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Aubrey Beardsley - Man and Artist

ISSUE:  Summer 1928
Aubrey Beardsley—the Clown, the Harlequin, the Pierrot of His Age. By Haldane Macfall. New York: Simon and Schuster. $6.00.

One always associates him, somehow, with decorative things. He seems to belong among them, to be part of them. It is not easy to imagine him digging in the earth, or swimming in the sea, or climbing mountains; it is not easy to imagine him on horseback, or engaging in a game of tennis, or even skating—though in this last he might become a part of the decorative ensemble, as he would wish to be. Lie gives no impression of movement as a personality, except as he might move through drawing-rooms or flit about from place to place on the face of the earth in quest of the health which was never his. And how different Beardsley was in this from another young consumptive of genius, an American and a contemporary of his, who was also to die in a far-off, foreign place, still in his twenties—how different he was from Stephen Crane, how almost an exact antithesis, both in thought and in manner of living; yet hardly more gifted.

And the very fact that he never came very close to life is likely to hurt him a little in the verdict of posterity. For he was one of those rare artists whose sheer beauty of technique took them all the way they went. A gay butterfly, the flower was all he cared for; the earth from which it grew and got its nourishment did not concern him over-much. Not even an incurable disease could draw him back to consider the fundamentals that life rests upon; they hardly existed for him. The outward gesture was satisfying enough; what lay behind it in the way of meaning and significance he would leave for some one else to puzzle out. He refused to bother his young head about these things. For he had determined to be well-dressed and debonair even in the churchyard.

And it was certainly by some significant chance that it was in a churchyard that the author of this new life of Beardsley caught a glimpse of his subject for the first time— for, figuratively speaking, Aubrey Beardsley hovered about the bounds of the churchyard his whole brief brilliant life. It was in the summer of 1894, at Hempstead, where a bust of Keats was being unveiled in the little church there, and the literary and artistic world of the time was attending the ceremonies. Haldane Macfall was standing in the crowd afterwards—where everybody of prominence could be seen— when suddenly there emerged from the doorway a pale gaunt young man—scarcely more than a boy in fact, sickly-looking and a little over-dressed—who “broke away from the throng, and, hurrying across the graveyard, stumbled and lurched awkwardly over the green mounds of the sleeping dead. This stooping, dandified being was evidently intent on taking a short-cut out of God’s acre. There was something strangely fantastic in the ungainly efforts at a dignified wayfaring over the mound-encumbered ground by the loose-limbed figure so immaculately dressed in black cut-away coat and silk hat, who carried his lemon-yellow kid gloves in his long white hands, his lean wrists showing naked beyond his cuffs, his pale cadaverous face grimly set on avoiding falling over the embarrassing mounds that tripped his feet. He took off his hat to some lady who called to him, showing his ‘tortoise-shell’ coloured hair, smoothed down and plastered over his forehead in a ‘quiff’ almost to his eyes—then he stumbled on again. He stooped and stumbled so much and so awkwardly amongst the sleeping dead that I judged him short-sighted; but was mistaken —he was fighting for breath. It was Aubrey Beardsley.”

The fantastic, clumsy figure was barely twenty-one at the time, and had just shot into prominence on his strange, meteoric career. A little more than a twelve-month ago he had appalled William Morris by the utter mediocrity of his drawings; today, suddenly come into his own, he was being carried into the arena of world-wide fame on the shoulders of “The Yellow Book.” Two years later he was to be one of the most talked-of figures in Europe, his designs clamoured for, his presence sought in every drawing-room; and in hardly more than three years’ time he was to be lying dead at old Mentone, his work done and his swift, brilliant hand stilled for all time. The flashing, eccentric, intense, tragic career was over, and the body of England’s greatest master of black and white was laid to rest on the slope of the high hill overlooking the little Riviera town where, under the light of the famous tall candles, he had done his last work. And it is pitiful to reflect how this last work, accomplished in almost the final agony of his disease, is by such infinite measure the best he ever gave us, the fullest flower of his genius—and it is equally pitiful to imagine what he might have given us had not his hand been stayed just at the moment when it was most sure of itself. If ever a man was cut off in his prime, it was Aubrey Beardsley. Even in Keats we can notice a slight decline towards the end, but every, drawing of Beardsley’s was better than the last, his technique daily becoming finer, his mind quicker, even unto the moment when death came and snatched it all away.


