Aubrey Beardsley
Aubrey Beardsley; drawing by David Levine

“I wonder if you ever see any illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley’s and what do you think of them? I would like to know. A great many people are now what they call modern. When I state my likes and dislikes they tell me I am not modern, so I suppose I am not—advanced.” Thus Kate Greenaway to Ruskin in February 1896. Even without Ruskin’s answer (though its tone is surely not too hard to imagine) this must be one of the more bizarre confrontations of the nineteenth century; on the one hand, the popular illustrator of Mother Goose and The “Little Folks’ ” Painting Book, on the other, the “Fra Angelico of Satanism,” soon to embark on the Lysistrata drawings. If it was the “modernity” that worried her more than anything else (and the quotation helps to substantiate Professor Gordon’s fascinating article in Encounter of October 1966 on this aspect of the reaction to Beardsley), the reason may be that Miss Greenaway appreciated, even more readily than we are able to do, that innocence and depravity were not all that easy to distinguish: had not Max Nordau, the self-professed expert in such matters, accused her—of all people—of creating “a false and degenerate race of children in art”?

As a matter of fact the parallels between the careers of these seemingly so disparate illustrators are closer than one might think, and it is tempting to pursue them further. It was the drawings of Kate Greenaway that first inspired Beardsley’s own efforts in this field; both were claimed by their admirers to draw like Botticelli—and while the comparison between the Primavera and Dame Wiggins of Lee, and her seven wonderful cats may seem surprising, it will be seen below that equally odd juxtapositions were liable to be made between the art of Beardsley and that of the Renaissance masters. Moreover, the influence of both of them abroad was achieved in the most improbable circumstances—Gauguin was among Kate Greenaway’s admirers, and one French critic said of Seurat’s Grande Jatte that it was “a flat imitation of Miss Kate Greenaway.” To investigate the analogies further would be unjust to the talents of a man who claimed that “I have one aim—the grotesque. If I am not grotesque I am nothing,” but it is worth pondering on the fact that the figures in his drawings were described in his heyday as “sexless”—the very adjective that is generally used of those drawn by Kate Greenaway. Perhaps she was more modern than she realized.

IT IS ODD that we know so little about Beardsley in spite of so much information. Mr. Weintraub’s serious and conscientious biography can answer almost none of the questions that puzzle us, and even the unfair and cantankerous (but lively) book on the artist by his critic and friend Haldane Macfall which appeared in 1928, when many of Beardsley’s contemporaries were still alive, treats him as rather a remote phenomenon. Everyone has always agreed that eroticism was one of the mainsprings of his art—and in one of his self-portraits he represents himself firmly tied to a herm—yet his most casual utterances have to be scrutinized in laborious detail for hints as to what direction this eroticism took. “Some of his drawings,” wrote Aylmer Vallance, a rather disillusioned admirer, within a year of his death, “betray, like Leonardo’s Gioconda, a vampire hoary veteranship in vice. The wantonness, the despair, the cruelty, the leacherousness, the cunning, the malice of some of his figures—and that expressed not only in the face but in every line of the body—might have been attributed to one who had served a life-long apprenticeship in the purlieus of Hell.” But his friends are unanimous in stressing that no such apprenticeship took place, and a bare acquaintance with the outlines of his always sick, often penurious, and desperately hard-working life is enough to show that the idea is indeed pretty unlikely—after all, both Des Esseintes and Dorian Gray were blessed with leisure and a private income.

Arthur Symons, Beardsley’s co-editor on The Savoy, went further and suggested that he was as spiritually detached from the purlieus of Hell as he must have been materially.

Beardsley did not believe in his own enchantments, was never haunted by his own terrors, and, in his queer sympathy and familiarity with evil, had none of the ardours of a lost soul. In the place of Faust he would have kept the devil at his due distance by a polite incredulity, openly expressed, as to the very existence of his interlocutor.

Beardsley himself once told Vallance that every artist tended to reproduce his own person in the portraits of his characters. Following up this clue we seem to find in him the very essence of the “polymorphous perverse”—yet one feature is common to nearly all his gallery of the debauched: the solitary nature of their lusts. Messalina returning from the bath, Herodias embracing the decapitated head of John the Baptist, the “scrumptious” Ali Baba—these famous voluptuaries are never represented in the enjoyment of a shared satisfaction. Nor can this merely be owing to the exigencies of publication, for it is surely significant that it was the Lysistrata that he chose to illustrate for a private edition—a play about sustained but unfulfilled sexual excitement.


