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A master of porno graphics

Beardsley Japonisme - Aubrey Beardsley - Aubrey Beardsley and the Nineties - Aubrey Beardsley

When I was running Secker and Warburg I took much pleasure in publishing Malcolm Easton's obsessive piece of scholarship Aubrey and the Dying Lady, which chronicled, and speculated about, the relationship between Aubrey Beardsley and his sister Mabel. It was Mabel who, after Aubrey's death, became the inspiration for W. B. Yeats's wonderful sequence of poems Upon a Dying Lady. I published the Easton book to mark the centenary of Beardsley's birth in 1972.

It is therefore a grim memento mori to review these four books, published simultaneously to coincide with the centenary of Beardsley's death. Give or take a matter of weeks (Beardsley was a few months short), it is remarkable to think that Beardsley, Keats, Bonington and Lermontov all died at the age of 26. It is even odder to realise that while Lermontov died in the classically Russian Romantic manner in a duel, the three English geniuses all died of consumption. How much richer our culture would have been if our damp, cold 19th century had had some decent antibiotics instead of mustard plasters, blistering and the lunacies of hydropathy. And how striking it is to note that Walter Sickert's great portrait of Beardsley in 1894, when he was 22 (in the Tate Gallery), shows the elegantly morning-suited figure of Aubrey in Hampstead churchyard at the unveiling of a centenary monument to Keats.

"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."

Those words end Kenneth Clark's brilliant monograph, The Best of Aubrey Beardsley, published in 1979, a book which, rather oddly, figures in the bibliography of only one of the four books under review, that by Stephen Calloway. All four, most justly, refer handsomely to the pioneering work of Bryan Reade. Inevitably, alas, none of the four authors approaches Clark in either style or perception.

Beardsley's beginnings were not promising. His mother was the reasonably unconventional, but distinctly pretentious daughter of an Indian Army surgeon-major. His father was a chancer and a ne'er-do-well whose frequent changes, and losses, of various jobs necessitated several moves down the housing ladder. Aubrey, whose TB was first diagnosed when he was only seven, derived his modest stock of emotional strength and stability from his closeness to his sister Mabel, a year older than himself, and from his rock-like great-aunt, with whom he lived during periods of parental penury. He was much helped by his unconventional school in Brighton where a fellow pupil and lifelong friend was C. B. Cochran, the celebrated Edwardian impresario. It was at Brighton Grammar School that Aubrey's gifts as caricaturist and draughtsman were encouraged, along with his literary ambitions. By the time he left at 16 he was an acclaimed stage performer, a published poet and a reproduced artist, already earning modest fees.

But, given the family finances, Aubrey became a clerk in the district surveyor's office at Clerkenwell and, in a tragedy typical of the period, Mabel got a scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge but was unable to afford to take it up. Aubrey graduated only to the Fire and Life Insurance company, where his salary rose to Pounds 70 a year and he had the time and leisure to pursue his voracious study of French literature and to gain the friendship and patronage of the bookseller, publisher and photographer, Frederick Evans. It was Evans who created the celebrated "gargoyle" photograph which is perhaps the best known of all images of Beardsley.

Apart from his weekly trips with Mabel to a small, but very High church containing works of art by Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones in his Brighton childhood, the major aesthetic experience of his life was probably a visit to the house of the industrialist and patron Frederick Leyland. He had commissioned Whistler's spectacular Peacock Room, whose flamboyant opulence is, despite being in particularly rich colours, an ineradicable key to Beardsley's almost exclusively black-and-white art.

As T. S. Eliot once memorably observed: "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal." The teenage Beardsley, no matter how precocious, was, by definition, immature; but as an artist he was certainly mature enough to steal. Thus Whistler, not without reason, felt that Beardsley was a plagiarist. Yet, eventually, despite Beardsley's merciless caricatures of both Whistler and his wife, the older and more established figure one day, more or less against his will, examined the portfolio of the Rape of the Lock drawings. "Aubrey," he said, "I have made a very great mistake - you are a very great artist." If one can credit Whistler's disciple Joseph Pennell, Beardsley burst into tears while Whistler repeated, "I mean it, I mean it." Whistler did at least remain a lifelong and beneficial influence.

