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Title: The Art of Aubrey Beardsley
Author: Beardsley, Aubrey
Language: English
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Introduction by ARTHUR SYMONS




[Illustration: Aubrey Beardsley]



Aubrey Beardsley by Arthur Symons


    1. Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley.
    2. The Litany of Mary Magdalen.
    3. A Portrait of Aubrey Beardsley. By Himself.
    4. Incipit Vita Nova.
    5. Sandro Botticelli.
    6. "Siegfried." From "The Studio."
    7. Merlin. From "Le Morte d'Arthur."
    8. Vignette. From "Le Morte d'Arthur"
    9. La Beale Isoud at Joyous Gard. From "Le Morte d'Arthur."
    10. How Queen Guenever Made Her a Nun. From "Le Morte d'Arthur."
    11. "Of a Neophyte and How the Black Art Was Revealed Unto Him."
    12. The Kiss of Judas.
    13. A Suggested Reform in Ballet Costume.
    14. Baron Verdigris.
    15. The Woman in the Moon.
    16. The Peacock Skirt.
    17. The Black Cape.
    18. The Platonic Lament.
    19. Enter Herodias.
    20. The Eyes of Herod.
    21. The Stomach Dance.
    22. The Toilette of Salomé.
    23. The Dancer's Reward.
    24. The Climax.
    25. The Toilette of Salomé. First Drawing.
    26. John and Salomé.
    27. Salomé on Settle.
    28. Design for Tailpiece.
    29. Design for "Salomé." From "The Studio."
    30. Design for the Cover of "The Yellow Book" Prospectus.
    31. Night Piece.
    32. Portrait of Mrs. Patrick Campbell.
    33. Title Page Ornament for "The Yellow Book."
    34. Comedy Ballet of Marionettes, I. From "The Yellow Book." Vol. II.
    35. Comedy Ballet of Marionettes, II. From "The Yellow Book." Vol. II.
    36. Comedy Ballet of Marionettes, III.
    37. Garçons de Café. From "The Yellow Book." Vol. II.
    38. The Slippers of Cinderella.
    39. Portrait of Mantegna. From "The Yellow Book." Vol. III.
    40. The Wagnerites. From "The Yellow Book." Vol. III.
    41. La Dame Aux Camélias. From "The Yellow Book." Vol. III.
    42. Madame Réjane.
    43. Portrait of Balzac.
    44. Design for Frontispiece to "An Evil Motherhood."
    45. Design for Front Cover of "Pierrot."
    46. Design for End Paper of "Pierrot."
    47. Design for End Paper of "Pierrot."
    48. Lysistrata.
    49. An Athenian Woman.
    50. Myrrhina.
    51. The Dream.
    52. The Baron's Prayer.
    53. The Rape of the Lock.
    54. Design for the Prospectus of "The Savoy."
    55. Another Design for the Prospectus of "The Savoy."
    56. Cover Design. From "The Savoy" No. 1.
    57. Contents Page. From "The Savoy" No. 1.
    58. The Abbé. From "Under the Hill."
    59. The Fourth Tableau of "Das Rheingold."
    60. Erda. To illustrate "Das Rheingold."
    61. Flosshilde. To illustrate "Das Rheingold."
    62. The Death of Pierrot.
    63. Ave Atque Vale: Catullus, Carmen, Cl.
    64. Aubrey Beardsley's Book-Plate.






It was in the summer of 1895 that I first met Aubrey Beardsley. A
publisher had asked me to form and edit a new kind of magazine,
which was to appeal to the public equally in its letterpress and its
illustrations: need I say that I am defining the "Savoy"? It was,
I admit, to have been something of a rival to the "Yellow Book,"
which had by that time ceased to mark a movement, and had come to be
little more than a publisher's magazine. I forget exactly when the
expulsion of Beardsley from the "Yellow Book" had occurred; it had
been sufficiently recent, at all events, to make Beardsley singularly
ready to fall in with my project when I went to him and asked him to
devote himself to illustrating my quarterly. He was supposed, just
then, to be dying; and as I entered the room, and saw him lying out
on a couch, horribly white, I wondered if I had come too late. He was
full of ideas, full of enthusiasm, and I think it was then that he
suggested the name "Savoy," finally adopted after endless changes and

