; but we know from a letter and many sketches that Beardsley visited the Peacock Room just before beginning his Salomé drawings. The drawing called The Peacock Skirt is perhaps the most direct borrowing in the whole of Beardsley’s work.

With the illustrations to Wilde’s Salomé, we reach the point in Beardsley’s work at which he is completely sure of his means and of his imagination. They were commissioned by John Lane in 1893, on the strength of the fourth Studio drawing, which illustrates the climax of Wilde’s poem. It would be fascinating to know what discussions took place between author and illustrator, but the books on Beardsley tell us nothing, except that his first enthusiasm for Wilde rapidly cooled. It seems that Wilde, then at the arrogant height of his success, was patronizing to Beardsley, implying that the young man was rising to fame as a satellite of his poetic genius. Beardsley, whose favorite authors were Ben Jonson and Racine, must soon have recognized Salomé for the rubbish that it is; and may have had a fair idea that it would be remembered solely as the pretext for his drawings. This is the kind of feeling which it is hard for a young man to conceal. Moreover his naughtiness got the better of him, and as with Whistler he included among the illustrations a perfectly gratuitous caricature of Oscar Wilde as the Woman in the Moon: one of his most original drawings, with a strangely Kandinskian movement, but unlikely to please the poet.

Beardsley’s collaboration with Wilde was later used to blacken his reputation—ironically enough, for in fact Beardsley’s drawings exhale an aroma of evil, compared to which Wilde’s writings are quite harmless. Wilde’s character, as we all know, was sunny and shallow; his attempts to communicate with the powers of darkness were as frivolous as his overtures to the powers of light. But for some mysterious reason Beardsley had a direct line to the Evil One and his communications are perfectly serious. This familiarity with evil seems to have been intuitive and innate. He practically never mentions the two high priests of nineteenth-century diabolism, Baudelaire and Huysmans, although the titles of their books, Les Fleurs du mal and À rebours, so perfectly describe his own attitude. He seems to have read Les Fleurs du mal, for he gave a copy to Will Rothenstein, but in general he was uninfluenced by any near contemporaries, except Wagner. It was a do-it-yourself diabolism.

Enter Herodias (see page 41) is one of those drawings in which the presence of evil s’affiche au premier plan. But I may point out one or two particularly disturbing details. First of all this curious symbol of depravity who holds back Herodias’s cloak. He appears quite early in Beardsley’s work looking like a bad-tempered, elderly fetus. Nothing could show more clearly Beardsley’s impatience with the idealistic strain in Pre-Raphaelitism than that this repulsive goblin should be pointing to, and profaning, the words of the Vita Nuova, the sacred fount of the whole movement. The scale and the abstraction of this work are extremely curious, and make me wonder if Beardsley, in his early visit to Paris, had not seen some drawings or reliefs by Gauguin, who about a year earlier had evolved a very similar type of grotesque symbolism. Impossible to prove, but the Gauguin relief on the opposite page, dated 1890, shows that Beardsley, for all his archaism, belonged instinctively to the avant-garde of symbolism. Another detail of the Herodias drawing of interest to the art historian is the owl’s head and mercurial crutch of the showman or announcer on the right. The rhythms, the stylized bird, and the use of dots all remind one of Celtic ornament, and suggest that Beardsley knew Westwood’s Facsimiles of Ornaments in Anglo-Saxon and Irish Mss. (1868). Thus the Celtic element which was to play so great a part in art nouveau, ultimately ousting the Japanese, was also one of his discoveries.

Technically the most extraordinary feature of the drawing is its simplification. Beardsley leaves out everything that doesn’t contribute to his effect. Herodias stands on nothing. The goblin (who has no ear) sits on nothing. I doubt if any artist with a conventional academic training could have allowed himself such drastic elimination. He could not have left the large white area of Herodias’s cloak without some indication of its modeling. In some of the drawings this disregard of actuality is carried even further.