Aubrey and Mabel, armed with ubiquitous portfolio, made a pilgrimage shortly after the exposure to the Peacock Room to Burne-Jones's house, where the great Pre-Raphaelite made them welcome, looked at the portfolio and, before introducing the couple to tea on the lawn with Constance Wilde and her two children, pronounced to the 19-year-old that his work was "full of thought, poetry and imagination. Nature has given you every gift to become a great artist. I seldom or never advise anyone to take up art as a profession, but in your case I can do nothing else."

He recommended Beardsley to the Westminster School of Art where he had his only formal, adult training. It did not take the audacious tyro long to go off to Paris, where he showed his work to Puvis de Chavannes, then a God-like figure in French art, who enchanted Aubrey by referring to him not as an insurance clerk but as a "jeune artiste anglais".

Shortly afterwards, Frederick Evans introduced Beardsley to the publisher J. M. Dent who commissioned him to do the illustrations for a de luxe edition of Malory's Morte D'Arthur for a substantial fee of Pounds 160, ie more than two years' salary, which made possible the abandonment of his insurance career. Aubrey's teacher, Fred Brown, in the meantime left the Westminster to become professor at the Slade School of Art and encouraged and enabled his protege to exhibit at the New English Art Club.

Aubrey was on his way, even if, in a frosty encounter, William Morris felt that he also was being plagiarised by Aubrey whom he rejected. Beardsley however was being given work by The Studio and the Astor-owned Pall Mall Budget. His friendship with Oscar Wilde began over his illustrations for Salome, a French copy of which Wilde inscribed to the artist: "March '93, for Aubrey: for the only artist who, besides myself, knows what the dance of the seven veils is, and can see that invisible dance. Oscar."

According to Matthew Sturgis's new biography, Beardsley learned from Wilde that when the publisher John Lane commissioned him to do the English illustrated edition of Salome he should insist on being paid in guineas not pounds, the mark of a gentleman. Lane paid up the gentleman's extra five per cent and it was he who, in 1919, granted an apprenticeship to his kinsman, Allen Lane, who was later to found Penguin and revolutionise publishing for the masses, as John had revolutionised it for the aesthetic classes.

With John Lane, Beardsley and his American emigre friend and fellow consumptive, Henry Harland, created The Yellow Book, although, significantly - Beardsley being wary of Wilde's overpowering intellect - he and Harland insisted that while Oscar could be a contributor he was at all costs to be excluded from any editorial role.

Despite that exclusion, when Wilde was arrested for sodomy, he was carrying a cheap, yellow paper-bound French novel which unsophisticated reporters described as The Yellow Book, whose burgeoning notoriety thus became too much for some of the more respectable contributors and John Lane authors. These absurd prudes demanded that Lane fire not only Wilde from his list but also Beardsley as editor and contributor to The Yellow Book. Lane simply dissolved his already rickety partnership with Elkin Matthews and set up shop across the road as The Bodley Head, which thus became known to the wits of the day as the Sodley Bed and Punch opined that "uncleanliness is next to Bodliness".

Beardsley barely survived the scandals even though, while part of Wilde's cultural circle, he was not homosexual. While Easton has speculated about the possibility of incest with Mabel, and that unreliable rogue, Frank Harris, maintained that Aubrey told him "It's usually a fellow's sister who gives him his first lessons in sex. I know it was Mabel... who first taught me", on the evidence produced by Sturgis and others it seems that Aubrey was not incestuous and had a sporadic heterosexual life, almost exclusively in the demi-monde. Contrary to myth, the medical reality is that advancing and incurable TB does not enhance sexual capacity.

Despite, or because of, his relative lack of sexual experience, Beardsley was clearly obsessed by sex. Foetus motifs abound and his choice of subject-matter, once he had gone beyond the bread and butter stage of his earnings, is knowing, erotic and frequently perverse. One need only look at the magnificent drawing of Salome kissing the head of John the Baptist (see opposite) to grasp that the abnormal both fascinated and excited him. Nor is it an accident that his final publisher, Leonard Smithers, was, while a generous patron to serious artists and writers, a man who derived most of his income from high-priced pornography.

