Aubrey Beardsley. Poster for the Avenue Theatre. [London: Avenue Theatre, 1894]. Color lithograph.
The Victorian theatrical world was dominated by actor-managers who ran theatres. Most of them were men. One exception was the writer, producer, and performer Florence Farr, a “New Woman” who worked with numerous playwrights, including George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950). She employed Beardsley to design a poster to advertise a double bill she was directing on 29 March 1894 at the Avenue Theatre: A Comedy of Sighs by John Todhunter (1839–1916) and The Land of Heart’s Desire by William Butler Yeats (1865–1939), both Irish authors. Under the influence of French poster art and Japanese prints, Beardsley created an image that scandalized passersby in London. Its central figure was clearly no lady—uncorseted, with loose hair, and with her clothes slipping off her shoulders. It was also arrestingly modern, almost abstract, with striking use not of Beardsley’s characteristic black-and-white, but color.
Frederick Hollyer. William Butler Yeats. Photograph, platinotype, .
This photograph of W. B. Yeats by Frederick Hollyer (1838–1933) emphasized his beauty and artistic dress—the Aesthete’s uniform of floppy tie and velvet jacket—making him the very picture of a Poet (capital “P”). Hollyer’s 1893 portrait of Beardsley showed a more capricious, harder-to-read figure, staring enigmatically at the viewer with enormous eyes beneath unfashionably bowl-cut, center-parted bangs. Although Yeats and Beardsley interacted frequently, as Yeats contributed to both The Yellow Book and The Savoy, which Beardsley designed and for which he selected the artworks to be reproduced, they were never close. In the years after Beardsley’s death in 1898, however, Yeats became intimately acquainted with Beardsley’s sister Mabel through their mutual work in the theatre. As she succumbed to cancer in 1916, he wrote “Upon a Dying Lady,” immortalizing Mabel’s “lovely piteous head” and “dull red hair.”
Aubrey Beardsley. Poster for Children’s Books. London: T. Fisher Unwin, . Color lithograph.
Was there ever a less appropriate way to advertise publications meant for young readers? Viewers might have expected images of children listening rapt to a story, or an interpretation of the gamboling sprites from the “Brownies” series by the artist Palmer Cox (1840–1924) that featured in the accompanying list of works for sale by T. (Thomas) Fisher Unwin (1848–1935). What Beardsley offered instead in this poster was a blowsy, double-chinned woman posed against the violent magenta background of a chair—a chair that, at the top, resembled two buttocks—while sprouting from her hair was a feather curled and lumpy like a misshapen embryo. The woman was not, moreover, even engaged in reading the book in her hand, but staring off into space with half-closed eyes, as though about to fall asleep. That Beardsley received one further commission from the same publisher in 1896 seems remarkable.
Aubrey Beardsley. Poster for Pseudonym and Autonym Libraries. London: T. Fisher Unwin, . Color lithograph.
(Thomas) Fisher Unwin competed with John Lane for fiction by authors who rebelled against convention. Among the titles advertised in Beardsley’s poster for the two series known as the Pseudonym and Autonym Libraries was the bestselling Some Emotions and a Moral (1891) by “John Oliver Hobbes” (Pearl Richards Craigie, 1867–1906), later a Yellow Book contributor. The poster itself was an arresting one, from the awkwardly positioned arm of its central figure, whose body seemed simultaneously to point forwards and backwards, to the inexplicable presence of a tree bound and restrained in a red frame. Beardsley’s controversial images of women in advertising may have inspired “The Poster Girl,” a poem by the American humorist Carolyn Wells (1862–1942), which includes the lines, “Perhaps I am absurd — perhaps/ I don't appeal to you;/ But my artistic worth depends/ Upon the point of view.”