In most of the Salomé drawings the personages still show traces of Pre-Raphaelite nostalgia. In some of them the sinister accouterments are rather closer to Gustave Moreau—but, at any rate, they are romantically backward-looking. But in some of the later Salomé illustrations Beardsley applies abstraction to contemporary dress. The same disregard of actualities which allowed him to eliminate anything which he could not absorb into his system of design left him free from all anxieties about period or probability. Salomé, who in her interviews with St. John is dressed as an Eastern (I suppose) princess, reappears in an extravagant black cape, which must owe something to the lobster carapaces of Kuniyoshi’s actors, but is, in general effect, entirely of its time.2

The result is to liberate Beardsley’s sense of design. He escapes from the effete and monotonous rhythm of Pre-Raphaelitism to a more vigorous abstraction. The cloak becomes a kind of totem, like a sinister bird on a Mayan plaque. An even stranger piece of hard-edge abstraction is the second drawing of The Toilette of Salomé, with its Whistler-Godwin furniture and its hint of a modern interior. The complete exclusion of anything, any conventions or probabilities which do not contribute to the essence of the design, is startling. No wonder the young artists of the Nineties who felt the need for abstraction—the Kandinskys and the Klees—looked with astonishment at this drawing, and at the precision with which Beardsley has extracted these shapes from the cloak and related them to the chair. To realize his disquieting originality one must turn to a strictly analogous drawing by Walter Crane, done in almost the same year. For twenty years Crane had been the unchallenged leader of decorative illustration in England, admired (and rightly) by people of taste and sound judgment. Sir William Rothenstein, for example, has recorded that he much preferred Crane to Beardsley. We may agree that Walter Crane was likely to have a healthier influence on students; but about which of these drawings is related to the lively art of its time there can be no reasonable doubt.

Beardsley’s output during the autumn of 1893 is almost incredible. In between the Salomé drawings he continued the grind of the Morte d’Arthur. He also did a number of odd jobs—some of them of a surprising kind—decorations for anthologies of bon mots, tryouts. Lane persuaded him to design the covers and title pages of many long-forgotten novels which were the chief output of the Bodley Head. Although inventive and faultlessly executed these covers were a waste of precious weeks, as they are nearly all in the backward-looking ornamental style of William Morris. But a few are pure Beardsley, and look across the channel. For example, the triangular sleeves of his cover for the book Keynotes suggest that he had seen the posters of Chéret which so much influenced Seurat in his last phase.

Convinced by these frontispieces of Beardsley’s adaptability and technical skill, Lane then conceived the idea of an illustrated quarterly, of which Beardsley should be the art editor. The prospectus, in which his absolute black and white is used to create an effect of light, appeared in the spring of 1894. There it is: The Yellow Book; for thirty years the symbol of naughtiness and corruption. In fact the contents are almost entirely harmless—stories by Henry James, Arnold Bennett, and by the blithe, innocuous editor, Henry Harland, drawings by Leighton, poems by William Watson. But across this respectable gathering fell a long shadow, the shadow of Aubrey Beardsley. It was he, and he alone, who gave The Yellow Book its character and its reputation. After four numbers he was dismissed because his name was connected with that of Oscar Wilde. Yeats in The Trembling of the Veil describes the episode:

He had illustrated Wilde’s Salomé, his strange satiric art had raised the popular press to fury, and at the height of the excitement aroused by Wilde’s condemnation, a popular novelist, a woman who had great influence among the most conventional part of the British Public, had written demanding his dismissal. “She owed it to her position before the British people,” she had said. Beardsley was not even a friend of Wilde’s—they even disliked each other—he had no sexual abnormality, but he was certainly unpopular, and the moment had come to get rid of unpopular persons. The public at once concluded—they could hardly do otherwise, he was dismissed by telegram—that there was evidence against him, and Beardsley, who was some twenty-three years old, being embittered and miserable, plunged into dissipation.

The lady novelist was Mrs. Humphry Ward; and she was not the only important person to protest. Lane, who was in America at the time, received dozens of telegrams from the leaders of literary England, including William Watson, who was tipped for the laureateship, demanding Beardsley’s dismissal. He kept them—they are now in the library at Princeton, a monument to British hypocrisy. He saw all his authors leaving him, was seized with panic, and sent Beardsley the telegram to which Yeats refers. I should add that Lane was later filled with remorse and continued to blame himself for his cowardly action until the end of his life.

