- Artifice & Text in the 1890s
Although Aubrey Beardsley's literary-focused art seemed ideal, in its time and after, for bookplates, Mark Samuels Lasner, an indefatigable sleuth and collector of 1890s memorabilia, has found "only forty or so." They are reproduced and described with witty knowledgeability in his book on Beardsley's ex libris. Aubrey Beardsley had hardly emerged from his boy-genius cocoon when he received his first bookplate commission in 1893. In September 1897, shortly before his early death, his final bookplate was produced for Olive Custance, a minor poet who had contributed to Beardsley's iconic Yellow Book, and who would later marry Lord Alfred Douglas, offering him some post-Wildean respectability. Posthumous bookplates drawn from Beardsley's ouevre would follow, at least one as late as 2000.
Sharply reproduced and annotated as far as surviving data affords, they suggest an unusual dimension of Beardsley's reputation. A pen-and-ink artist who died before his decade closed, he remains a vital part of our perception of the 1890s. The plates range from bold to bland, from sensitive to salacious—works of art in miniature, capturing the essence of the artist, from the lean young draughtsman at his desk and high stool to the striking designs drawn from his most memorable work. Many of the bookish owners are forgotten, but the ex libris images live.
When James A. M. Whistler first displayed his unforgettable portrait of his mother in the early 1870s, one of the iconic canvases of the nineteenth century, he confounded critics by calling it Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1. Stirring from his self-imposed isolation nearby at Cheyne Walk, Dante Gabriel Rossetti told Whistler that it "must make you happy for life." Algernon Swinburne praised its "tender depth of expression." Yet Whistler turned such praise aside. "To me," he explained, [End Page 95] "it is interesting as a picture of my mother; but can or ought the public to care about the identity of the portrait? It must stand or fall on its merits as an arrangement." Although, but for a late chapter, Whistler is rarely mentioned in Nicholas Frankel's Masking the Text, the question of relating the text, or subtext, to illustration is the focus of the book, largely a collection of Frankel's previous published articles, some here updated.
"Illustration" (as in Whistler) is often too narrow a term. In Frankel's most extensive chapter, on Aubrey Beardsley, who gave the period its identity, the printed word produced opportunity to work his genius. With a death sentence from tuberculosis hanging over him, Beardsley realized that his creative years would be few. Needing income from commissions to employ his art, he was not going to waste his dwindling half decade by mere illustration of texts. Criticism that his art dominated and often destabilized the texts he decorated rather than illustrated never thwarted or slowed his pen. Dead or alive, the authors he celebrated, often perversely, gained an immortality beyond their words. As Frankel observes, Wilde's Salome "was 'pictured' by Beardsley, so its title page tells us; Malory's Morte D'Arthur was 'embellished' by him; and when Beardsley's publisher sent him page proofs for Pope's The Rape of the Lock, Beardsley cancelled the word 'illustrated' on the title page and replaced it with the phrase 'embroidered with nine drawings by Aubrey Beardsley.'" It was a radical aesthetic—so obsessive and compelling that some of the works to which he applied his art have never been illustrated again. The competition had been overwhelmed in advance.
Masking the Text has a different thrust in another of Frankel's Wilde essays, on The Portrait of Mr. W.H., for forgery "unsettles the powerful myths of authenticity and genius," and to Frankel "exposes something spurious about literature itself." Although he doesn't mention it, the magnetic attraction of a clever forgery...