In 1895, the 23-year-old Max Beerbohm, looking back over his fledgling career, remarked with cod solemnity, ‘I belong to the Beardsley period.’ It had been a very brief period indeed, though an exciting one, a couple of years in the mid-1890s when it seemed as though many of the conventions and certainties of Victorian life might be swept away by a tide of daring and experiment in poetry, drama, literature and art. It is generally agreed that this new spirit of daring and experiment was embodied most vividly in the distinctive pen-and-ink drawings of the young Aubrey Beardsley – art editor and cover artist for the newly established Yellow Book and illustrator of the English edition of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. Nothing was so shocking as his boldly massed images of fashionably dressed, elongated women disporting themselves in the modern metropolis – their lips full, their eyelids heavy, their motives dubious.
But almost as soon as the moment came into focus, there arrived in the spring of 1895 the cataclysm of the Oscar Wilde scandal: his trials, his conviction on charges of gross indecency with various young men and his imprisonment. These were events that provoked a furious reaction from the Establishment. Every aspect of artistic and cultural experimentation was lumped together and condemned as part of the degenerate ‘Oscar Wilde tendency’. Beardsley found himself dismissed from his post at the Yellow Book, without an income and without an audience. Few publishers or galleries would touch him. The Beardsley period was over. Beardsley himself did not survive much longer: racked by tuberculosis from childhood, he died in 1898, aged just twenty-five. His working life had spanned barely six years.
The few obituaries that appeared, while praising his ‘line’, lamented his choice of subject matter and suggested that he would soon be forgotten. For quite a long while he was. A major retrospective at the V&A in the 1960s revived interest in him and since then his status has grown with each decade. This monumental two-volume catalogue raisonné is a notable coping stone on the edifice of his reputation.
It reveals that he is worthy of his enduring fame. During his brief lifetime Beardsley produced an extraordinary amount – there are over 1,100 drawings here. They have been brilliantly marshalled and laid out in a prodigious labour of dedicated scholarship by Linda Zatlin. Beardsley habitually worked in pen and ink, though the catalogue also brings together a few pencil drawings, some watercolours and even his two oil paintings (both done on the same canvas, front and back; they can be seen at Tate Britain). Zatlin has tracked down several never-before-published works, including a stylised portrait of Chopin and some charming sketches done when Beardsley was a clerk in a City office.
More startling than the sheer number of drawings, though, is the sense of their variety and development. Beardsley’s oeuvre has the pattern and trajectory of a fully evolved artistic career: there is the shaky juvenilia and the first hints of early promise, the partially absorbed influences (mainly the Pre-Raphaelitism of Burne-Jones and the Japonisme of Whistler) resolving themselves into a personal synthesis, the development from the bold simplicity of his Yellow Book drawings to the extravagant complexity of his Rape of the Lock illustrations, and from the classic austerity of his Lysistrata pictures to the Baroque richness of his late Volpone designs.
Beardsley had little formal training. He attended a few night classes at the Westminster School of Art. He learned by working – principally on two large commissions that he received in 1892 from the innovative publisher J M Dent, one for an illustrated edition of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur, the other for a series of ‘grotesques’ to adorn three volumes of bons mots by the wits of the 18th century. He worked on both in tandem over the course of some eighteen months. There were lots of drawings to be done: more than three hundred illuminated letters, chapter headings, tail pieces, borders and full-page illustrations for Le Morte, and around one hundred and thirty images for the Bon-Mots. He got heartily sick of the work, but the sheer volume of it and the speed at which he had to produce improved his penmanship to the point of mastery, stimulated his powers of invention and turned him from an amateur into a professional.
Beardsley delighted in symbolism and hidden allusions. He often used to smuggle subversive details into his pictures, to vex either the public or his publishers. John Lane, who published many of Beardsley’s finest works at the Bodley Head, complained that he had to look at the works upside down to check them for hidden improprieties. Even so, Beardsley managed to introduce into his Salome illustrations a portrait of Wilde as the moon and some phallic candelabra. Such japes have made Beardsley’s drawings a rich ground for interpretative exposition and Zatlin draws together many contemporary and more recent commentaries, some more fanciful than others. The ‘baton’ held by the Maîtresse d’Orchestre receives multiple intriguing interpretations.
Almost all Beardsley’s art was produced for publication, whether in books, in periodicals or as posters. Part of his genius was his understanding of what would work well in reproduction – particularly in the new photomechanical process, which was excellent at replicating firm, clear lines and large areas of black. Most of Beardsley’s drawings were originally reproduced at a slightly reduced scale, giving the image an additional tightness and intensity on the page. For this catalogue, though, the publishers have varied their reproductions from smaller to same size to (in the case of some of the Bon-Mots grotesques) slightly larger scale, not always to the drawings’ advantage.
More unfortunately, they have chosen a harsh, shiny, bright white art paper that resembles neither the cream wove paper Beardsley habitually drew on nor the paper stocks used in the 1890s by the publishers who originally reproduced his work. A catalogue raisonné is not, of course, an ‘art book’ per se so much as a scholarly record (and the scholarship here is exemplary), but it is disappointing that, having gone to the trouble and expense of producing a handsome two-volume slip-cased work, the publishers didn’t make the actual pictures look rather more handsome or redolent of their time.
The fact that Beardsley drew for publication was also the reason why his talent – and his style – became recognised so quickly and so widely. The Yellow Book was published simultaneously in London and Boston, as well as being distributed throughout Europe, and certainly Beardsley’s contemporary reputation was not just national but international. His influence, too, was extensive: it can be traced in the rapid evolution of continental Art Nouveau and the Austrian Secession, in the American poster designs of William Bradley, and in the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh and the Macdonald sisters. Among Beardsley’s earliest admirers was Serge Diaghilev. They met in Dieppe shortly before Beardsley’s death and – mulling over the many richly dramatic images in this catalogue raisonné – it is tempting to imagine what might have emerged from a collaboration between the Russian impresario and the English draughtsman. The Beardsley period might have lent a new note to the era of the Ballets Russes.