The Yellow Book drawings fortunately continue the practice of the later Salomé drawings in that the subjects wear contemporary dress. The first of them, L’Éducation Sentimentale, contains one of those creations which have recently proved so attractive to dress designers. It is one of Beardsley’s most enchanting drawings. The pen outline is marvelously suggestive and even, by some miracle, suggests the weight of the wicked old party on the left. The breath of evil, though perceptible enough, is less disturbing than in the illustrations to Salomé. Beardsley is often described as a satirist—Yeats, in the passage I just quoted, referred to his “strange satiric art”—and this drawing could be quoted to support this classification. In general I rather doubt if the word can be accepted. The great satirists, Swift, Juvenal, Hogarth, have a two-faced relationship with vice. Their claim that they are concerned with it only in order to correct is, of course, humbug. It fascinates them, and they portray it with obvious relish. But at the same time it frightens them, and therefore rouses their moral indignation.

Beardsley has no feelings of moral indignation at all. The nearest he ever got to a satire is a drawing in the third volume of The Yellow Book called Lady Gold’s Escort, but even there the fantasy of these corrupt characters with their white muffs has delighted him. It is interesting that this drawing anticipates by fifteen years the appearance in Paris of the Russian Ballet, for nothing more Diaghilevian could be imagined. The principal escort even has a prophetic resemblance to Nijinsky. No wonder that the young Diaghilev, on seeing the drawing, wrote to D.S. MacColl to ask for information about the artist.

The Wagnerites, in the same volume of The Yellow Book, is usually claimed as a satire. But Beardsley adored Wagner, not least because of the sensual diabolism which he rightly divined in his music, and which he has so marvelously reflected in the heads and naked shoulders of his admirers. As for the fat woman in L’Éducation, we know that Beardsley loved her, for she is described in his novel Under the Hill as Mrs. Marsuple. “Her voice,” he says, “was full of salacious unction: she had terrible little gestures with the hands, strange movements with the shoulders, a short respiration that made surprising wrinkles in her bodice, a corrupt skin, large horny eyes, a parrot’s nose, a small loose mouth, great flaccid cheeks, and chin after chin. She was a wise person and Helen loved her more than any of her other servants and had a hundred pet names for her…” and there follow about twenty of the pet names in Rabelaisian profusion. We see her, of course, superintending The Toilette of Helen, and although the drawing is two years later, and Beardsley’s style has changed since L’Éducation Sentimentale, Mrs. Marsuple has remained the same.

The fact is that Beardsley gloried in those figures that seemed to embody the acme of corruption. Only in his two drawings of Messalina does one detect a slight feeling of repulsion. The earlier one, in the Tate, has a certain hellish grandeur, but the Messalina Returning from the Bath, one of his last great drawings, is done with real ferocity. This is satire, and worthy of Juvenal.

It is arguable (although Beardsley himself would not have agreed) that the Yellow Book drawings show him at his best. At all events they suggest a point at which we should ask a few more questions about his peculiar skill as a draftsman. How did he achieve the perfection, certainty, and aplomb of L’Éducation Sentimentale? Beardsley himself took pains to ensure that we should not know the answer. Nobody saw him at work. He locked himself in his room, pulled the curtains, and did his drawings by candlelight. He managed to destroy all but two of his original studies and tried to erase the traces of preparation from nearly all his finished drawings. The surviving studies are revealing. They show that he had no need of preliminary sketches. All he did was vaguely to suggest, with a rambling line, the general disposition of the figures; on top of this he then drew with finality and precision. Those of his finished drawings on which the underdrawing has not been completely rubbed out show the sáme procedure.

One of the surviving sketches, the superb cover design for Salomé, shows even more clearly how his ideas came to him immediately, with full force. This is as we should expect. He was essentially a visionary and an ideal artist. His early sketches of casual appearances, of which, unfortunately, a number were published after his death, are worthless. No artist, not even Blake, had so little gift for notation. He drew lines around his thoughts. The extraordinary thing is how accurately he could delineate the physical world once it had reformed itself in his memory as a concept. The implied drawing in his figures is always convincing. When, from voluminous skirts, there finally emerges an ankle it is always in the right place. His necks, hands, and arms are drawn as exquisitely as they are on Greek vases, or in Gothic illuminations.