He had been delicate always, this shy youngster who was to immortalize the odd name of Aubrey Beardsley, which itself has no very virile sound about it. His father had been delicate before him; gossip even rumours that the older Beardsley had been a consumptive also; at least, all the frailty in the family was to come down to the young Aubrey. And from the time he was seven, his parents—those so obscure, evasive parents of whom we know so little—were busy in constantly guarding his health—or, more truthfully, his lack of health. And consequently he was out of school a good deal and thrown upon his own resources, which is good for every artist, just as it is bad for the average man. His nature as a boy was retiring anyhow (his consummate vanity was to rid him of this in later years), and he came to get all that he knew of life, which was never over-much, from the books that came his way. He was always reading, as a matter of fact, though one cannot say what. And then, too, there was his early-developed flair for the piano, and at the age of eleven he and his beautiful sister Mabel—later to be known as a distinguished actress—appeared in concerts together as infant prodigies. But all this was the result of talents forced in a hot-house managed by his mother and the head-master of his school, just as was his brief career in the amateur theatre, during one of his “stage-struck” moods.

He was a bright, intelligent youngster, but he had never impressed anyone as being particularly gifted—at least, certainly not gifted in the matter of drawing. It was noticed, of course, that when he was not deep in a book he was usually experimenting with pencil and paper, but what he did was not very interesting—it was not, we may be sure, in the least promising. There were some illustrations to Browning’s “Pied Piper” that belong to this period, but they were stupid and unimpressive enough in all ways—the last stuff you would imagine to be the work of a boy who had the germs of a soaring genius lying latent in him. Somewhere between this time and 1888 there comes the drawing, which Mr. Macfall neglects to mention, that he made for Ibsen’s “Ghosts” (imagine a young schoolboy reading “Ghosts” with enough interest to illustrate it!); but it was not until he was sixteen or more that he did the first significant piece of his career—the line and wash drawing of “Holywell Street.” In this we have the first direction-pointer on the road that was to be the way of the strange, tragic “Pierrot of his Age.”

And it was just after this, in the August of 1888, that Aubrey Beardsley, his school-days ended forever, went to live in London, so as to go into a clerkship in an architect’s office. His day’s work was there, but like most artistic, restless natures, he hated the routine. But there were always the evenings, the long fascinating evenings, when he could give himself up to the books he loved, and half the night he would lie on the sofa, loose-limbed and angular, poring over his newly-discovered treasures, building his foundations. And all this was to lead to two things characteristic in him—the later habit of working only, at night by the light of candles, and also the tendency he had to depend entirely upon books and music for his artistic inspiration, a tendency that would have destroyed a less artificial man and accounts for much of the weakness we can find here and there in Beardsley’s mature work. For the truth is, that his life was “literary,” his voice “literary,” and most of his emotions and viewpoints had their foundations in some book or other. And that is why we find none of that invigorating contact with the soil in Beardsley, no feeling for nature (it is said that he never looked at landscapes and the sea, but stole all his impressions out of the National Gallery!), and why his work seems never to touch life, seems so airy and blithe and unnatural—yet how ineffably exquisite!

All he ever did was done as a very young man, and yet no one could call him precocious; for he laboured, and laboured hard, in spite of all his horrifying hemorrhages, for what he got. And when he went to see Burne-Jones, at nineteen, on the introduction of the faithful Frederick Evans, he had done nothing very striking. Yet Burne-Jones liked the pale gaunt young man, enjoyed his nimble wit, encouraged his artistic ambitions, and asked him to call again. And consequently for a couple of years Beardsley was doomed to be “aesthetic,” “mediaeval,” and Burne-Jonesesque. But he was to get over this as he advanced, pass into the Japanesque stage, and in turn get over that—and yet Beardsley never quite cleared himself of their eroticism which, together with his own sex-obsessions, gave us what we now, perhaps ignorantly, term the manner of Aubrey Beardsley.

It is interesting to observe, simply as a matter of paradoxical contrasts, that it was really William Morris who was responsible that Beardsley was what he was. If it had not been for a certain visit one Sunday to Morris—and a most unsuccessful visit at that—Beardsley, we may feel sure, would have gone in a very different direction in art. For up to this time (1892) he had never seen the Kelmscott illustrations, never even heard of them, in fact—but they only needed to come into his hands to have Beardsley beat them on their own grounds, make them seem elaborately foolish and futile—much to Morris’s fury and disgust. But Aubrey Beardsley was started at last, and nothing but death was to stop him. And to Morris, in this queer way, the debt is owed. Had it been otherwise—but why speculate?

