The Art of Aubrey Beardsley, by Aubrey Beardsley


IT was in the summer of 1895 that I first met Aubrey Beardsley. A publisher had asked me to form and edit a new kind of magazine, which was to appeal to the public equally in its letterpress and its illustrations: need I say that I am defining the “Savoy”? It was, I admit, to have been something of a rival to the “Yellow Book,” which had by that time ceased to mark a movement, and had come to be little more than a publisher’s magazine. I forget exactly when the expulsion of Beardsley from the “Yellow Book” had occurred; it had been sufficiently recent, at all events, to make Beardsley singularly ready to fall in with my project when I went to him and asked him to devote himself to illustrating my quarterly. He was supposed, just then, to be dying; and as I entered the room, and saw him lying out on a couch, horribly white, I wondered if I had come too late. He was full of ideas, full of enthusiasm, and I think it was then that he suggested the name “Savoy,” finally adopted after endless changes and uncertainties.

A little later we met again at Dieppe, where for a month I saw him daily. It was at Dieppe that the “Savoy” was really planned, and it was in the cafe which Mr. Sickert has so often painted that I wrote the slightly pettish and defiant “Editorial Note,” which made so many enemies for the first number. Dieppe just then was a meeting-place for the younger generation; some of us spent the whole summer there, lazily but profitably; others came and went. Beardsley at that time imagined himself to be unable to draw anywhere but in London. He made one or two faint attempts, and even prepared a canvas for a picture which was never painted, in the hospitable studio in which M. Jacques Blanche painted the admirable portrait reproduced in the frontispiece. But he found many subjects, some of which he afterwards worked out, in the expressive opportunities of the Casino and the beach. He never walked; I never saw him look at the sea; but at night he was almost always to be seen watching the gamblers at petits chevaux, studying them with a sort of hypnotised attention for that picture of “The Little Horses,” which was never done. He liked the large, deserted rooms, at hours when no one was there; the sense of frivolous things caught at a moment of suspended life, en deshabille. He would glance occasionally, but with more impatience, at the dances, especially the children’s dances, in the concert room; but he rarely missed a concert, and would glide in every afternoon, and sit on the high benches at the side, always carrying his large, gilt-leather portfolio with the magnificent, old, red-lined folio paper, which he would often open, to write some lines in pencil. He was at work then, with an almost pathetic tenacity, at his story, never to be finished, the story which never could have been finished, “Under the Hill” a new version, a parody (like Laforgue’s parodies, but how unlike them, or anything!) of the story of Venus and Tannhauser. Most of it was done at these concerts, and in the little, close writing-room, where visitors sat writing letters. The fragment published in the first two numbers of the “Savoy” had passed through many stages before it found its way there, and would have passed through more if it had ever been carried further. Tannhauser, not quite willingly, had put on Abbe’s disguise, and there were other unwilling dis guises in those brilliant, disconnected, fantastic pages, in which every sentence was meditated over, written for its own sake, and left to find its way in its own paragraph. It could never have been finished, for it had never really been begun; but what undoubted, singular, literary ability there is in it, all the same!

I think Beardsley would rather have been a great writer than a great artist; and I remember, on one occasion, when he had to fill up a form of admission to some library to which I was introducing him, his insistence on describing himself as “man of letters.” At one time he was going to write an essay on “Les Liaisons Dangereuses,” at another he had planned a book on Rousseau. But his plans for writing changed even more quickly than his plans for doing drawings, and with less profitable results in the meantime. He has left no prose except that fragment of a story; and in verse only the three pieces published in the “Savoy.” Here, too, he was terribly anxious to excel; and his patience over a medium so unfamiliar, and hence so difficult, to him as verse, was infinite. We spent two whole days on the grassy ramparts of the old castle at Arques-la-Bataille, near Dieppe; I working at something or other in one part, he working at “The Three Musicians” in another. The eight stanzas of that amusing piece of verse are really, in their own way, a tour de force; by sheer power of will, by deliberately saying to himself, “I will write a poem,” and by working with such strenuous application that at last a certain result, the kind of result he had willed, did really come about, he succeeded in doing what he had certainly no natural aptitude for doing. How far was that more genuine aspect of his genius also an “infinite capacity for taking pains?”

The republication by Mr. Lane, the publisher of the “Yellow Book,” of Beardsley’s contributions in prose and verse to the “Savoy,” its “rival,” as Mr. Lane correctly calls it, with the illustrations which there accompanied them, reopens a little, busy chapter in contemporary history. It is the history of yesterday, and it seems already at this distance of half a century. Then, what brave petulant outbursts of poets and artists, what comic rivalries and reluctances of publishers, what droll conflicts of art and morality, what thunders of the trumpets of the press! The press is silent now, or admiring; the publishers have changed places, and all rivalries are handsomely buried, with laudatory inscriptions on their tombstones. The situation has its irony, which would have appealed most to the actor most conspicuously absent from the scene.

Beardsley was very anxious to be a writer, and, though in his verse there was no merit except that of a thing done to order, to one’s own order, and done without a flaw in the process, there was, in his prose, a much finer quality, and his fragment of an unachieved and unplanned romance has a savour of its own. It is the work, not of a craftsman, but of an amateur, and in this it may be compared with the prose of Whistler, so great an artist in his own art and so brilliant an amateur in the art of literature. Beardsley too was something of a wit, and in his prose one sees hard intellect, untinged with sentiment, employed on the work of fancy. He wrote and he saw, unimaginatively, and without passion, but with a fierce sensitive precision; and he saw by preference things elaborately perverse, full of fantastic detail, unlikely and possible things, brought together from the four corners of the universe. All those descriptions in “Under the Hill” are the equivalent of his drawings, and they are of especial interest in showing how definitely he saw things, and with what calm minuteness he could translate what seemed a feverish drawing into oddly rational words. Listen, for instance, to this garden-picture: “In the middle was a huge bronze fountain with three basins. From the first rose a many-breasted dragon and four little loves mounted upon swans, and each love was furnished with a bow and arrow. Two of them that faced the monster seemed to recoil in fear, two that were behind made bold enough to aim their shafts at him. From the verge of the second sprang a circle of slim golden columns that supported silver doves with tails and wings spread out. The third, held by a group of grotesquely attenuated satyrs, is centred with a thin pipe hung with masks and roses and capped with children’s heads.” The picture was never drawn, but does it want more than the drawing?

