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Grolier Club Exhibitions

The Savoy and Smithers

Leonard Smithers. Catalogue of Rare Books Offered for Sale by Leonard Smithers, No. 3–September 1895. London: Leonard Smithers, 1895.

Beardsley’s delight in the idea of pansexuality was literal: he delighted in drawing a sexual Pan. Which book sold by Leonard Smithers was this grinning Greek nature god so improbably reading aloud, in a sylvan setting, to a Victorian woman? There were many choices: perhaps one of the respectable antiquarian volumes listed in this catalogue; a work of poetry or prose, written by a member of the contemporary decadent movement and published by Smithers; or an example of the pornography in which Smithers had been doing a clandestine trade for years. The same daring spirit that led him to traffic in the forbidden also encouraged him to recruit the poet Arthur Symons (1865–1945) as editor of a new magazine, The Savoy, and to put Beardsley in charge of its art contents, while also employing him to produce book designs and illustrations for other publications.

Aubrey Beardsley. The Savoy: An Illustrated Quarterly, Prospectus, Number I. Dec 1st 1895. Pencil, brush, and ink on paper, [1895].

Design for the “Pierrot” version of the prospectus for The Savoy.

Pierrot figures—whether jolly, mournful, or sinister—were recurring features of Beardsley’s art. In a drawing titled The Death of Pierrot for the October 1896 issue of The Savoy, Pierrot served as a grim stand-in for Beardsley himself, whose worsening health made him contemplate mortality. Throughout the planning of The Savoy, however, which launched in January 1896, Beardsley was in an optimistic mood, as he, Arthur Symons (its editor), and Leonard Smithers (its publisher) plotted the creation of a magazine of literature and art to rival and outshine The Yellow Book. His Pierrot for the prospectus was thus a merry fellow, clutching a huge pen and, in a hall-of-mirrors effect, the very brochure that he ornamented. Legend has it that Smithers found the image too frivolous. For a clown, therefore, Beardsley substituted John Bull, personification of the English public, but snuck in a minute bulge in this character’s trousers.

Aubrey Beardsley. Proof for the Cover of The Savoy: An Illustrated Quarterly, January 1896. [London: Leonard Smithers, 1895]. Photomechanical engraving.

After Beardsley’s devastating experience of being fired by John Lane and thrown to the lions of British prudery during the Wilde Trials of 1895, The Savoy was more than a fresh start; it was a means to taunt and mock the Bodley Head firm, while competing with its flagship magazine. Still, there were limits to how openly Beardsley could show his disgust at what The Yellow Book was without him. Although he remained, so to speak, pissed off, no periodical with ambitions to be sold in W. H. Smith’s railway stalls could ever display Beardsley’s initial design for the cover of its first number, with a half-dressed putto aiming a stream of urine onto a copy of The Yellow Book. With that visual element removed, however, the rest of The Savoy’s cover was left intact, including the ambiguous presence of a whip in the woman’s hand, hinting at sadomasochistic possibilities.

"Under the Hill."

The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser.

Aubrey Beardsley. “Under the Hill,” in The Savoy: An Illustrated Quarterly. No. 1, January 1896. London: Leonard Smithers, 1896.


Aubrey Beardsley. The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser… A Romantic Novel; Now First Printed from the Original Manuscript. London: For Private Circulation, 1907.

From earliest youth, Beardsley yearned to be a writer. In 1894, when tackling the Venus and Tannhäuser legend that inspired Richard Wagner’s opera, he planned a long narrative blending myth, religion, fantasy, wit, and satire with lots of sex. Two years later, he started publishing the results in installments in The Savoy, accompanied by illustrations in a new style based on the visual abundance of Rococo art, using techniques such as cross-hatching that he previously avoided. At his death, the novel remained unfinished. When, however, Leonard Smithers issued a privately printed version in 1907, it was clear how heavily expurgated what appeared in The Savoy had been. Fetishism, group sex, oral sex, even child rape—all were there, served up with a sly smile. My Little Pony fans be warned: on display is the description of Venus bringing her unicorn to orgasm, then enjoying his semen as her breakfast treat.

Aubrey Beardsley. Autograph letter to Ada Leverson, [17 February 1896].

Ada Leverson and Beardsley took mutual pleasure in their friendship, exercising their gifts for wit whenever they were together and in exchanges of letters. In February 1896, Beardsley was deeply engaged in his new project, overseeing the art contents for Leonard Smithers’s The Savoy, while working alongside its editor, the poet Arthur Symons. He thought well of the intellectual powers of Symons, who was the first important British critic to theorize about and defend decadence as a serious artistic movement. This did not stop Beardsley, when writing to Leverson, from referring to him as “Simple Symons” (playing on the “Simple Simon” nursery rhyme). In the same letter, Beardsley referred to an “unpleasant experience with a Planchette,” meaning a Ouija Board used in séances. But most eye-catching was his gender-bending joke about how this encounter with the occult had left him “quite a wreck” and thus “no longer the same woman.”

