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Grolier Club Exhibitions

Finding a Style

Charles Lamb and Douglas Jerrold. Bon-Mots of Charles Lamb and Douglas Jerrold, Selected by Walter Jerrold, with Grotesques by Aubrey Beardsley. London: J. M. Dent, 1893.

Although Beardsley would soon be associated mainly with the Bodley Head firm, he continued to work for J. M. Dent on projects such as the Bon-Mots volumes, supplying not illustrations per se for the witty sayings of others, but images unrelated to the text. Some were merely decorative; many were savagely funny; a few, like this one, were haunting and disturbing, showing an imagination without limits, untroubled by propriety. In Le Morte Darthur, Beardsley had introduced suggestive nudes of vaguely classical origin. There was no precedent, however, for this aggressively gender-bending figure, with its phallic shape and pregnant belly giving birth in two directions at once, that taunted the audience and stuck out its tongue in defiance, or for the miniature top hat that it sported.

Samuel Foote and Theodore Hook. Bon-Mots of Samuel Foote and Theodore Hook, Selected by Walter Jerrold, with Grotesques by Aubrey Beardsley. London: J. M. Dent, 1894.

It was meant as a joke when, in the essay “Diminuendo” from The Works of Max Beerbohm (1896), the twenty-four-year-old Beerbohm bemoaned his outmodedness by announcing wearily, “I belong to the Beardsley period.” Ironically, many subsequent commentators have indeed viewed the 1890s as defined by Beardsley’s art. Max Beerbohm (1872–1956) and Beardsley were exact contemporaries with much in common. They were brilliant artists and visual wits who also wished to be famous for their writing, though Beerbohm had gone to Oxford, while Beardsley went straight from grammar school to clerking in an office. Beerbohm, too, was the more dedicated dandy, known for his impeccable dress. In this caricature for a Bon-Mots volume, Beardsley drew Beerbohm, whom he first met in 1894, in evening clothes, but with a head that resembled both a fetus—a recurring presence in Beardsley’s work—and a grotesquely large penis with a face.   

Aubrey Beardsley. Design for Title-page of Frances Burney, Evelina. Ink on paper, [1892].

Restraint, sobriety, and attention to period style were not qualities usually associated with Beardsley, but they were in his repertoire. Although he reveled in the unfettered exercise of imagination, he could be an excellent mimic when writing prose and an accurate copyist when drawing. His design for the title-page of a new edition of Evelina (1778) by Frances (“Fanny”) Burney (1752–1840), which included illustrations by a Victorian contemporary, W. Cubitt Cooke (1866–1951), showed careful study of how eighteenth-century volumes looked. Yet Beardsley still inserted touches in line with his own preoccupations, such as the bare-breasted figures flanking each side of the columns near the top, along with a central animal head that seemed less a trophy than a mounted skull. Sex and death were never far from his thoughts or from the work of his pen.

Aubrey Beardsley. Bookplate of John Lumsden Propert. Photomechanical engraving, 1893.

Contemporaries who saw Beardsley as a leader of the emerging decadent movement defined decadence as a subversion of or transgression against convention through strangeness, morbidity, and ugliness. Beardsley’s decadence offended, but it also puzzled. Why would a pallid, ghostly Pierrot sue for the favor of a malevolent, black-clad woman with a face like an angry cat? The artist offered no explanation of the drama enacted in this bookplate, designed for John Lumsden Propert (1834–1902), and there was no reason to think that such a design would have suited a physician who was also an expert on miniatures. In an 1897 letter to a Birmingham bookseller, Propert himself called the bookplate “peculiar”; yet Beardsley obviously thought well enough of it to reproduce it in the April 1894 number of The Yellow Book.