A little later we met again at Dieppe, where for a month I saw him
daily. It was at Dieppe that the "Savoy" was really planned, and it
was in the cafe which Mr. Sickert has so often painted that I wrote
the slightly pettish and defiant "Editorial Note," which made so many
enemies for the first number. Dieppe just then was a meeting-place for
the younger generation; some of us spent the whole summer there, lazily
but profitably; others came and went. Beardsley at that time imagined
himself to be unable to draw anywhere but in London. He made one or
two faint attempts, and even prepared a canvas for a picture which was
never painted, in the hospitable studio in which M. Jacques Blanche
painted the admirable portrait reproduced in the frontispiece. But he
found many subjects, some of which he afterwards worked out, in the
expressive opportunities of the Casino and the beach, lie never walked;
I never saw him look at the sea; but at night he was almost always to
be seen watching the gamblers at _petits chevaux_, studying them with a
sort of hypnotised attention for that picture of "_The Little Horses_,"
which was never done. He liked the large, deserted rooms, at hours when
no one was there; the sense of frivolous things caught at a moment of
suspended life, _en deshabillé_. He would glance occasionally, but
with more impatience, at the dances, especially the children's dances,
in the concert room; but he rarely missed a concert, and would glide
in every afternoon, and sit on the high benches at the side, always
carrying his large, gilt-leather portfolio with the magnificent, old,
red-lined folio paper, which he would often open, to write some lines
in pencil. He was at work then, with an almost pathetic tenacity, at
his story, never to be finished, the story which never could have been
finished, "_Under the Hill_," a new version, a parody (like Laforgue's
parodies, but how unlike them, or anything!) of the story of Venus
and Tannhäuser. Most of it was done at these concerts, and in the
little, close writing-room, where visitors sat writing letters. The
fragment published in the first two numbers of the "_Savoy_" had passed
through many stages before it found its way there, and would have
passed through more if it had ever been carried further. Tannhäuser,
not quite willingly, had put on Abbé's disguise, and there were other
unwilling disguises in those brilliant, disconnected, fantastic pages,
in which every sentence was meditated over, written for its own sake,
and left to find its way in its own paragraph. It could never have
been finished, for it had never really been begun; but what undoubted,
singular, literary ability there is in it, all the same!

I think Beardsley would rather have been a great writer than a great
artist; and I remember, on one occasion, when he had to fill up a
form of admission to some library to which I was introducing him, his
insistence on describing himself as "man of letters." At one time
he was going to write an essay on "_Les Liaisons Dangereuses_," at
another he had planned a book on Rousseau. But his plans for writing
changed even more quickly than his plans for doing drawings, and with
less profitable results in the meantime. He has left no prose except
that fragment of a story; and in verse only the three pieces published
in the "_Savoy_." Here, too, he was terribly anxious to excel; and his
patience over a medium so unfamiliar, and hence so difficult, to him
as verse, was infinite. We spent two whole days on the grassy ramparts
of the old castle at Arques-la-Bataille, near Dieppe; I working at
something or other in one part, he working at "_The Three Musicians_"
in another. The eight stanzas of that amusing piece of verse are
really, in their own way, a _tour de force_; by sheer power of will, by
deliberately saying to himself, "I will write a poem," and by working
with such strenuous application that at last a certain result, the kind
of result he had willed, did really come about, he succeeded in doing
what he had certainly no natural aptitude for doing. How far was that
more genuine aspect of his genius also an "infinite capacity for taking

The republication by Mr. Lane, the publisher of the "_Yellow Book_,"
of Beardsley's contributions in prose and verse to the "_Savoy_," its
"rival," as Mr. Lane correctly calls it, with the illustrations which
there accompanied them, reopens a little, busy chapter in contemporary
history. It is the history of yesterday, and it seems already at this
distance of half a century. Then, what brave petulant outbursts of
poets and artists, what comic rivalries and reluctances of publishers,
what droll conflicts of art and morality, what thunders of the trumpets
of the press! The press is silent now, or admiring; the publishers have
changed places, and all rivalries are handsomely buried, with laudatory
inscriptions on their tombstones. The situation has its irony, which
would have appealed most to the actor most conspicuously absent from
the scene.

Beardsley was very anxious to be a writer, and, though in his verse
there was no merit except that of a thing done to order, to one's
own order, and done without a flaw in the process, there was, in his
prose, a much finer quality, and his fragment of an unachieved and
unplanned romance has a savour of its own. It is the work, not of a
craftsman, but of an amateur, and in this it may be compared with the
prose of Whistler, so great an artist in his own art and so brilliant
an amateur in the art of literature. Beardsley too was something of a
wit, and in his prose one sees hard intellect, untinged with sentiment,
employed on the work of fancy. He wrote and he saw, unimaginatively,
and without passion, but with a fierce sensitive precision; and he saw
by preference things elaborately perverse, full of fantastic detail,
unlikely and possible things, brought together from the four corners
of the universe. All those descriptions in "_Under the Hill_" are
the equivalent of his drawings, and they are of especial interest in
showing how definitely he saw things, and with what calm minuteness
he could translate what seemed a feverish drawing into oddly rational
words. Listen, for instance, to this garden-picture: "In the middle
was a huge bronze fountain with three basins. From the first rose a
many-breasted dragon and four little loves mounted upon swans, and
each love was furnished with a bow and arrow. Two of them that faced
the monster seemed to recoil in fear, two that were behind made bold
enough to aim their shafts at him. From the verge of the second sprang
a circle of slim golden columns that supported silver doves with
tails and wings spread out. The third, held by a group of grotesquely
attenuated satyrs, is centred with a thin pipe hung with masks and
roses and capped with children's heads." The picture was never drawn,
but does it want more than the drawing?