Macfall, regretting in 1928 that Venus and Tannhauser could never be published openly, claimed that “it gives us the real Beardsley in a self-confession such as explains much that would be otherwise baffling in his art. It is a frank and emotional endeavor to utter the sexual ecstasies of a mind that dwells in a constant state of erotic excitement.” Now that this unfinished novel has appeared in the inevitable paper-back edition (with a ludicrous Preface which compares it favorably with Moll Flanders and Tom Jones), we can see that it does nothing of the kind, but merely leaves us as baffled as before. For its most striking element (apart from the dreadful coyness of the style) is its curiously second-hand quality. There is nothing remotely emotional about it, and it reads like a commentary on the art not of Beardsley himself, but of some feeble imitator. Beardsley only wrote one “frank and emotional” passage of real power: the famous last letter to his publisher Leonard Smithers—“Jesus is our Lord and Judge. Dear Friend, I implore you to destroy all copies of Lysistrata & bad drawings. Show this to Pollitt & conjure him to do the same. By all that is holy—all obscene drawings. Aubrey Beardsley. In my death agony.” Who can read this and then examine without a twinge of guilt the Lysistrata illustrations, which is now possible thanks to the selections published by the United Book Guild and Grove Press? But in spite of this one cannot really regret the fact that this last impassioned injunction was ignored (Smithers actually used it as publicity for the privately printed edition), for these drawings really are—as Beardsley himself had once claimed—the finest things he ever did: dazzlingly bold, witty and elegant, with none of the fussiness of some of the work that had just preceded them.

“Chastity has become almost a habit with me now, but my dear Julie, it will never become a taste,” he wrote to a friend from Bournemouth in March 1897 (in a letter that has turned up since Mr. Weintraub’s biography—see Apollo, January 1967). Bournemouth! It is the improbability of the location, rather than the admission or the nature of his drawing, which is really surprising. Images of the erotic and the perverse were common enough throughout Europe in the 1890s, as one can see from a glance at Maurice Rheims’s splendidly illustrated The Flowering of Art Nouveau (a book to be looked at rather than read), and Beardsley must surely have been in far closer contact with modern international developments than is usually suggested. We know about the medievalizing, Renaissance, and Japanese sources of his style, but incredibly little about his awareness of contemporary art—except for that of Morris, Burne-Jones, and Whistler. He paid a number of fairly short visits to Paris (on one of these, perhaps on his way back from Brussels in May 1896, he may have seen Maurice Donnay’s version of the Lysistrata which was then being performed at the Vaudeville theater and almost certainly gave him the idea for his drawings) and most of his friends were strongly Francophile. We know that Puvis de Chavannes liked his work and for a time owned one of his early drawings, but very little has been written of the impact made on him by the French masters of the day. In his early youth he had made a caricature of Queen Victoria as a Degas ballet dancer, and a later drawing such as Black Coffee must have been inspired by the Parisian café scenes made popular by Manet, Degas, and Lautrec. Beardsley was sufficiently impressed by Lautrec (who returned his admiration) to produce a theater poster of his own, and the immense solitude of Lautrec’s paintings of Jane Avril of 1892 may be reflected in Beardsley’s beautiful Night Piece. In another mood the horribly tense, purposeful stride of the English artist’s Messalina comes very close to Lautrec’s color lithograph of the comic actor Caudieux, and there must surely be a connection between his print of Garçons de Café (which was in fact published in Le Courier Français in November 1894) and the woodcuts of Felix Vallotton. Gustave Moreau, who had included both Herodias (well publicized by Huysmans) and Messalina in his gallery of lustful, dominating women, was well known in advanced circles in England partly through the adaptations of his designs made by Charles Ricketts—as Russell Taylor makes clear—but it would be interesting to know whether Beardsley ever saw the grotesque visions of Odilon Redon. Certainly the frequency with which Wagnerian images recur in Beardsley’s art suggests not only his love of that composer but an awareness of the many French pictorial tributes to him which were stimulated by the fanatical esteem in which he was held in Paris.


“There is hardly a drawing of his that does not explain itself; the commentator will search in vain for any hieroglyphic or symbolic intention,” wrote his friend Robert Ross. But this is not true. When Beardsley was mocked for his title page for The Yellow Book which represented “a lady playing a piano in the middle of a field,” he replied gaily with a detailed contemporary account of the manner in which Gluck composed his operas. There must be many more such clues, which could be traced by anyone prepared to investigate his immense reading (which, unlike his response to the art of his day, is fairly well documented). Piles of books themselves play a significant role in many of his illustrations, and, along with enclosed gardens, sinister-looking guides and attendants, foetuses, Pierrots (“one of the types of our century,” according to Symons, “a passionate, but he does not believe in great passions”), clusters of black hair with clearly sexual implications, and the famous candlesticks, they constitute a recurring image that constantly haunted him.