More surprising still, in his late illustrations to Juvenal and Aristophanes, where the nude figures are drawn in attitudes of difficult foreshortening and contrapposto, there is still the same absolute certainty. Yet Beardsley seems to have had practically no academic training, and never drew “from the life”—any more than did Brygos or Pol de Limburg; and one is left wondering if the years young students spend in art schools are not a complete waste of time.

Beardsley’s inner eye not only provided him with perfectly clear details but seems instantly to have shown him how a complete visual experience could simplify itself into vital shapes. The cover design for The Yellow Book may seem at first no more than a charming decoration, just as Roy Lichtenstein’s pictures may seem to be no more than blowups of strip cartoons. But when we look at the frills, in their relation to the hair and the curtain in the background, we see they are a piece of design as energetic as any “hard edge” abstraction; and having seen them in this way we suddenly realize that they are not really at all like frills, and that we accept them as such only because of their powerful abstract design. Very occasionally an ordinary visual experience could clarify itself in Beardsley’s mind in this way, as in the Garçons du Café, where the relationship of area between the napkins and the shirt fronts reminds me of Victor Pasmore. But usually this transformation takes place only on behalf of one of the regular inhabitants of his imagination. A masterpiece of this kind is a drawing—said to be a caricature of Mrs. Whistler—of another fat woman, less intelligently evil than Mrs. Marsuple, seated at a café table. The consonance and basic completeness of these shapes are superb.

Beardsley’s contemporaries, eager to belittle him, used to say that he was a mere eclectic, whose style was made up of borrowings from the Japanese, the Greeks, Botticelli, the Poliphilo, and so forth. Of course all very young artists must learn where they can; and what his critics really meant was that instead of imitating some noted art teacher of the day, he had gone back to earlier models. As a matter of fact Beardsley’s assimilation of his models was unusually complete. For a boy of twenty-one the drawing of The Fat Woman is incredibly original, and points not backward but forward—forward even to Braque, whose painting of a fat white pot in the Duncan Philips’ collection it so strangely anticipates.

The Fat Woman is in the Tate, one of the few great Beardsley drawings in an English public collection,3 and a sight of the original shows how shockingly Beardsley’s work has been betrayed by reproduction. His work is known almost entirely from line blocks, which have become so much the standard popular image of Beardsley that critics have said that he adopted his peculiar style in order to please the blockmakers. In fact most of his designs are not in pure black and white, but are tinted or colored so that they achieve a subtle effect of tone, and all the early ones contain lines and dots so delicate that they are lost in anything but a fullsize photograph. A drawing like The Fat Woman is difficult even to photograph, and must have driven the blockmakers to despair. In fact, they gave up—they heightened tones, coarsened lines, and sometimes redrew passages which were too subtle for them.

It was the drawings for Salomé and The Yellow Book that spread Beardsley’s influence throughout Europe. They were reproduced in German art magazines almost immediately, were known to Munch (then living in Berlin) and showed him how simplified areas of black and white can work on the emotions. They are (with Gauguin) the basis of his magnificent prints. They were reproduced in the Barcelona art magazine Joventut in 1898 and inspired the avant-garde of Catalan architects and painters, one of whom later made good use of Beardsley’s pure outlines, and even did his own version of Salomé in which thin corrupt people are contrasted with fat ones.

In 1900 Beardsley’s drawings were reproduced in Mir Iskusstva, the art magazine edited by Diaghilev, and had such an effect on Bakst that one may say they are the foundation of the whole Russian ballet style from Scheherazade to Aurora’s Wedding. What could be more Bakstian than the drawing which Beardsley, in a paradox which turned out to be prophetic, had entitled A Suggested Reform in Ballet Costume. The innumerable repercussions on minor artists in Munich, Vienna, Stockholm, and Glasgow need not concern us. Someday they can become the subject of a PhD thesis.