The prose of "_Under the Hill_" does not arrive at being really good
prose, but it has felicities that astonish, those felicities by which
the amateur astonishes the craftsman. The imaginary dedication is the
best, the most sustained, piece of writing in it, but there is wit
everywhere, subtly intermingled with fancy, and there are touches of
color such as this: "Huge moths, so richly winged that they must have
banqueted upon tapestries and royal stuffs, slept on the pillars that
flanked either side of the gateway, and the eyes of all the moths
remained open and were burning and bursting with a mesh of veins."
Here and there is a thought or a mental sensation like that of "the
irritation of loveliness that can never be entirely comprehended, or
ever enjoyed to the utmost." There are many affectations, some copied
from Oscar Wilde, others personal enough, such as the use of French
words instead of English ones: "chevelure" for hair, and "pantoufles"
for slippers. I do not think that Beardsley finally found a place for
the word which he had adapted from the French, "papillions," instead of
"papillons" or butterflies; it would have come amusingly, and it was
one of his pet words. But his whole conception of writing was that of a
game with words; some obsolete game with a quaint name, like that other
favorite word of his, "spellicans," for which he did find a place in
the story.

Taken literally, this fragment is hardly more than a piece of nonsense,
and was hardly meant to be more than that. Yet, beyond the curiosity
and ingenuity of the writing, how much there is of real skill in the
evocation of a certain impossible but quite credible atmosphere! Its
icy artificiality is indeed one of its qualities, and produces, by
mere negation, an emotional effect. Beardsley did not believe in his
own enchantments, was never haunted by his own terrors, and, in his
queer sympathy and familiarity with evil, had none of the ardors of a
lost soul. In the place of Faust he would have kept the devil at his
due distance by a polite incredulity, openly expressed, as to the very
existence of his interlocutor.

It was on the balcony of the Hotel Henri IV, at Arques, one of those
September evenings, that I had the only quite serious, almost solemn,
conversation I ever had with Beardsley. Not long before we had gone
together to visit Alexandre Dumas fils at Puy, and it was from
talking of that thoughtful, but entirely, Parisian writer, and his
touching, in its unreal way so real, "Dame aux Camélias" (the novel,
not the play), which Beardsley admired so much, that we passed into
an unexpectedly intimate mood of speculation. Those stars up yonder,
whether they were really the imprisoning worlds of other creatures like
ourselves; the strange ways by which the soul might have come and must
certainly go; death, and the future: it was such things that I found
him speaking, for once without mockery. And he told me then a singular
dream or vision which he had had when a child, waking up at night in
the moonlight and seeing a great crucifix, with a bleeding Christ,
falling off the wall, where certainly there was not, and had never
been, any crucifix. It is only by remembering that one conversation,
that vision, the tone of awe with which he told it, that I can, with a
great effort, imagine to myself the Beardsley whom I knew with his so
positive intelligence, his imaginative sight of the very spirit of man
as a thing of definite outline, transformed finally into the Beardsley
who died in the peace of the last sacraments of the Church, holding the
rosary between his fingers.

And yet, if you read carefully the book of letters to an unnamed
friend, which has been published six years after his death, it will
be seen that here too, as always, we are in the presence of a real
thing. In these naked letters we see a man die. And the man dies inch
by inch, like one who slips inch by inch over a precipice, and knows
that the grasses at which his fingers tear, clutching their feeble
roots, are but delaying him for so many instants, and that he must
soon fall. We see a fine, clear-sighted intellect set on one problem:
how to get well: then, how to get a little better; and then, how not
to get worse. He records the weather of each day, and each symptom of
his disease; with a desperate calmness, which but rarely deserts or
betrays him. To-day he feels better and can read Laclos; to-morrow he
is not so well, and he must hear no music. He has pious books and pious
friends for the days when he is driven back upon himself, and must turn
aside his attention from suffering which brings despair. Nothing exists
any longer, outside himself; and there may be safety somewhere, in a
"preservative girdle" or in a friend's prayer. He asks for both. Both
are to keep him alive. He meets at Mentone someone who seems worse than
himself, and who yet "lives on and does things. My spirits have gone
up immensely since I have known him." A change of sky, the recurrence
of a symptom: "to-day, alas, there is a downpour and I am miserably
depressed." He reads S. Alphonsus Liguori, and it is "mere physical
exhaustion more than hardness of heart that leaves me so apathetic
and uninterested." He clings to religion as to his friend, thinking
that it may help him to keep himself in life. He trains himself to be
gentle, to hope little, to attack the sources of health stealthily. A
"wonderful stretch of good health," a few whole days of it, makes him
"tremble at moments." "Don't think me foolish to haggle about a few
months," he writes, when he is hoping, all the time, that "the end is
less near than it seems." He is received into the Church, makes his
first confession, makes his first communion. It seems to him that each
is a new clutch upon the roots of the grasses.

