A Truth in Art: Aubrey Beardsley at Tate Britain

Salome by Aubrey Beardsley (c) Tate Britain

A truth in art, said Oscar Wilde, is one whose opposite is also true. Aubrey Beardsley’s same friend also said, one should either be a work of art or wear a work of art. That is Dandyism for you. These men would sometimes spend hours tying a cravat. Whichever way you look at Beardsley there are contradictions. It is comic while being tragic. Lightweight while being ponderous. Intense while being relaxed. Dismissive while being possessive. Comic while being tragic. Knowing while being unknowing. Gilbert and Sullivan were Beardsley’s exact contemporaries. See my recent Seen and Heard piece on G&S topsy-turveydom (click here).

When Beardsley rang the doorbell of Burne-Jones’s house, he was not expecting anyone to answer. And for a while, no one did. The 18-year-old would-be artist was with his sister Mabel and a small portfolio of his drawings. As they were walking away, the door suddenly opened and the august Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones called after them, inquiring what they wanted. Unfazed, Aubrey explained his mission. When the maestro saw the first drawings there was a stunned silence. Burne-Jones then declared the boy a genius. His career was launched.

Six years later he would be dead from tuberculosis, self-exiled a year earlier on the French Riviera.

Tuberculosis had already claimed the life of John Keats almost a century earlier, and Keats himself had been a trainee surgeon. Beardsley’s sister Mabel was a year older than her brother and sometimes dressed as a man; it is possible that Beardsley was the father of the stillborn child she gave birth to a year after the visit to Burne-Jones. There is a huge portrait of Mabel toward the end of the Tate exhibition, looking rather imperious, almost noble and distinctly the other – in all that word’s rich senses. The artist has captured these qualities in a way no photo ever could.

Burne-Jones comes across as a kindly, affable soul in his various portraits. He was a devout, Anglican undergraduate in theology at Exeter College, Oxford, which boasts one of his many stained glass windows in its chapel. This window made a permanent impression on the young Beardsley. The foetus positioning of the Madonna would be a fundamental inspiration for his later work, blacked out with ink, combined with lessons learned from Japanese woodcuts, and thus ingeniously drawing the viewer into his drawing. The woodcuts too had their striking, simple line, black against white. But for all the similarities there is something which is only and uniquely Beardsley in these drawings. And transgression is the name of that game. Punch magazine would try to parody him. But you cannot parody something which is already a parody.

Scandal & Beauty: Mark Gattis on Aubrey Beardsley is a BBC documentary (59 minutes) available on BBC iPlayer for seven months. This is for the most part well-researched and well-presented. I like Gattis’s opening remark of the drawings being shockingly beautiful and beautifully shocking. That is the cocktail Aubrey most likes to serve.

The world’s leading Beardsley scholar and curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s 1966 exhibition, Stephen Calloway, makes some pertinent observations, and to add to his very considerable charm looks as though he lives in a barn. It is he who has loaned to the Tate the originals of the Salomé designs. Among many other important originals. It was the V&A exhibition that introduced the wider British public to these masterpieces.

Ellen, mother Beardsley, was solidly middle class and always thought she had made a marriage to Vincent Beardsley, below her station. It was not long before Vincent moved away from the family. Ellen scraped enough money together to send Aubrey as a border to Brighton Grammar School. The boy excelled at music and English literature as well as French, and became hugely popular with caricatures he would draw of masters and colleagues. He enjoyed performing in school plays and illustrated the programmes of these. For all this, his main focus was writing. Both writing and drama proved an admirable vehicle for his fast-developing wit.

For reasons not entirely clear, Ellen moved herself, Mabel, and Aubrey to London, 1888, where she found Aubrey a post as a junior clerk in an insurance firm – the only breadwinner of the family. He had distinguished himself academically as well as artistically at Brighton Grammar School. He would pass most lunch hours browsing at Jones and Evans bookshop on Queen Street, where he befriended the owner, Frederick Evans. Evenings were spent with what they would be spent for the rest of his life: exploring the possibilities in his ever expanding sketch book. As well as reading (mostly French) novels.

In 1891, on the advice of Burne-Jones, he enrolled at the Westminster School of Art to study with the impressionist, Fred Brown, who however, merely encouraged him to explore the path which he had already made his own. Nothing much Fred could teach the lad. He had already embarked on his own path and should be encouraged to explore it.