Now Frederick Evans had stood by Beardsley through thick and thin and was now to give him the final boost that put him on the way, to the crest. One day J. M. Dent, the publisher, wandered into Evans’s bookshop in Queen Street, and happened to mention the fact that he needed an illustrator to do an edition he had planned of “Le Morte d’Arthur” to rival the Kelmscott productions. Evans told him of Beardsley as the very man he was searching for, and w&s showing “Hail Mary” to Dent, when the door opened and “there entered the spick-and-span shadow of a young man like one risen from the well-dressed dead—Aubrey Beardsley had happened in, according to his daily wont.” Without the faintest forethought, and by mere chance, he had casually strolled through the door that was to lead to one of the most courageous and inexplicable careers of the nineteenth century. For it was by this introduction to Dent that Beardsley set out finally on his real work and came suddenly, bewilderingly to himself, into his own.

But it was some time before Beardsley was to get wide public recognition. The “Bons Mots” came next, bagatelles that they are, but they saw the end of his curious admixture of Japanesque mediaevalisms. A phase was passing, and Beardsley was growing up. And then came “Salome,” and here his art takes on its great stature at last. Of course Beardsley did not even know as much about the times of Herod as did Oscar Wilde, and Wilde knew next to nothing. But when both author and illustrator are concerned with little more than exquisite superficialities, I suppose no great erudition is required. At least Wilde thought not, and certainly Beardsley did, or else he would never have given us the drawings of the ridiculous “Black Cape” and the “Second Toilette,” which are about as much in keeping with the first century A. D. as are his pallid knights-at-arms in keeping with the times of Arthur. But Beardsley was not really an illustrator at all, caring little or nothing for attuning himself to the book he was doing; he was first and last a decorator, and nothing more or less. On these grounds must needs you accept him or dismiss him, according to your likes and dislikes.

Before I go farther it might be well to correct an old error which Macfall, quite naturally, falls into—the error of supposing that Wilde first wrote “Salome” in French and that it was translated into English by Lord Alfred Douglas —an error which Wilde did not deny, since it was flattering to him to have people believe that he could write a play in French. But we have it on the good authority of Edgar Saltus, who was intimate with Wilde at the time, that “Salome” was done in English first and translated into French by Wilde himself, but then only when the censor interfered with its London production. Even then the help of Stuart Merrill had to be called in before the play, could he submitted to Sarah Bernhardt, as Wilde’s knowledge of French was shockingly lame. But then the crash came, and Bernhardt never did the thing. . . .

With “Salome” done there was a lull for Beardsley—and then out of a mauve sky fell the pretty thunder of “The Yellow Book.” Everyone knows the history of that illustrious, short-lived quarterly—how it carried Beardsley to the top wave of fame, held him there for awhile flashing in the sunlight, and then quite as suddenly swung him back into the dark hollow of expulsion. It was just at the time of Oscar Wilde’s downfall, and it was rumoured that Beardsley might be entangled somehow—and John Lane was afraid and cabled Beardsley from America, in a moment of supreme blindness which he regretted to the end of his days, that he did not require his services any longer. Of course the rumour was a galloping lie; Beardsley may have been exotic but he was very plainly masculine; and the lie hurt him, and killed “The Yellow Book.”

Another lull—and then “The Savoy” was created by Arthur Symons and the extraordinary and mysterious Leonard Smithers, and gave Breadsley, who was in financial straits again, a chance to do some of the best work of his career. And Smithers, that “fantastical usher to immortality,” had the gift for cheering the frail young genius out of his depression and for exacting from him all that he had to give. All the greatest drawings he had done up to this time were to appear in “The Savoy”—the singing “Mirror of Love” and the powerful and stunning “Venus Between Terminal Gods,” together with the “Fruit Bearers” and the illustrations for his own poem of “The Three Musicians” —in which is encased the dazzling essence of Beardsley’s art. In things like the “Fruit Bearers,” “The Coiffing,” “The Rape of the Lock,” and the Tailpiece to “Pierrot of the Minute,” the soul of a great master moves and has its being—the master of a magic line, of a haunting, restless beauty, of light and shade and the colour which only he could give to black and white.

And all the while he was a very sick man, and he knew it, knew that his life was but a matter of months, of a year or so at best. And he knew, too, that he must work feverishly hard and get as much as possible crowded into his “sursis indefini” And here he was just youthful and naive enough to fancy that he could write, and spent weeks of his valuable time at his affected and absurd novel “Under the Hill,” a risque tale of Venus and Tannhauser in the French manner. His writings, like his drawings, were concerned entirely with decoration, with pretty phrases and cleverness—and altogether it offers proof of nothing, except the fact that an artist’s first duty is to realize that he is likely to have fully mastered only one technique and that it is dangerous and cock-sparrow to mess about with another. Of course Blake did just that with superb success, but Blake was an intellectual man expressing various phases of his mind, while Beardsley was one of the most un-intellectual artists that ever lived, and had nothing to express but his magnificent sense of decoration, which is fatal above all things to literature.