The whole book is a study in fear, and by its side everything else that
has been done, imaginatively or directly, on that fierce passion, seems
mere oratory or a talking beside the question. Here Beardsley is, as
he is in his drawings, close, absorbed, limited, and unflinching. That
he should be so honest with his fear; that he should sit down before
its face and study it feature by feature; that he should never turn
aside his eyes for more than an instant, make no attempt to escape, but
sit at home with it, travel with it, see it in his mirror, taste it
with the sacrament: that is the marvellous thing, and the sign of his
fundamental sincerity in life and art.


_Anima naturaliter pagana_, Aubrey Beardsley ended a long career,
at the age of twenty-six, in the arms of the Church. No artist of
our time, none certainly whose work has been in black and white, has
reached a more universal, or a more contested fame; none has formed
himself, out of such alien elements, a more personal originality of
manner; none has had so wide an influence on contemporary art. He
had the fatal speed of those who are to die young; that disquieting
completeness and extent of knowledge, that absorption of a lifetime
in an hour, which we find in those who hasten to have done their
work before noon, knowing that they will not see the evening. He had
played the piano in drawing-rooms as an infant prodigy, before, I
suppose, he had ever drawn a line: famous at twenty as a draughtsman,
he found time, in those incredibly busy years which remained to him,
to deliberately train himself into a writer of prose which was, in
its way, as original as his draughtsmanship, and into a writer of
verse which had at least ingenious and original moments. He seemed
to have read everything, and had his preferences as adroitly in
order, as wittily in evidence, as almost any man of letters; indeed,
he seemed to know more, and was a sounder critic, of books than of
pictures; with perhaps a deeper feeling for music than for either. His
conversation had a peculiar kind of brilliance different in order but
scarcely inferior in quality to that of any other contemporary master
of that art; a salt, whimsical dogmatism, equally full of convinced
egoism and of imperturbable keen-sightedness. Generally choosing to
be paradoxical; and vehement on behalf of any enthusiasm of the mind,
he was the dupe of none of his own statements, or indeed of his own
enthusiasms, and, really, very coldly impartial. I scarcely except
even his own judgment of himself in spite of his petulant, amusing
self-assertion, so full of the childishness of genius. He thought,
and was right in thinking, very highly of himself; he admired himself
enormously; but his intellect would never allow itself to be deceived
even about his own accomplishments.

This clear, unemotional intellect, emotional only in the perhaps
highest sense, where emotion almost ceases to be recognizable, in the
abstract, for ideas, for lines, left him with all his interests in
life, with all his sociability, of a sort essentially very lonely. Many
people were devoted to him, but he had, I think, scarcely a friend,
in the fullest sense of the word; and I doubt if there were more than
one or two people for whom he felt any real affection. In spite of
constant ill-health he had am astonishing tranquility of nerves; and
it was doubtless that rare quality which kept him, after all, alive so
long. How far he had deliberately acquired command over his nerves and
his emotions, as he deliberately acquired command over brain and hand,
I do not know. But there it certainly was, one of the bewildering
characteristics of so contradictory a temperament.

One of his poses, as people say, one of those things, that is, in
which he was most sincere, was his care in outwardly conforming to the
conventions which make for elegance and restraint; his necessity of
dressing well, of showing no sign of the professional artist. He had a
great contempt for, what seemed to inferior craftsmen, inspiration, for
what I have elsewhere called the plenary inspiration of first thoughts;
and he hated the outward and visible signs of an inward yeastiness and
incoherency. It amused him to denounce everything, certainly, which
Baudelaire would have denounced; and, along with some mere _gaminerie_,
there was a very serious and adequate theory of art at the back of all
his destructive criticisms. It was a profound thing which he said to
a friend of mine who asked him whether he ever saw visions: "No," he
replied, "I do not allow myself to see them except on paper." All his
art is in that phrase.

And he attained, to the full, one certainly of his many desires, and
that one, perhaps, of which he was most keenly or most continuously
conscious: contemporary fame of a popular singer or a professional
beauty, the fame of Yvette Guilbert or of Cléo de Mérode. And there was
logic in his insistence on this point, in his eagerness after immediate
and clamorous success. Others might have waited; he knew that he had
not the time to wait. After all, posthumous fame is not a very cheering
prospect to look forward to, on the part of those who have worked
without recompense, if the pleasure or the relief of work is not enough
in itself. Every artist has his own secret, beyond the obvious one, of
why he works, it is generally some unhappiness, some dissatisfaction
with the things about one, some too desperate or too contemptuous sense
of the meaning of existence. At one period of his life a man works
at his art to please a woman; then he works because he is tired of
pleasing her. Work for the work's sake it always must be, in a profound
sense; and, with Beardsley, not less certainly than with Blake or with
Rosetti. But that other, that accidental, significant motive, was, with
Beardsley, the desire to fill his few working years with the immediate
echo of a great notoriety.