INDEED, until the recent revival of interest, it was usual to dismiss him as an over-literary artist. From the first, however, there were those who pointed to the marvelous economy of much of his work, and much stress is now being laid on his influence on artists ranging from Picasso to Kandinsky. This being the case, it seems likely that serious critical attention will increasingly move away from the Rape of the Lock and similar illustrations, considered by Haldane Macfall to be his best work but which may now strike us as being, however accomplished, too finicky and too much of a pastiche of eighteenth-century sources, and will concentrate instead on the bolder, more massive inventions. It seems certain (and the prophecy is not a very daring one as the first signs have already appeared) that his wonderful gift of simplification, his impetuous formal daring and the stark contrasts of his blacks and whites will be praised at the expense of his “dated” subject matter. How rewarding is such an approach likely to be? For, compared with other great masters of line, his outlines seem hard and unsympathetic, lacking the tremors of life. The impact is overwhelming, but the shock wears off and then his very virtuosity stares one too harshly in the eye. He is a bold, delicate but insensitive artist, and the system of mechanical reproduction for which his technique was so well suited exaggerates both his strength and his weakness. What he somehow lacks is the quality that, according to Baudelaire, constitutes the greatness of Goya’s prints: “Toutes ces contorsions, ces faces bestiales, ces grimaces diaboliques sont pénétrées d’humanité.” The stylized flatness, even of a relatively tender drawing such as the Ave atque Vale, becomes oppressive. After the first shock our pleasure in his work surely derives from the tension between the precision and directness of his draughtsmanship and the concealed innuendoes of his vision. And so we come back again to the life.

Mr. Weintraub’s biography takes us very smoothly and efficiently through the terrible story: terrible, apart from the consumption which killed him at twenty-five, because of its total lovelessness. His most attractive quality is the stoical gaiety—rather like that of his admired eighteenth century—with which he was sometimes able to confront his horrible fate: “I am so affected that even my lungs are affected!” but the charm which was commented on by all his friends fails to come through. It is a shock to read again the famous cablegram from the mediocre William Watson to John Lane: WITHDRAW ALL BEARDSLEY’S DESIGNS [from The Yellow Book] OR I WITHDRAW ALL MY BOOKS,” but it is almost equally distressing to come across Beardsley’s own letter to Smithers two and a half years later “I will contribute cover & what you will, & also be editor [of a proposed new journal] that is If it is quite agreed that Occar Wilde contributes nothing to the magazine, anonymously pseudononymously or otherwise.”

ONE OF THE DIFFICULTIES of studying Beardsley seriously—or indeed frivolously—is the totally inadequate situation as regards the publication of his works. The present fashion has brought out a number of picture books, none of them really satisfactory, however welcome. The very useful volumes of the Early Work and the Later Work, which have been reprinted both in hard and paper-back form, date originally from 1899 and 1900, but successive editions considerably modified the original arrangement of the plates. We are now given what are described as “the best features of previous editions.” That may be so—for instance the quality of the printing (on slightly creamed paper in the hard-back edition) is generally good—but It is not enough. The illustrations are not dated, only the original provenance is given, and where they are censored the fact is not mentioned. The much smaller selection made by the United Book Guild (printed on ivory white paper which admirably brings out the quality of the black) includes the Lysistrata and other usually suppressed plates, but it too is not so bold as it claims, for the prospectus of the Savoy has been minutely—but decisively—mutilated. It was to this caricature of John Bull that George Moore objected on the grounds that “the breeches were drawn in such a way as to suggest that he was sexually excited.” To see what Moore meant one still has to refer to the plate in R.A. Walker’s The Best of Beardsley published some years ago. Moreover, the only text is a slightly edited (with whose authority?) version of the Preface that Haldans Macfall wrote, shortly before dying, for the Life of 1928. The selection published by the Grove Press with an introduction by John Russell also includes the Lysistrata drawings and has a few useful notes, but it contains about thirty plates fewer than the United Press Guild anthology.

A very good general essay on the art of Beardsley is provided by Brian Reade in his illustrated souvenir of the exhibition held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London—and the catalogue that he and Frank Dickson produced for the occasion will remain as an essential contribution to our understanding of the artist. The chapter on him in Russell Taylor’s beautifully produced (though at times tiresomely written) study of the Art Nouveau book in England helps us to see him in relation to other illustrators of the Nineties, while if there were any justice in the world the spectacular collection of photographs published by M. Rheims would bring to an immediate halt the growing fashion for the whole period.

This Issue

June 29, 1967