The Same Old Solotaire

Peter Wollen

  • ‘Salome’ and ‘Under the Hill’ by Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley
    Creation, 123 pp, £7.95, April 1996, ISBN 1 871592 12 7
  • Aubrey Beardsley: Dandy of the Grotesque by Chris Snodgrass
    Oxford, 338 pp, £35.00, August 1995, ISBN 0 19 509062 4

Yeats had no doubt how and when the fatal blow was struck. In his memoirs, he noted that ‘the condemnation of Wilde had brought ruin upon a whole movement in art and letters.’ Yeats himself was fortunate that the Celtic Revival, which ran in close tandem with Decadence, had special resources of its own. Two of the great iconic victims of the social purity movement, the repressive engine of Late Victorianism, were themselves Irish – Parnell and Wilde – and Yeats was able to incorporate their tragedies into his heroic narrative of Irish nationalism. Moreover, as Yeats himself pointed out, his own circle – the poets of the Rhymers’ Club – were too marginal to be significantly affected by the Wilde verdict. They only aimed to sell three hundred copies and wrote ‘for the smaller public that has knowledge and is undisturbed by popular feeling’.

The real victim, besides Wilde himself, was Aubrey Beardsley, who craved a popular audience and the celebrity that went with it. Yeats first met Beardsley at the launch party for the Savoy, the magazine founded by Arthur Symons and Beardsley after Beardsley had been fired as art editor of the Yellow Book following Wilde’s arrest. It was a brave and defiant attempt to continue the movement, but the journal was suspect from the start – the Savoy, after all, was the hotel to which Wilde had repaired to entertain and enjoy his rent-boys. The Savoy was defiantly avant-garde, as the Yellow Book had never been, and served as a rallying-point for supporters of Wilde and Beardsley, including Beerbohm, Carpenter, Conrad, Dowson, Havelock Ellis, Hueffer, Shaw and Yeats.

The Savoy fizzled to an end (commercially at least) when W.H. Smith’s refused to distribute it after issue Number 3, on account of an illustration to an article by Yeats. Yeats later recalled how ‘the bookseller’s manager, no doubt looking for a design of Beardsley’s, pitched on Blake’s Anteus Setting Virgil and Dante upon the Verge of Cocytus as grounds for refusal, and when Arthur Symons pointed out that Blake was considered “a very spiritual artist”, replied: “Oh, Mr Symons, you must remember that we have an audience of young ladies as well as an audience of agnostics”’ Yeats wrote furiously to a leading newspaper to protest against the censorship, but he was told that ‘the editor makes it a rule that the paper is never to mention Beardsley’s name.’ From rapid and immense celebrity, Beardsley, like Wilde, had quickly been reduced to a non-person.

Beardsley was racked by tuberculosis from the age of seven; his life was painfully short. He was born in Brighton in August 1872, and Brighton Pavilion, along with Hampton Court, the Domino Room at the Café Royal and the Casino at Dieppe, remained among his favourite places. His mother was a dynamic woman, extremely thin, a High Tory and an Anglo-Catholic. She worked as a governess and music teacher to support her family, and was scathingly disappointed in her husband, about whom very little is known. Aubrey had an elder sister, Mabel, one year older than himself. There seems no doubt that Mabel was the only person with whom he had a really close relationship and she is often seen as the source of the feminine identification which marked his work and life. She became an actress and, after Beardsley died, a journalist who maintained an arts salon, as their mother had done.

In 1892, at the age of 20, Beardsley, who had by then moved to London, embarked on an illustrated edition of Le Morte D’Arthur. He began to be published professionally the next year and in 1894 became art editor of the Yellow Book. A few weeks previously, Wilde’s Salome had been published in England with Beardsley’s illustrations – an event which linked the two inextricably together. Beardsley had sought Wilde’s patronage and became one of the young men who made up his entourage. He patronised Wilde’s tailor, Doré, although his style of dandyism was very different, and the two men went to the same hairdresser. It is very clear from his drawings and writings that Beardsley saw the hairdresser as a kind of sinister priest who presided over the intricate rituals of coiffing, painting, perfuming and manicure. He soon fell out with Wilde, partly because of his distaste for Lord Alfred Douglas, and made it a condition of his work for the Yellow Book that Wilde be excluded from the list of contributors. The veto was carried over to the Savoy, first published in January 1896, and insisted on yet again when he and Symons planned a third journal, provisionally entitled the Peacock.

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