Like most artists who have thought much of popularity he had an immense
contempt for the public; and the desire to kick that public into
admiration, and then to kick it for admiring the wrong thing or not
knowing why it was admiring, led him into many of his most outrageous
practical jokes of the pen. He was partly right and partly wrong, for
he was indiscriminate; and to be indiscriminate is always to be partly
right and partly wrong. The wish to _épater le bourgeois_ is a natural
one, and, though a little beside the question, does not necessarily
lead one astray. The general public, of course, does not in the least
know why it admires the right thing to-day though it admired the wrong
thing yesterday. But there is such a thing as denying your Master while
you are rebuking a servant-girl. Beardsley was without the very sense
of respect; it was one of his limitations.

And this limitation was an unfortunate one, for it limited his
ambition. With the power of creating beauty, which should be pure
beauty, he turned aside, only too often, to that lower kind of beauty
which is the mere beauty of technique in a composition otherwise
meaningless, trivial, or grotesque. Saying to himself, "I can do what
I like; there is nothing I could not do if I chose to, if I chose to
take the trouble; but why should I offer hard gold when an I.O.U. will
be just the same? I can pay up whenever the money is really wanted," he
allowed himself to be content with what he knew would startle, doing
it with infinite pains, to his own mind conscientiously, but doing it
with that lack of reverence for great work which is one of the most
sterlizing characteristics of the present day.

The epithet _fin de siècle_ has been given, somewhat loosely, to a
great deal of modern French art, and to art which, in one way or
another, seems to attach itself to contemporary France. Out of the
great art of Manet, the serious art of Degas, the exquisite art of
Whistler, all, in such different ways, so modern, there has come into
existence a new, very modern, very far from great or serious or really
exquisite kind of art, which has expressed itself largely in the
"Courrier Français," the "Gil Blas Illustré," and the posters. All this
art may be said to be what the quite new art of the poster certainly
is, art meant for the street, for people who are walking fast. It
comes into competition with the newspapers, with the music-halls; half
contemptuously, it popularises itself; and, with real qualities and a
real measure of good intention, finds itself forced to seek for sharp,
sudden, arresting means of expression. Instead of seeking pure beauty,
the seriousness and self-absorption of great art, it takes, wilfully
and for effect, that beauty which is least evident, indeed least
genuine; nearest to ugliness in the grotesque, nearest to triviality
in a certain elegant daintiness, nearest also to brutality and the
spectacular vices. Art is not sought for its own sake, but the manual
craftsman perfects himself to express a fanciful, ingenious, elaborate,
somewhat tricky way of seeing things, which he has deliberately
adopted. It finds its own in the eighteenth century, so that Willette
becomes a kind of petty, witty Watteau of Montmartre; it parodies
the art of stained glass, with Grasset and his followers; it juggles
with iron bars and masses of shadow, like Lautrec. And, in its direct
assault on the nerves, it pushes naughtiness to obscenity, deforms
observation into caricature, dexterity of line and handling being
cultivated as one cultivates a particular, deadly _bottle_ in fencing.

And this art, this art of the day and hour, competes not merely with
the appeal and the popularity of the theatrical spectacle, but directly
with theatrical methods, the methods of stage illusion. The art of the
ballet counts for much, in the evolution of many favorite effects of
contemporary drawing, and not merely because Degas has drawn dancers,
with his reserved, essentially classical mastery of form. By its
rapidity of flight within bounds, by its bird-like and flower-like
caprices of color and motion, by that appeal to the imagination which
comes from its silence (to which music is but like an accompanying
shadow, so closely, so discreetly, does it follow the feet of the
dancers), by its appeal to the eyes and to the senses, its adorable
artificiality, the ballet has tempted almost every draughtsman, as
the interiors of music-halls have also been singularly tempting, with
their extraordinary tricks of light, their suddenness of gesture, their
triumphant tinsel, their fantastic humanity. And pantomime, too, in the
French and correct, rather than in the English and incorrect, sense
of that word, has had its significant influence. In those pathetic
gaieties of Willette, in the windy laughter of the frivolities of
Chéret, it is the masquerade, the English clown or acrobat seen at the
Folies-Bergère, painted people mimicking puppets, who have begotten
this masquerading humanity of posters and illustrated papers. And the
point of view is the point of view of Pierrot--

         "le subtil génie
    De sa malice infinie
    De poète-grimacier"--

    Verlaine's _Pierrot gamin_.