In February 1892, he formed a friendship with Robert Ross, art critic and early lover of Wilde, who would become an avid collector of Beardsley drawings. A chance meeting at the Evans bookshop. Three months later he travelled to Paris where the artist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes declared him a prodigy.

Mark Gattis tells us of an extraordinary episode in the autumn of ’92. In the Jones and Evans bookshop, the owner, Frederick was chatting with the publisher of J M Dent who is looking for someone to make illustrations for the medievalist – Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur (the original spelling of Le Morte d’Arthur) in three volumes in Dent’s Bon-Mot series. There’s your chap, says Frederick, pointing out Aubrey. One audition and one sampler later, and Beardsley is able to give up his day job in the insurance firm and work day and night in his preferred way of work: intensely and intently. By night – his most productive time – two ormolu candlesticks would ceremoniously be set up on his desk, with a pile of blank papers, pen and ink, in front of him.

Beardsley’s detailed knowledge of medieval matters came from the British Library, at that time, housed in the British Museum, which itself was far from shorn of exhibits relevant to the period. Transliterating this historic artistry into his own insights was exactly the challenge this young artist enjoyed. An enjoyment which is only too visible throughout the exhibition. He recognised that it required restraint: perhaps not his most immediate attribute. But here is where we discover that he is a superb disciplinarian. Any hint of naughtiness or porn is very gently hinted at, rather than stated, like his four-prong signature. Who could dare suggest that restraint could not also be witty? Much like the best satire, it is an appreciation of what is being satirised. What the Mort Darthur most reveals is the breath-taking nobility of its subjects: petrified, yes, but also with the feeling they could step out of their frames. These military persons belong to history, but equally they belong to today. It is simply that other interpretations have not invited us to see them in this way.

The death of St John the Baptist was reputedly brought about through a dancing girl coyly refusing to perform before the supposedly, lasciviously-orientated King Herod. Oscar Wilde brought his poetic mind to bear on this rumour. He also gave the dancer the name of Salomé (a Wilde invention: not mentioned in the gospels). It was Richard Strauss who with the translator, Hedwig Lachmann, brought Wilde’s stage poem to universal attention in Salome in an operatic milestone in Dresden in December 1905. Neither Beardsley nor Wilde knew about this opera. [The Wilde estate mercifully continued to rake in royalties from the opera’s earliest performances.]

In February 1894, the publication of Wilde’s Salomé in England and in English, created the furore and scandal that writer and illustrator had hoped for. Much read and much discussed. The Tate Britain exhibition has the original of the climax of the stage poem where Salomé kisses the bleeding head of the Baptist. Of course, this is pretty tame stuff compared with the real life, beautiful, naked, Anja Silja kissing the Baptist’s bleeding head in Berlin, in 1963, in a production by Wieland Wagner (grandson of Richard, the composer).

Wagner was Beardsley’s preferred composer. And especially the Ring cycle. Siegfried and Tristan are his preferred characters. Especially Siegfried. Beardsley often casts himself in this role. I remain unconvinced. Perhaps that is because all the many Siegfrieds I have seen had a much more robust, healthier constitution, and were not dying of tuberculosis. And there is no evidence of Erda, the earth goddess, whom I would have expected to hold fascination for Beardsley.

But in some respects, Beardsley’s most successful period was also his most troubled. And not always on account of his ill health. Alice Tankard (Chester University) is careful to point out that there is no written evidence to support with any certainty Aubrey’s sexual orientation. There are indications that this changed with his frequently changing intuitions. And that much fits with what we know of the man. If I am not grotesque, I am nothing he said. In the BBC film another truism was mentioned: If you see a Beardsley you  never forget it. 

Flaunting themselves on display was at the core of Dandyism. The speaker here is Aubrey Beardsley, not Andy Warhol: Advertisement is an absolute necessity of modern life.

Another outstanding wordsmith, Charles Dickens, in David Copperfield, puts these words into the mouth of the roguish Wilkins Micawber, said to have been based on Dickens’s father, who was frequently in need of rescue from debtors’ prison: Procrastination being the thief of time, you therefore collar him. Most of us would agree. In turn, that prompts a very Beardsley thought: is there any such thing as fiction?

 Aubrey Beardsley is at Tate Britain (click here) until 20 September with timed tickets only. £16. Members and guests go free but are still required to book tickets. Call – 0207 887 8888

Scandal & Beauty: Mark Gattis on Aubrey Beardsley is a BBC documentary (59 minutes) available on BBC iPlayer for seven months.

Jack Buckley

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