And now he was going down hill faster every month. He spent a great part of his time in 1896 and ‘97 in running from one place to another for his lungs’ sake—from London to Boscombe, then to Paris and to Dieppe, where Whistler, with Joseph Pennell, used to walk under his windows but generally refused to go in to see him because he “couldn’t stand a dying man.” And then at last he flitted to Mentone where his flitting was to stop. It was there that he did his last great drawings — the drawings for “Lysistrata,” which, as Mr. Macfall says, are so outrageously obscene that it is impossible ever to publish them. Beardsley’s excess sexuality had simply, run away with him, and most of this final work is an orgy of repressed desires turned loose on paper. Beardsley was not entirely at fault, of course; psycho-analysts could explain all this licentious revelling in a young man about to die as the broken and denied natural instincts forcing their way out; but we shall not go into that here.

But then remorse came upon him as he lay a-dying, and he wrote to his friend and publisher, Leonard Smithers: “I implore you to destroy all copies of Lysistrata & all bad drawings . . . By all that is holy—all obscene drawings.” But this was beyond the powers of any man; what was made and printed could never be obliterated, in spite of all entreaties.

Nine days after this, Aubrey Beardsley died, having received the last sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church. He was just twenty-five years old.


He was a very great artist, just as Whistler told him that day at Dieppe when he consented to look at the portfolio, and brought tears to the weakened boy’s eyes by his words. Yes, a consummately great artist, one of the greatest of all time, and standing alone in the mastery of his particular genre; but not, one would say, a very powerful or profound personality, hardly a great soul. For he was occupied too much with artificialities to go very, deep. Yet his grotesques are truthful. It was not in his nature to go back to simple things, to strike the spark from the elemental rock; he must deal in stiff brocades and rustling satins, in gloves and fine head-dresses, to console him in his life-trouble. He never drew a desirable woman, as the old masters did; he never drew a domineering man. His figures leer from the shadows or flitter in the sunlight; they are never palpable; they are simply intense wonders of “line” and brilliance. But perhaps all this was because the poor fellow never had a very strong grasp on life from the beginning, because he lived so exclusively in his imagination, because the best things were denied to him and left only their exotic images.

I suppose we should define his case as neurasthenic today. For he was concerned over-much with any perversion of the senses, with the antics of hot-house nerves. He was no “satirist,” as Mr. Macfall so well points out, and the people who tried to excuse his art on the assumption that he was poking fun at the evils of his age, only provoked Beardsley’s anger. For he loved too much to draw the lusts of the flesh, the decadent conceits of the period, to be put in the realm of the satirists. He never lashed at evils; if he did anything, he fanned them; he thoroughly enjoyed talking about them, like a naughty school-boy. But why should anybody even think of morality in connection with so blithe a jester? The pure singing beauty of line was all he cared for, and that was far beyond the sphere of good and evil to Aubrey Beardsley.

He was what we are inclined to term “a pure artist.” He took nothing from life but hints for some exquisite drawing; as for its chaos or its meaning he never troubled himself very much. For he was not a thoughtful man; his intelligence was glittering, not penetrating. A pretty insincerity would never weigh on his conscience. Society meant to him nothing but drawing-rooms full of clever people who hated the middle-classes, as he did; people who were known and made brilliant remarks. As for pity, the greatest pity he ever showed was in a drawing he did of Pierrot leaving the garden after a night of false amours, downcast and reflective. Of life’s joy or its tragedy he seemed to have no sense; yet he experienced enough of them himself in his brief time. But perhaps the just conclusion is that he was afraid of life because he was so constantly afraid of death, which ever hounded his footsteps, luring him into the shadows that he hated with so passionate a hatred.

It is thirty years now since Aubrey, Beardsley died at Mentone. And to-day, when his fame is secure and his name probably immortal in the history of art, it is good and it is necessary that we should have this excellent authoritative biography of him from the hands of one who knew him and lived in his time, and that it should be a beautiful and exquisite piece of writing and book-designing, such as he would have liked to see. For, while admitting that England has produced greater artists than Aubrey Beardsley, we must admit also that there has been no other man who could so put all of a character into a line, or give the whole impression of breathing, excited flesh in a single stroke of the pen. He remains the complete symbol of his age—an age of transition, spiritual uncertainty, decadence and exoticism. Of all its superficialities, its foibles, its extravagances, and its strivings, he stands to-day as delicate historian.


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