Pierrot is one of the types we live, or of the moment, perhaps, out
of which we are just passing. Pierrot is passionate; but he does not
believe in great passions. He feels himself to be sickening with a
fever, or else perilously convalescent; for love is a disease, which he
is too weak to resist or endure. He has worn his heart on his sleeve
so long, that it has hardened in the cold air. He knows that his face
is powdered, and, if he sobs, it is without tears; and it is hard to
distinguish, under the chalk, if the grimace which twists his mouth
awry is more laughter or mockery. He knows that he is condemned to be
always in public, that emotion would be supremely out of keeping with
his costume, that he must remember to be fantastic if he would not be
merely ridiculous. And so he becomes exquisitely false, dreading above
all things that "one touch of nature" which would ruffle his disguise,
and leave him defenceless. Simplicity, in him, being the most laughable
thing in the world, he becomes learned, perverse, intellectualising his
pleasures, brutalising his intellect; his mournful contemplation of
things becoming a kind of grotesque joy, which he expresses in the only
symbols at his command, tracing his Giotto's O with the elegance of his

And Beardsley, with almost more than the Parisian's deference to
Paris, and to the moment, was, more than any Parisian, this _Pierrot
gamin_. He was more than that, but he was that: to be that was part
of what he learnt from France. It helped him to the pose which helped
him to reveal himself: as Burne-Jones had helped him when he did
the illustrations to the "Morte d'Arthur," (Ill. 7-10) as Japanese
art helped him to free himself from that influence, as Eisen and
Saint-Aubin showed him the way to the "Rape of the Lock." (Ill. 53)
He had that originality which surrenders to every influence, yet
surrenders to absorb, not to be absorbed; that originality which,
constantly shifting, is true always to its centre. Whether he learnt
from M. Grasset or from Mr. Ricketts, from an 1830 fashion-plate,
or from an engraved plate by Hogarth, whether the scenery of
Arques-la-Bataille composed itself into a pattern in his mind, or,
in the Casino at Dieppe, he made a note of the design of a looped-up
window-blind, he was always drawing to himself, out of the order of
art or the confusion of natural things, the thing he wanted, the thing
he could make his own. And he found, in the French art of the moment,
a joyous sadness, the service to God of Mephistopheles, which his own
temperament and circumstances were waiting to suggest to him--.

"In more ways than one do men sacrifice to the rebellious angels," says
St. Augustine; and Beardsley's sacrifice, together with that of all
great decadent art, the art of Rops or the art of Baudelaire, is really
a sacrifice to the eternal beauty, and only seemingly to the powers of
evil. And here let me say that I have no concern with what neither he
nor I could have had absolute knowledge of, his own intention in his
work. A man's intention, it must be remembered, from the very fact that
it is conscious, is much less intimately himself than the sentiment
which his work conveys to me. So large is the sub-conscious element in
all artistic creation, that I should have doubted whether Beardsley
himself knew what he intended to do, in this or that really significant
drawing. Admitting that he could tell exactly what he had intended, I
should be quite prepared to show that he had really done the very

Thus when I say he was a profoundly spiritual artist, though seeming to
care chiefly for the manual part of his work; that he expresses evil
with an intensity which lifted it into a region almost of asceticism,
though attempting, not seldom, little more than a joke or a caprice in
line: and that he was above all, though almost against his own will,
a satirist who has seen the ideal; I am putting forward no paradox,
nothing really contradictory, but a simple analysis of the work as it

At times he attains pure beauty, has the unimpaired vision; in the
best of the "Salomé" (Ills. 15-29) designs here and there afterwards.
From the first it is a diabolic beauty, but it is not yet divided
against itself. The consciousness of sin is always there, but it is
sin first transfigured by beauty, and then disclosed by beauty; sin,
conscious of itself, of its inability to escape itself, and showing in
its ugliness the law it has broken. His world is a world of phantoms,
in which the desire of the perfecting of mortal sensations, a desire
of infinity, has over-passed mortal limits, and poised them, so faint,
so quivering, so passionate for flight, in a hopeless and strenuous
immobility. They have the sensitiveness of the spirit, and that bodily
sensitiveness which wastes their veins and imprisons them in the
attitude of their luxurious meditation. They are too thoughtful to
be ever really simple, or really absorbed by either flesh or spirit.
They have nothing of what is "healthy" or merely "animal" in their
downward course towards repentance; no overwhelming passion hurries
them beyond themselves; they do not capitulate to an open assault of
the enemy of souls. It is the soul in them that sins, sorrowfully,
without reluctance, inevitably. Their bodies are faint and eager with
wantonness; they desire more pleasure than there is in the world,
fiercer and more exquisite pains, a more intolerable suspense. They
have put off the common burdens of humanity, and put on that loneliness
which is the rest of saints and the unrest of those who have sinned
with the intellect. They are a little lower than the angels, and they
walk between these and the fallen angels, without part or lot in the