One of the many tragedies of Beardsley's early death was that he never finished his pornographic novel, Under the Hill. He completed only about 40 pages of this highly individual and sumptuously bawdy version of Venus and Tannhauser. Calloway quotes an exquisite passage, describing how Venus pleasures the Unicorn, which not only exposes Frank Harris as a crass boor in this field, but also casts a considerable shadow over John Cleland.

Despite financial ups and downs, necessitating equal ups and downs of accommodation, and despite the ravages of his illness, Beardsley continued to work nearly until the end in a small hotel in Menton on 16 March 1898. His last letter to Smithers was sent on 7 March, saying: "I implore you to destroy all copies of Lysistrata & bad drawings."

The "bad" drawings were of course his pornographic work but, happily, Smithers, like Max Brod with Kafka's manuscripts, destroyed nothing. For some artists, such as Picasso, the pornographic work is bad in another sense. With Beardsley his pornographic work is undoubtedly among his finest, not least because it lacks the solemnity that often makes such work boring. Sometimes, as with his Messalina, there is an undeniable nastiness but Messalina was an undeniably nasty woman. In the Lysistrata drawings his irrepressible satirical sense, which made his caricatures so effective, shines through.

The long periods spent studying Japanese erotic art, some of which William Rothenstein had given him, was immensely fruitful and Linda Gertner Zatlin's academic study of the influence of Japanese art in general and Japanese erotic prints in particular is an invaluable work, indispensable for serious students of Beardsley, on Victorian attitudes to and absorption of japonaiserie. The Japanese erotic prints, with their grotesquely enlarged sex organs, are the true ancestors of Beardsley's preposterously large phalluses in Lysistrata and, not surprisingly, given Beardsley's health, his work shows less actual congress than the Japanese, and is more voyeuristic. But, as Zatlin shrewdly observes, Beardsley, like the Japanese, "integrated the voyeur into the design of his drawings, although rather than gazing at a figure in the drawing, Beardsley's figure often accosts the viewer with a bold stare..."

While some of Zatlin's views are modishly concerned with gender politics - which seem to me to be a kind of wishful hindsight as applied to Beardsley - she does produce the best critical aphorism of the four books: "By drawing less, he portrayed more..."

As for Beardsley's overall sexuality in his art one is reminded of D. H. Lawrence and his condemnation of "sex in the head". Yet Lawrence, also a consumptive, probably wrote more about sex than he had it and surely Beardsley drew more of it than he had. But this is school of Freud and does not detract in any way from the genius of either.

Max Beerbohm, Beardsley's friend and almost exact contemporary, made a cod announcement of his retirement at the end of 1895. "I feel myself to be a trifle outmoded. I belong to the Beardsley period." It was, regardless of Beerbohm's joke, a great period. The Yellow Book, its successor, The Savoy, and all the individual illustrated books illuminate the fin de si cle in a way that our contemporaries do not. Peter Raby's book is a brisk canter through that period, useful for those seeking a quick introduction.

Stephen Calloway's book has the great advantage of being a well-printed art book and the labour of love of a lifelong Beardsley enthusiast and collector which, invaluably, reproduces many works, including some of Beardsley's quite ravishing book-bindings in colour. This book will presumably double as the catalogue for the exhibition currently in Tokyo which will come to the Victoria and Albert Museum on October 8 this year. Calloway's colour reproductions in particular make one speculate, inevitably with frustration, about Sturgis's account of the close friendship between Beardsley and Sickert in which Sickert offered to teach Aubrey how to paint.

Sturgis's biography has a few minor errors. Beardsley's near contemporary and fellow prodigy Carlos Schwabe becomes Schwarbe and he describes Landon Ronald, the child of a couple with whom the Beardsleys lodged, as a pianist which, while technically true, misses the point that Ronald became a well-known and successful conductor. But these are trifling blemishes in an immensely well-researched and sensitively written life of a major English artist. Just as I think Calloway has, with appropriate obeisance, moved on from Reade, so Sturgis has advanced on Stanley Weintraub and Miriam Benkowitz. His is now the full biography of Beardsley that the general reader needs and will most enjoy; it is also notably well-designed and beautifully produced.

Tom Rosenthal is chairman, Institute of Contemporary Arts.

Beardsley Japonisme: And the Perversion of the Victorian Ideal

Author - Linda Gertner Zatlin
ISBN - 0 521 58164 8
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 304

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