Lane’s telegram of dismissal arrived in April 1895. It not only caused Beardsley mental and moral distress, but left him short of cash. He was rescued by the intervention of a character named Leonard Smithers. Smithers was a fair-haired Yorkshireman with no literary or artistic pretensions, but he was before his time in seeing that money could be made out of high-class pornography, and he thought that Beardsley might be a profitable investment. I may add that he behaved admirably to Beardsley, and never let him down, even when Beardsley was too ill to work and Smithers himself was short of cash. It is sometimes said that Beardsley would never have done any indecent drawings if it had not been for Smithers, but personally I doubt this, because he enjoyed shocking people—as who wouldn’t have done in Victorian England; and as his vital spirits began to sink he had to shock himself.

His devotion to evil, although serious enough, was without the priestly earnestness of Baudelaire. When in the mood he could be frivolous about anything, even about art and sin. He adored Poussin, but could not resist giving his own interpretation of Et in Arcadia Ego, in which an aging roué in frock coat and spats tiptoes toward the storied urn. As with Incipit Vita Nova the solemnity of these quotations, or rather the pious self-importance of those who quoted them, irritated him. A similar feeling of mischief appears in the demure and fastidious economy with which he has treated the Swinburnian exercise of flagellation. The most extreme example of this desire to shock is a beautiful drawing of the Yellow Book period called The Mysterious Rose Garden, which is an impious parody of an Annunciation. Beardsley himself referred to it as the first of a series of illustrations to the Bible. The flat, virginal body is contrasted with the flame-fretted robe of the corrupter, and the black lantern, which in some mysterious way gives an impression of light, is itself a strangely evil shape and promises to illuminate the darkest experiences.

Whether at the instigation of Smithers, or in reaction against the tidal wave of hypocrisy which followed the eruption of Wilde’s trial, Beardsley set about illustrating the Lysistrata of Aristophanes. He wrote that these were in some ways the best drawings he ever did, and those who have had the good fortune to see the originals must agree with him. The way in which they combine gross indecency with an austere classical simplicity is worthy of the text. Curiously enough they lack the erotic impact of his Salomé drawings, either because Beardsley felt it to be unsuitable to Aristophanes, or because this had gained some of its force from repression and concealment. This style can be seen by a design which he did for his own bookplate, and in an unfinished drawing of Apollo pursuing Daphne. The line is bolder and more comprehensive than in the Yellow Book drawings, and, except for a few dots, the finicky mannerisms of the Salomé period have vanished.

In the two remaining years of his life Beardsley was to do a few more austere drawings in this style, in paricular some superb illustrations to Juvenal. Unfortunately these, too, are unpublishable. In contrast to the cheerful ribaldry of Lysistrata, they are cruelly indecent and (as I have said) are the only part of his work that can be accurately described as satire. They show how deeply Beardsley entered into the spirit of the authors whose books he illustrated.

Meanwhile he had developed a different style, which was to prove more acceptable to his contemporaries, and was often claimed as a sort of justification of his whole career. This style first appears in a series of illustrations to The Rape of the Lock, which was published by Smithers in 1896. Beardsley had always loved the eighteenth century, and he took infinite pains to translate the engravings of Debucourt and Eisen into his own idiom. No doubt there was also a technical reason for this change of style. He had temporarily exhausted the effects he could achieve by balancing areas of black and white with patches of ornament. He wished to master a greater variety of tone and texture and even a certain degree of depth.