Here, then, we have a sort of abstract spiritual corruption, revealed
in beautiful form; sin transfigured by beauty. And here, even if we
go no further, is an art intensely spiritual, an art in which evil
purifies itself by its own intensity, and the beauty which transfigures
it. The one thing in the world which is without hope is that mediocrity
which is the sluggish content of inert matter. Better be vividly
awake to evil than, in mere somnolence, close the very issues and
approaches of good and evil. For evil itself, carried to the point of
a perverse ecstasy, becomes a kind of good, by means of that energy
which, otherwise directed, is virtue; and which can never, no matter
how its course may be changed, fail to retain something of its original
efficacy. The devil is nearer to God, by the whole height from which
he fell, than the average man who has not recognised his own need to
rejoice or to repent. And so a profound spiritual corruption, instead
of being a more "immortal" thing than the gross and pestiferous
humanity of Hogarth or of Rowlandson, is more nearly, in the final
and abstract sense, moral, for it is the triumph of the spirit over
the flesh, to no matter what end. It is a form of divine possession,
by which the inactive and materialising soul is set in fiery motion,
lured from the ground, into at least a certain high liberty. And
so we find evil justified of itself, and an art consecrated to the
revelation of evil equally justified; its final justification being
that declared by Plotinus, in his treatise "On the Nature of Good
and Evil." "But evil is permitted to remain by itself alone on account
of the superior power and nature of good; because it appears from
necessity everywhere comprehended and bound, in beautiful bands, like
men fettered with golden chains, lest it should be produced openly to
the views of divinity, or lest mankind should always behold its horrid
shape when perfectly naked; and such is the supervening power of good,
that whenever a glimpse of perfect evil is obtained we are immediately
recalled to the memory of good by the image of the beautiful with which
evil is invested."

In those drawings of Beardsley which are grotesque rather than
beautiful, in which now all the beauty takes refuge, is itself a moral
judgment. Look at that drawing called "The Scarlet Pastorale."[1] In
front, a bloated harlequin struts close to the footlights, outside the
play, on which he turns his back; beyond, sacramental candles have been
lighted, and are guttering down in solitude, under an unseen wind. And
between, on the sheer darkness of the stage, a bald and plumed Pierrot,
holding in his vast, collapsing paunch with a mere rope of roses, shows
the cloven foot, while Pierrette points at him in screaming horror,
and the fat dancer turns on her toes indifferently. Need we go further
to show how much more than Gautier's meaning lies in the old paradox
of "Mademoiselle de Maupin," that "perfection of line is virtue?" That
line which rounds the deformity of the cloven-footed sin, the line
itself, is at once the revelation and the condemnation of vice, for it
is part of that artistic logic which is morality.

Beardsley is the satirist of an age without convictions, and he can
but paint hell as Baudelaire did, without pointing for contrast to any
contemporary paradise. He employs the same rhetoric as Baudelaire,
a method of emphasis which it is uncritical to think insecure. In
that terrible annunciation of evil which he called "The Mysterious
Rose-Garden," the lantern-bearing angel with winged sandals whispers,
from among the falling roses, tidings of more than "pleasant sins."
The leering dwarfs, the "monkeys," by which the mystics symbolised
the earthlier vices; those immense bodies swollen with the lees of
pleasure, and those cloaked and masked desires shuddering in gardens
and smiling ambiguously at interminable toilets; are part of a
symbolism which loses nothing by lack of emphasis. And the peculiar
efficacy of this satire is that it is so much the satire of desire
returning upon itself, the mockery of desire enjoyed, the mockery of
desire denied. It is because he loves beauty that beauty's degradation
obsesses him; it is because he is supremely conscious of virtue that
vice has power to lay hold upon him. And, unlike those other acceptable
satirists of our day, with whom satire exhausts itself in the rebuke
of a drunkard leaning against a lamp-post, or a lady paying the wrong
compliment in a drawing-room, he is the satirist of essential things;
it is always the soul, and not the body's discontent only, which cries
out of these insatiable eyes, that have looked on all their lusts,
and out of these bitter mouths, that have eaten the dust of all their
sweetness, and out of these hands, that have laboured delicately for
nothing, and out of these feet, that have run after vanities. They
are so sorrowful because they have seen beauty, and because they have
departed from the line of beauty.

And after all, the secret of Beardsley is there; in the line itself
rather than in anything, intellectually realised, which the line is
intended to express. With Beardsley everything was a question of form:
his interest in his work began when the paper was before him and the
pen in his hand. And so, in one sense, he may be said never to have
known what he wanted to do, while, in another, he knew very precisely
indeed. He was ready to do, within certain limits, almost anything you
suggested to him; as, when left to himself, he was content to follow
the caprice of the moment. What he was sure of was his power of doing
exactly what he proposed to himself to do: the thing itself might be
"Salomé" or "Belinda," "Ali Baba" or "Réjane," the "Morte d'Arthur" or
the "Rheingold" or the "Liaisons Dangereuses;" the design might be for
an edition of a classic or for the cover of a catalogue of second-hand
books. And the design might seem to have no relation with the title of
its subject, and, indeed, might have none: its relation was of line to
line within the limits of its own border, and to nothing else in the
world. Thus he could change his whole manner of working five or six
times over in the course of as many years, seem to employ himself much
of the time on trivial subjects, and yet retain, almost unimpaired,
an originality which consisted in the extreme beauty and the absolute
certainty of design.