Aubrey Beardsley. Catullus Carmen CI. Autograph manuscript, [1896].

In his “Editorial Note” for The Savoy of November 1896, Arthur Symons ruefully announced that “with the next number” the magazine would “come to an end”—a short lifespan for a publishing venture that only had begun in January of that year. Fittingly, the same issue contained Beardsley’s drawing Ave Atque Vale, depicting a half-undressed classical figure with furrowed brow and raised arm, bidding someone out of sight good-bye. On the opposite page was printed Beardsley’s own translation from Latin of Catullus’s “Carmen CI,” which concluded with the words, “And, brother, for all time, hail and farewell!” Displayed here is that translation in Beardsley’s hand. Less than two years later, of course, the world would be forced to say its final, bitter, and much-too-early farewell to Beardsley himself, when he succumbed to tuberculosis in Menton, France.

Ernest Dowson. Verses. London: Leonard Smithers, 1896.

Large paper copy, inscribed by Ernest Dowson to Leonard Smithers.

Legend has it that, when asked to explain his front cover design for Verses by Ernest Dowson (1867–1900), which resembled a large letter “Y,” Beardsley replied that he wondered why the book had been published. The answer was that Dowson’s poetry appealed to Leonard Smithers, who began his career by trafficking in pornography and retained an interest—personal, as well as financial—in perverse sexualities, even after becoming known as “Publisher to the Decadents.” A number of Dowson’s lyrics celebrated child-love and grew out of his actual obsession with an eleven-year-old girl. Although Beardsley delighted in offending, he wisely went with a cover image that was abstract, not representing a man pursuing an underage beauty. Similar “Y” shapes can be found throughout Beardsley’s work, suggesting that he may have wished to make them a kind of signature, much as Whistler had done with the outline of a butterfly.

Inscribed by Aubrey Beardsley to Alfred Gurney.

Bijou edition.

Alexander Pope. The Rape of the Lock: An Heroi-comical Poem in Five Cantos, Written by Alexander Pope, Embroidered with Eleven Drawings by Aubrey Beardsley. London: Leonard Smithers, 1896.

Inscribed by Aubrey Beardsley to Alfred Gurney.


Alexander Pope. The Rape of the Lock: An Heroi-comical Poem in Five Cantos, Written by Alexander Pope, Embroidered with Eleven Drawings by Aubrey Beardsley. London: Leonard Smithers, 1897.

Bijou edition.

His reputation was built on flat planes, stark black-and-white contrasts, and spareness associated with Japanese aesthetics, but Beardsley had command of many styles. He was equally attracted to overabundant decoration, especially in eighteenth-century engravings. Leonard Smithers produced The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope (1688–1744) in different formats—one a cheaper, smaller “Bijou” edition—with Beardsley’s images. Beardsley did not precisely illustrate the text; instead, he made it a point of departure. Describing his method, he employed the word “embroidered,” which both indicated his practice of adding what was not there originally and positioned his art in solidarity with the feminine sphere of material handicrafts. His image of Belinda with her hand reaching suggestively under the covers was an example of something definitely not present in Pope’s poem. The larger copy here was given by Beardsley to Alfred Gurney (1843–1898), the Beardsley family’s beloved priest.    

Aubrey Beardsley. Autumn. Ink on paper, [1896].

However unlikely the subject, Beardsley always found ways to introduce epicene pseudo-classical nudes and objects practically exploding with erotic potential—in this case, decorative naked bodies ending in goatish loins and hooves, along with clusters of grapes meeting the lips of a woman in a sensual kiss and flowers standing at erect attention. Linda Zatlin’s Beardsley catalogue raisonné identifies Autumn as intended for a calendar to be issued by William Heinemann (1863–1920). His firm was sometimes in competition with the Bodley Head for signing up new authors, especially those whose work embraced international influences. Evidently, the project was discarded when the publisher, who was aiming for a wide market, saw this overtly risqué image. Given Beardsley’s long record by 1896 of pushing the sexual envelope, viewers today can only wonder why Heinemann was surprised.


Aristophanes. The Lysistrata of Aristophanes: Now First Wholly Translated into English and Illustrated with Eight Full-page Drawings by Aubrey Beardsley. London: [Leonard Smithers], 1896.

With autograph letter from Aubrey Beardsley to Leonard Smithers, 19 December 1895.

He had scant interest in politics or matters of war and peace, but Beardsley found Lysistrata by the classical Greek playwright Aristophanes irresistible for other reasons. This comedy about wives on a sex strike to force their husbands to end the Peloponnesian War offered him boundless opportunities to do what he loved most: draw genitalia, including engorged penises larger than the bodies of the men to whom they belonged. While doing so, he demonstrated that in his hands (so to speak) sexual organs could have as much individual character as faces. Lysistrata was also a feminist play, about women’s power, and Beardsley’s frontispiece showed a formidable woman whose fingers—as in Beardsley’s earlier Cinderella (1894)—were used to suggest her labia majora. This copy of Lysistrata is accompanied by a note from Beardsley to its publisher, Leonard Smithers.