The prose of “Under the Hill” does not arrive at being really good prose, but it has felicities that astonish, those felicities by which the amateur astonishes the craftsman. The imaginary dedication is the best, the most sustained, piece of writing in it, but there is wit everywhere, subtly intermingled with fancy, and there are touches of color such as this: “Huge moths, so richly winged that they must have banqueted upon tapestries and royal stuffs, slept on the pillars that flanked either side of the gateway, and the eyes of all the moths remained open and were burning and bursting with a mesh of veins.” Here and there is a thought or a mental sensation like that of “the irritation of loveliness that can never be entirely comprehended, or ever enjoyed to the utmost.” There are many affectations, some copied from Oscar Wilde, others personal enough, such as the use of French words instead of English ones: “chevelure” for hair, and “pantoufles” for slippers. I do not think that Beardsley finally found a place for the word which he had adapted from the French, “papillions,” instead of “papillons” or butterflies; it would have come amusingly, and it was one of his pet words. But his whole conception of writing was that of a game with words; some obsolete game with a quaint name, like that other favorite word of his, “spellicans,” for which he did find a place in the story.

Taken literally, this fragment is hardly more than a piece of nonsense, and was hardly meant to be more than that. Yet, beyond the curiosity and ingenuity of the writing, how much there is of real skill in the evocation of a certain impossible but quite credible atmosphere! Its icy artificiality is indeed one of its qualities, and produces, by mere negation, an emotional effect. 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 ardors 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.

It was on the balcony of the Hotel Henri IV, at Arques, one of those September evenings, that I had the only quite serious, almost solemn, conversation I ever had with Beardsley. Not long before we had gone together to visit Alexandre Dumas fils at Puy, and it was from talking of that thoughtful, but entirely, Parisian writer, and his touching, in its unreal way so real, “Dame aux Camelias” (the novel, not the play), which Beardsley admired so much, that we passed into an unexpectedly intimate mood of speculation. Those stars up yonder, whether they were really the imprisoning worlds of other creatures like ourselves; the strange ways by which the soul might have come and must; certainly go; death, and the future: it was such things that I found him speaking, for once without mockery. And he told me then a singular dream or vision which he had had when a child, waking up at night in the moon-light and seeing a great crucifix, with a bleeding Christ, falling off the wall, where certainly there was not, and had never been, any crucifix. It is only by remembering that one conversation, that vision, the tone of awe with which he told lit, that I can, with a great effort, imagine to myself the Beardsley whom I knew with his so positive intelligence, his imaginative sight of the very spirit of man as a thing of definite outline, transformed finally into the Beardsley who died in the peace of the last sacraments of the Church, holding the rosary be tween his fingers.

And yet, if you read carefully the book of letters to an unnamed friend, which has been published six years after his death, it will be seen that here too, as always, we are in the presence of a real thing. In these naked letters we see a man die. And the man dies inch by inch, like one who slips inch by inch over a precipice, and knows that the grasses at which his fingers tear, clutching their feeble roots, are but delaying him for so many instants, and that he must soon fall. We see a fine, clear-sighted intellect set on one problem: how to get well; then, how to get a little better; and then, how not to get worse. He records the weather of each day, and each symptom of his disease; with a desperate calmness, which but rarely deserts or betrays him. To-day he feels better and can read Laclos; tomorrow he is not so well, and he must hear no music, He has pious books and pious friends for the days when he is driven back upon himself, and must turn aside his attention from suffering which brings despair. Nothing exists any longer, outside himself; and there may he safety somewhere, in a “preservative girdle” or in a friend’s prayer. He asks for both. Both are to keep him alive. He meets at Mentone someone who seems worse than himself, and who yet “lives on and does things. My spirits have gone up immensely since I have known him.” A change of sky, the recurrence of a symptom: “today, alas, there is a downpour and I am miserably depressed.” He reads S. Alphonsus Liguori, and it is “mere physical exhaustion more than hardness of heart that leaves me so apathetic and uninterested.” He clings to religion as to his friend, thinking that it may help him to keep himself in life. He trains himself to be gentle, to hope little, to attack the sources of health stealthily. A “wonderful stretch of good health,” a few whole days of it, makes him “tremble at moments.” “Don’t think me foolish to haggle about a few months,” he writes, when he is ‘hoping, all the time, that “the end is less near than it seems.” He is received into the Church, makes his first confession, makes his first communion. It seems to him that each is a new clutch upon the roots of the grasses.

The whole book is a study in fear, and by its side everything else that has been done, imaginatively or directly, on that fierce passion, seems mere oratory or a talking beside the question. Here Beardsley is, as ‘he is in his drawings, close, absorbed, limited, and unflinching. That he should be so honest with his fear; that he should sit down before its face and study it feature by feature; that he should never turn aside his eyes for more than an instant, make no attempt to escape, but sit at home with it, travel with it, see it in his mirror, taste it with the sacrament: that is the marvellous thing, and the sign of his fundamental sincerity in life and art.

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31