It was a common error, at one time, to say that Beardsley could not
draw. He certainly did not draw the human body with any attempt at
rendering its own lines, taken by themselves; indeed, one of his
latest drawings, an initial letter to "Volpone," is almost the first
in which he has drawn a nude figure realistically. But he could draw,
with extraordinary skill, in what is after all the essential way: he
could make a line do what he wanted it to do, express the conception
of form which it was his intention to express; and this is what the
conventional draughtsman, Bouguereau, for instance, cannot do. The
conventional draughtsman, any Academy student, will draw a line which
shows quite accurately the curve of a human body, but all his science
of drawing will not make you feel that line, will not make that line
pathetic, as in the little, drooping body which a satyr and a Pierrot
are laying in a puff-powder coffin, in the tail-piece to "Salomé."
(Ill. 28.)

And then, it must never be forgotten, Beardsley was a decorative
artist, and not anything else. From almost the very first he accepted
convention; he set himself to see things as pattern. Taking freely
all that the Japanese could give him, that release from the bondage
of what we call real things, which comes to one man from an intense
spirituality, to another from a consciousness of material form so
intense that it becomes abstract, he made the world over again in his
head, as if it existed only when it was thus re-made, and not even
then, until it had been set down in black line on a white surface,
in white line on a black surface. Working, as the decorative artist
must work, in symbols almost as arbitrary, almost as fixed, as the
squares of a chess-board, he swept together into his pattern all the
incongruous things in the world, weaving them into congruity by his
pattern. Using the puff-box, the toilet-table, the ostrich-feather hat,
with a full consciousness of their suggestive quality in a drawing of
archaic times, a drawing purposely fantastic, he put these things to
beautiful uses, because he liked their forms, and because his space of
white or black seemed to require some such arrangement of lines. They
were the minims and crotchets by which he wrote down his music; they
made the music, but they were not the music.

In the "Salomé" (Ills. 15-29) drawings, in most of the "Yellow Book"
(Ills. 33, 34, 35, 37, 40, 41) drawings, we see Beardsley under this
mainly Japanese influence; with, now and later, in his less serious
work the but half-admitted influence of what was most actual, perhaps
most temporary, in the French art of the day. Pierrot gamin, in
"Salomé" itself, alternates, in such irreverences as the design of
"The Black Cape," (Ill. 17) with the creator of the noble line, in the
austere and terrible design of "The Climax," (Ill. 24) the ornate and
vehement design of "The Peacock Skirt." (Ill. 16.) Here we get pure
outline, as in the frontispiece; a mysterious intricacy, as in the
border of the title-page and of the table of contents; a paradoxical
beauty of mere wilfulness, but a wilfulness which has its meaning,
its excuse, its pictorial justification, as in "The Toilette." (Ill.
22). The "Yellow Book" and the first drawings for the "Savoy," (Ills.
54-57) a new influence has come into the work, the influence of the
French eighteenth century. This influence, artificial as it is, draws
him nearer, though somewhat unquietly nearer, to nature. Drawings like
"The Fruit Bearers," in the first number of the "Savoy," with its solid
and elaborate richness of ornament, or "The Coiffing," in the third
number, with its delicate and elaborate grace, its witty concentration
of line; drawings like the illustrations to the "Rape of the Lock,"
(Ill. 53) have, with less extravagance, and also a less strenuous
intellectual effort, a new mastery of elegant form, not too far removed
from nature while still subordinated to the effect of decoration, to
the instinct of line. In the illustrations to Ernest Dowson's "Pierrot
of the Minute," (Ills. 45-47) we have a more deliberate surrender,
for the moment, to Eisen and Saint-Aubin, as yet another manner
is seen working itself out. The illustrations to "Mademoiselle de
Maupin," seemed to me, when I first saw them, with the exception of
one extremely beautiful design in colour, to show a certain falling
off in power, an actual weakness in the handling of the pen. But, in
their not quite successful feeling after natural form, they did but
represent, as I afterwards found, the moment of transition to what must
now remain for us, and may well remain, Beardsley's latest manner. The
four initial letters to "Volpone," the last of which was finished not
more than three weeks before his death, have a new quality both of hand
and of mind. They are done in pencil, and they lose, as such drawings
are bound to lose, very greatly in the reduced reproduction. But, in
the original, they are certainly, in sheer technical skill, equal
to anything he had ever done, and they bring at the last, and with
complete success, nature itself into the pattern. And here, under some
solemn influence, the broken line of beauty has reunited; "the care is
over," and the trouble has gone out of this no less fantastic world, in
which Pan still smiles from his terminal column among the trees, but
without the old malice. Human and animal form reassert themselves, with
a new dignity, under this new respect for their capabilities. Beardsley
has accepted the convention of nature itself, turning it to his own
uses, extracting from it his own symbols, but no longer rejecting it
for a convention entirely of his own making. And thus in his last work,
done under the very shadow of death, we find new possibilities for an
art, conceived as pure line, conducted through mere pattern, which,
after many hesitations, has resolved finally upon the great compromise,
that compromise which the greatest artists have made, between the
mind's outline and the outline of visible things.

[1] This drawing is not reproduced in this volume.

[Illustrations: see above.]

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