Aubrey Beardsley. The Artist’s Bookplate, in A Book of Fifty Drawings, with an Iconography by Aymer Vallance. London: Leonard Smithers, 1897.

Inscribed by Aubrey Beardsley to Gabrielle Réjane.

Bookplates, along with posters, became newly important art forms in the late-Victorian period. In 1891, the founding of the Ex Libris Society helped to make bookplates not merely collectible, but respectable. As always, Beardsley dedicated himself to upending, so to speak, all notions of respectability. Only he would have designed something that placed books in the background and buttocks in the foreground, right in the viewer’s face, or depicted a naked woman reaching not for clothes, but for a bound volume. He used this image to create a bookplate for Herbert Charles Pollitt (1871–1942), a.k.a. Jerome Pollitt, who was famed for cross-dressed stage performances at Cambridge University and for a brief romantic liaison with the notorious practitioner of Dark Magic, the writer Aleister Crowley (1875–1947). Beardsley inscribed this copy of A Book of Fifty Drawings to the French actress, Gabrielle Réju (1856–1920), known as “Réjane.”

Aubrey Beardsley. The Lady with the Monkey, in Six Drawings Illustrating Théophile Gautier’s Romance Mademoiselle de Maupin. London: Leonard Smithers, 1898.

Among American writers, Edgar Allan Poe was the one with the most profound influence on Beardsley. No single French author had equal impact; Beardsley was a devotee of French literature in general. He enjoyed an excellent command of the language and always read works in the original French. His last year of life was spent in France, where one of his final projects was to illustrate Mademoiselle de Maupin by Théophile Gautier (1811–1872). The novel held obvious appeal with plot elements of cross-dressing and same-sex desire, which always ignited his imagination, as did the opportunity to depict taboo body parts. Curiously, this illustration for Leonard Smithers’s posthumously released edition showed not only a bare-breasted woman, but an elaborately attired monkey with long, flat feet much like those in E. T. Reed’s 5 February 1895 Punch caricature of Beardsley. Was this little figure with its wizened face a comic self-portrait?

Inscribed by Robert Ross to Max Beerbohm.

Special issue bound in vellum.

Ben Jonson. Ben Jonson, His Volpone: or, The Foxe: A New Edition, with… a Frontispiece, Five Initial Letters and a Cover Design, Illustrative and Decorative, by Aubrey Beardsley, Together with an Eulogy of the Artist by Robert Ross. London: Leonard Smithers and Co., 1898.

Inscribed by Robert Ross to Max Beerbohm.


Ben Jonson. Ben Jonson, His Volpone: or, The Foxe: A New Edition, with… a Frontispiece, Five Initial Letters and a Cover Design, Illustrative and Decorative, by Aubrey Beardsley, Together with an Eulogy of the Artist by Robert Ross. London: Leonard Smithers and Co., 1898.

Special issue bound in vellum. Inscribed by Leonard Smithers to his wife, Alice Smithers.

Oddly, Beardsley never illustrated Shakespeare’s plays—A Midsummer Night’s Dream would have seemed an obvious choice, given Beardsley’s Puckish temperament—but did suggest to Leonard Smithers an edition of Volpone (1606) by Ben Jonson (1572­–1637). Embarking on it, Beardsley explored a new style that substituted shading and greater realism for his earlier spare, Japanese-influenced aesthetic. As his health deteriorated, however, he was forced to abandon the project after completing a front cover design, a drawing of Volpone worshiping his treasures, and several extraordinary decorative initial letters. Volpone was published posthumously—this copy, one of a hundred on vellum, was presented by Leonard Smithers to his wife, Alice Edith Oldham (1861­–1915)—and included a “eulogy” by Robbie Ross. This was actually a full-scale critical essay that followed one about Ben Jonson by Vincent O’Sullivan (1868–1940). Also displayed here is the Volpone that Ross inscribed to Max Beerbohm.

Aubrey Beardsley. Juvenal Scourging Woman, in An Issue of Five Drawings Illustrative of Juvenal and Lucian. London: [Leonard Smithers], 1906.

Shortly before dying in Menton, France, in 1898, Beardsley famously wrote to Smithers, begging him by “all that was holy” to “destroy” every one of his “obscene drawings,” and Smithers famously lied in return, saying he had complied. On the contrary, for several years afterwards the publisher ran a lucrative business operation capitalizing on Beardsley’s death. Among the items released posthumously were images meant to illustrate works of classical literature. A verbal and visual satirist himself, Beardsley had long appreciated Juvenal’s take-no-prisoners comic mode. Here, though, Beardsley depicted his forerunner as a literal prisoner-taker, holding captive a powerful-looking woman who is unimpressed by the exertions of this penis-baring Juvenal, as he flagellates her with a thin whip, rather than with words alone.

The Savoy and Smithers