We can see what was in his mind by comparing one of the best-known Yellow Book drawings, the Dame aux Camélias, with an analogous drawing in The Rape of the Lock. No doubt he has extended his range; but at great cost. For one thing, by abandoning contemporary costume he has lost the impetus which, as Baudelaire so rightly pointed out in his famous article on Guys, an artist derives from the style of his period. This fashion for painting scenes of another epoch—fancy-dress pictures—weakened the art of half of the Victorian painters from Leslie to Orchardson. If one turns from Beardsley’s elaborate construction to a slightly earlier design which must have taken a tenth of the time, one finds in it a vitality of shape which I have compared with hard-edge abstraction—a quality which the Rape of the Lock drawings almost entirely lack. There is a more serious loss, which lies in the very nature of the commission. The Rape of the Lock is a masterpiece of wit, elegance, and style, but it allowed Beardsley no opportunity to express his more intense feelings. His drawings are perfect illustrations, but they are no longer visions, with that quality of obsession which makes me compare the Salomé drawings to Blake. Even in a drawing rather earlier than Salomé, The Kiss of Judas, there is an intensity which the eighteenth-century pastiches lack: to say nothing of the astonishing originality of the design.

But when all is said, the illustrations to The Rape of the Lock were done with extraordinary wit and technical skill. By their laborious use of line they often achieve a balance of grays as perfect as the earlier balance of absolute black and white. Perhaps one reason why I find them less interesting than the Yellow Book drawings is purely accidental—that the eighteenth century which they depict has sunk from being the dreamland of the last romantics, Conder or Dowson, and become the dreamland of advertising men, which it remained up to the 1940s. Perhaps Kandinsky in 1908-1910 was the last creative artist to draw a dividend from the crinolines and towering chevelures which had so much delighted Beardsley.

In the autumn of 1895 Smithers prepared a publication to supplement The Yellow Book, which since Beardsley’s dismissal had gone into a gratifying decline. It was called The Savoy, and appeared in January 1896. On the cover of the first volume, the amorino is relieving himself on a copy of The Yellow Book: a detail omitted when the drawing was published. The editor of The Savoy was Arthur Symons, who had a keener eye for quality and intelligence than Henry Harland, and the literary side is excellent. Beardsley was in charge of the art contents (so-called), but, as he was not at all interested in contemporary painting, the only art contents of any merit, other than some graceful drawings by Charles Shannon, were the work of Beardsley himself; and these are by no means all of them satisfactory.

Not that they are bad compared to the work of his imitators, whose work appeared in The Savoy—and in every art magazine in Europe. But there is a loss of intensity, due as much to failing health as failing vision; and the discovery of abstract shapes, which bring the earlier drawings so close to us, is almost entirely absent. An exception, done, it is true, a little earlier, is The Return of Tannhäuser to the Venusberg, which is a developed version of a drawing which must date from his teens. This is a naïve piece of Pre-Raphaelitism, but it has the visionary conviction of the adolescent which Beardsley has managed to preserve. The result is, in effect, the most moving of his Morte d’Arthur drawings. Three of the Savoy drawings were inspired by Wagner, and show how, from Baudelaire to Schoenberg, that vast unpleasant genius loomed over the romantic imagination. Beardsley was particularly attracted to Loge, whom he made the subject of two extraordinary drawings and a description in Under the Hill.

In the literary milieu of The Savoy Beardsley also became a writer, and several of his pieces were published with illustrations. One of them, a poem called The Ballad of the Barber, was fully equal to the work of the minor poets who surrounded him, and was accompanied by an exquisite drawing, one of the few which succeeds without help from the powers of evil.

His longest piece of writing was in prose, a so-called romantic novel, Under the Hill. It is an expurgated version of an extremely indecent original, Venus and Tannhäuser, which he seems to have written to console himself immediately after he was sacked from The Yellow Book, and which remained in manuscript during his lifetime. This, too, was illustrated, and Beardsley, with his usual love of teasing, put his Venus (who had such surprising adventures) into a chastely shapeless garment, looking as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. The elaborate prose style of Venus and Tannhäuser has been praised by good judges, from Arthur Symons onward; but I find it absurd. Expurgation makes Under the Hill even more fatuous. At best it could be claimed as a sort of link between Beckford and Firbank.

