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Grolier Club Exhibitions

Wilde Times

Aubrey Beardsley. J’ai baisé ta bouche Iokanaan, in Joseph Pennell, “A New Illustrator: Aubrey Beardsley,” The Studio: An Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Art, Volume I, Number 1, April 1893.

“Good-bye, poor genius!” wrote “W. L.” [William Lawler] mournfully in The London Year Book of 1898, responding to Beardsley’s death. There he also noted that “To Mr. Joseph Pennell is due a great part of the credit of introducing Beardsley to the world.” A transplant from Philadelphia and disciple of J. M. Whistler, Pennell (1857–1926) was famed for prints and drawings in a style very different from the young Beardsley’s. Nevertheless, he brought immediate, positive attention in 1893 to the unknown artist through his enthusiastic commentary in The Studio, a new magazine of the visual arts. Among the works reproduced in Pennell’s article was Beardsley’s drawing of Salome levitating after kissing the object of her desire, the severed head of John the Baptist. It was inspired by Beardsley’s reading of Oscar Wilde’s play, and its publication led to Beardsley receiving the commission to illustrate Salome for the Bodley Head.

Napoleon Sarony. Oscar Wilde. Photograph, albumen cabinet card, [1882].

Oscar Wilde and Beardsley had a complicated, contentious relationship. Perhaps they had too much in common: genius and a firm belief in their own powers; ready wit and verbal panache; a taste for dressing up; the wish to create beautiful rooms and collect rare objects; love of Paris and most things French; hatred of Philistinism and the British middle classes, etc. Wilde, however, was active and reckless in pursuing young men for sex, while Beardsley seemed never to settle upon a sexual orientation, let alone sleep with anyone. Because they collaborated on the Bodley Head’s edition of Salome (1894)—a project that found them sometimes at loggerheads— they were fused in the public imagination as decadents. When Wilde’s life careened into catastrophe in 1895 with his prosecution for “gross indecency,” Beardsley unjustly paid the price, temporarily becoming persona non grata in publishing circles and losing work.

Oscar Wilde. Salome: A Tragedy in One Act, Translated from the French of Oscar Wilde, Pictured by Aubrey Beardsley. London: Elkin Mathews and John Lane, 1894.

Inscribed by Aubrey Beardsley to Brandon Thomas.

So frustrating did Beardsley find the experience of collaborating with Oscar Wilde that he swore he would never repeat it and later resolved to exclude Wilde from The Yellow Book, after he became its art editor. But Beardsley got his own back, creating drawings for the English-language publication of Salome that had little to do with the action of the drama. Several were of naked, androgynous bodies; some images also incorporated caricatures of its author. Of the latter, the most obvious and wittily insulting was The Woman in the Moon, used as the book’s frontispiece, with Wilde’s face made round and lunar. This copy was presented by Beardsley to the actor Brandon Thomas (1848–1914), famed for writing the cross-dressing comedy, Charley’s Aunt (1892), with whom Beardsley, who had theatrical ambitions himself, hoped to write a play.

Aubrey Beardsley. Oscar Wilde at Work. [London: Stuart Mason, June 1914]. Photomechanical engraving on Japan vellum.

Robert, a.k.a. “Robbie,” Ross (1869­–1918)—Oscar Wilde’s lover and later literary executor, and a close friend of Beardsley’s—linked the two great dandies and decadents. Of course, dandies and decadents were not supposed to be hard workers, but Beardsley was among history’s most industrious artists, producing what was calculated as over a thousand finished drawings from 1892 until shortly before his death in 1898. This caricature, which mocks Wilde’s working methods, belonged to Ross. Beardsley imagines Wilde writing Salome in French by relying on dictionaries and textbooks, while consulting his family Bible for Salome’s story. The presence, moreover, of Swinburne’s poems suggests that Beardsley found Wilde’s style derivative, if not imitative. Linda Zatlin’s Beardsley catalogue raisonné notes that the French quotation changes a line from Wilde’s play, where one character tells another not to look at her (Salome), so that the command is not to look at him (Wilde).

Aubrey Beardsley. The Toilet of Salome, in A Portfolio of Aubrey Beardsley’s Drawings Illustrating “Salome” by Oscar Wilde. [London: John Lane, 1906].

Eleven years after peremptorily firing Beardsley from a post he held for only four issues, as art editor of The Yellow Book, John Lane continued finding ways to profit from works such as the Salome drawings by issuing them as a portfolio. The irony was a double one, as in Spring 1895 Lane had also withdrawn all of Wilde’s works from sale to distance his Bodley Head firm from the disgrace that attended Wilde’s prosecution for “gross indecency.” By 1906, however, with Beardsley having died in 1898 and Wilde in 1900, interest in both figures was on the rise, and Salome was ripe for resurrection. Separate publication of Beardsley’s images worked well, as they were never illustrations per se. The Toilet of Salome, for instance, depicted a scene that did not exist in the play—one filled with naked androgynes and a standing fetus wrapped in a hanky, along with hands clutching at genitals, grasping phallic poles, and daintily wielding powder puffs.