Aubrey Beardsley. Isolde, in Arthur Symons, Aubrey Beardsley. London: At the Sign of the Unicorn, 1898.
William Rothenstein’s copy.
John Wallace. Isolde. Pencil, ink, and watercolor on paper, [ca. 1896]. (right)
The legend of Tristan and Isolde’s ill-fated passion had Celtic origins, but Beardsley was more interested in the German opera by Richard Wagner (1813–1883). Characters whose desires compelled them to break their society’s rules held great appeal for him, as did anything ending in an orgasmic musical climax. For The Studio magazine in 1895, Beardsley depicted Isolde about to drink the love potion that set the events in motion. That image was reproduced in Arthur Symons’s posthumous volume in tribute to Beardsley, and the copy on display belonged to fellow artist, William Rothenstein. Tribute of a very different sort, however, had been paid earlier in the form of visual lampoon by John Wallace (1841-1903), a.k.a. “George Pipeshanks,” best known for his advertising work for the Cope Brothers’ tobacco company. His version of Beardsley’s Isolde had her smoking, while a dog licked German sausages suspended from her wrist.
Max Beerbohm. Mr. Aubrey Beardsley, in Caricatures of Twenty-Five Gentlemen, with an Introduction by L. Raven-Hill. London: Leonard Smithers, 1896.
Siegfried Sassoon’s copy.
In an 1894 Bon-Mots volume, Beardsley caricatured Max Beerbohm, though without identifying him as the subject of a grotesquely comic drawing. Beerbohm returned the favor in both the April 1896 number of The Savoy and in this book, which was accompanied by an Introduction by Leonard Raven-Hill (1867–1942), a fellow artist. (The copy shown here belonged to the great First World War soldier-poet, Siegfried Sassoon [1886–1967].) Poking fun at Beardsley meant emphasizing his youth, as well as his preoccupation with things French, by portraying him as an overgrown child with a pull-toy—a poodle doll on a string. The row of puffy objects along Beardsley’s name, which resembled flowers or trees, may have been Beerbohm’s naughty allusion to Beardsley’s design for the October 1894 cover of The Yellow Book, with a prostitute doing her make up and using just such a powder puff on a stick.
William Rothenstein. Aubrey Beardsley. Lithograph, 1897.
Proof, inscribed by William Rothenstein to Aubrey Beardsley.
William Rothenstein—who, like Beardsley, was enthralled by contemporary French art and by Japanese prints, erotic and otherwise—was close friends with Max Beerbohm and introduced the two comic artist-writers to one another in 1894. It was not, however, the laughing, but the serious side of Beardsley that Rothenstein captured in 1897, when his subject was increasingly debilitated by tuberculosis and already looking death in the face. This pensive portrait later appeared in Rothenstein’s Liber Juniorium portfolio (1899). Although Rothenstein began life as a Jewish outsider to English society, he was knighted in 1931. Beerbohm was knighted, too, in 1939. It is interesting to speculate whether, had he lived longer, the world would have seen the creation of Sir Aubrey Beardsley.
Abel. Aubrey Beardsley. Photograph, silver gelatin cabinet card, [November 1897].
Inscribed by Aubrey Beardsley to Herbert Pollitt.
In his final years, Beardsley came within the orbit of Marc-André Raffalovich (1864–1934)— French-born author of Uranisme et unisexualité (1896), a study of same-sex love—who lived in London and became the partner of the poet John Gray (1866–1934), allegedly the inspiration for Oscar Wilde’s fictional “Dorian Gray.” Both Gray and the Jewish Raffalovich converted to Roman Catholicism in the mid-1890s. Beardsley felt moved to do the same, influenced not only by their example, but by his sister, Mabel. It was a spiritually driven decision, not a response to Raffalovich acting as his chief financial support when he grew too ill to undertake artistic commissions. A little-known photographer, M. Abel, made this image of Beardsley seated near a prominently placed crucifix in his hotel room in Menton, France, where he went for his health and was nursed by his mother. Beardsley sent it to his friend, Herbert Pollitt.
A Solemn Mass of Requiem for the Repose of the Soul of Aubrey Beardsley Will Take Place at the Church of the Immaculate Conception, Farm Street, Berkeley Square, on May 12th, at 10.30. [London, 1898].
With his mother and sister at his bedside, Beardsley died of tuberculosis on 16 March 1898 in Menton. Following a Catholic funeral, he was buried there. Two months later, a requiem mass was held in London—one way in which friends and admirers dealt with their shock and grief. At age fourteen Beardsley had, as his biographer Matthew Sturgis records, inscribed a book “to A. V. Beardsley from his loving self.” By the time of his too-early death, many other people dearly loved him and his art. That art gave his life purpose; he struggled to create even in his final days. In her 1921 manuscript notes (on view in this exhibition), his mother reported discovering, after his death, the pen he favored “sticking into the floor” where “he must have thrown it away [on] finding he could not draw” any longer. Erect and defiant, it was Beardsley’s last stand.