Beardsley’s first illustration represents Tannhäuser, renamed the Abbé Fanfreluche; in an intermediate draft of the manuscript he is called the Abbé Aubrey. When one considers that Beardsley was twenty-three years old and dying of consumption, the drawing is a moving act of defiance. The fourth chapter of Under the Hill, in which the Abbé wakes up in bed, fresh as a daisy after his debauch, is indeed an undisguised piece of autobiography, and perhaps for this reason has a freshness and charm which the earlier chapters lack. “The Abbé,” we read,

stretched himself deliciously in his great plumed four poster bed, and freshened the frilled silk pillows behind him. Then he lay back, stared at the curious patterned canopy above him, and nursed his waking thoughts. He thought of the Roman de la Rose, beautiful, but all too brief; of the Claude in Lady Delaware’s Collection; of a wonderful pair of blonde trousers he would get Madame Belleville to make for him; of a mysterious park full of faint echoes and romantic sounds; of St. Rose the well-known Peruvian virgin…; of the splendid opening of Racine’s Britannicus…; of Morales’ Madonnas with their high, egg-shaped creamy foreheads and well crimped silken hair; of Rossini’s “Stabat Mater” (that delightful démodé piece of decadence, with a quality in its music like the bloom on wax fruit); of love, and a hundred other things.

Such were the waking thoughts of a boy who knew that he had only a year to live. Indeed friends who visited him during the summer of 1896 doubted if it would be as long. In March 1897 he was received into the Catholic Church. Immediately afterward his health improved, he moved to Paris, and later to Dieppe, that vanished paradise of poets and artists of the Nineties; then back to Paris where he stayed until the cold weather became too much for his lungs. In November he moved to Menton, which delighted him. His sole interest was an edition of Volpone, for which he did a prospectus (later used as a frontispiece), a set of initials in a new style, and a cover like a Jackson Pollock. He was afraid that Smithers, who had taken to the bottle, would somehow let him down; and it is true that the Volpone, which appeared after his death, is (apart from the cover) a poor piece of book production, printed on shiny paper which, as Beardsley said, emphasizes a certain coldness in his frontispiece. The drawing is indeed uncompromising but it shows no falling off in power of design, and as illustration it is the very essence of Ben Jonson’s fox.

In January the weather at Menton changed, and Beardsley was confined to the pretty room which his mother had made so comfortable for him. A photograph shows him seated in it, alert and soigné as ever: the wall covered with facsimiles of Mantegna’s engravings, and in front of them a crucifix. This room he was never to leave. Having received the last sacraments, he died on March 25, 1898, aged twenty-five years and seven months. His grave is in the beautiful cemetery overlooking the old town. As everyone knows, he wrote on his deathbed to Smithers entreating him to destroy all editions of Lysistrata and his other indecent drawings. This was not done. Venus and Tannhäuser was printed in 1907; and, although Beardsley is almost forgotten as an artist, he is still in demand among booksellers dealing in curiosa.

I suppose it is this, together with a vague memory of his eighteenth-century pasticci, which has led contemporary critics to underrate him. But even those who do not care for his work must recognize that Beardsley is a small, hard, irreducible fact in the history of the modern spirit. In Meier-Graefe’s Modern Art, that pioneer work which, for the first time, saw the movement as a whole and in relation to the past, there is an ardent appreciation of Beardsley which contains this surprising sentence: “Not until we have learnt to understand Beardsley or Dostoevski or Manet as we understand Bismarck, shall we reach the stage of culture.” Slightly obscure: but he adds, apropos of Beardsley, a sentence which throws light on it. “Our utilitarianism was never rebuked in stronger or haughtier terms.” No doubt that this great critic, who knew Beardsley personally, regarded him as one of the essential men of genius of his time.

Genius: almost everyone who met Beardsley committed himself to this questionable word, and made claims for his art which seem to us extravagant. But genius it was; that immediate access to some world outside our own, that perfectly clear conviction, which creates its own skill, that a thing must be thus and thus and not otherwise. It is something easily distinguished from talent or from other admirable qualities: and it is not so common that we can afford to forget it.

  1. 1

    Beardsley and His World by Brigid Brophy (Harmony Books, 1976).

  2. 2

    I have seen it stated that this drawing was not intended for the Salomé series and was included as an afterthought.

  3. 3

    Since this sentence was written Mr. Ralph Harari has bequeathed his great collection of Beardsley drawings to the Victoria and Albert Museum.

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