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145 T Beardsley Before The Yellow Book A very young and rather mad young man.… —Colette Willy W hat was the pre-Yellow Book Beardsley like? In his case we’re talking about all but the last four years of his short life. For one’s reputation, at least, it’s often a good thing to die young. It’s also helpful to the biographer, although there have been some very long biographies of Keats, whose life span paralleled Beardsley’s twentysix years. Most young geniuses begin setting themselves apart from other creative people when very young indeed. Mozart was writing operas and symphonies when Beardsley was a struggling, directionless schoolboy with little more than a talent for drawing place cards for his mother and contributing cartoons to the school magazine. One Beardsley biographer declares that Beardsley’s real genius was for music, and adds, absurdly: “Perhaps one of the things that made Aubrey Beardsley give precedence to his talent for drawing over his other talents was that visual art seems to have been the only art about which his mother had little to say.” Because of his invalidism his mother was a powerful influence on his life—he could rarely escape being her child, whatever his age. Yet one doesn’t choose one’s genius, which, if really that, overwhelms reasonable choices—or silly ones. Like Keats he compressed his artistic career into a very few years beginning at twenty. Beardsley told one acquaintance, Penrhyn Stanlaws: “I shall not live longer than did Keats”—and the realization drove him obsessively. None of Beardsley’s schoolboy drawings from the Brighton Grammar School foreshadows the explosion of genius that would occur when he was nineteen —drawings like his Hamlet (Fig. 1) or his first Siegfried (perhaps drawn when he was 20). The early cartoons and caricatures are in the Victorian comic tradition for illustrated papers, books and magazines.There may be a relationship between his lengthier spells of illness and the rapidly chang- Farewell,Victoria! 146 ing nature of his work, as he found himself with more time in bed to study the neomedievalism of Burne-Jones and William Morris, Japanese prints, Whistler, and the centuries of serious black-and-white art.The metamorphosis in his work was explosive. One can recall Arthur Symons here, who later wrote, possibly thinking of Beardsley: “One creates one’s images out of the body’s discontent.” For all his genius, Beardsley remained emotionally immature. When he wrote, in March 1894, at twenty-one, “Yes, my dear Lane, I shall assuredly commit suicide if the FatWoman does not appear in No. 1 of TheYellow Book,” he was not planning to cut off a life already doomed to be brief. The FatWoman was an unflattering portrait of J. M.Whistler’s wife,Trixie, done in Beardsley’s boyish spirit of cocking a snook at the artist he most admired in England but who, reports to Beardsley had it, did not think much of his work. At nineteen he had wangled an invitation to see the famous Peacock Room at Prince’s Gate, and at the Society of English Portrait Painters exhibition Beardsley had seenWhistler’s Miss Alexander and the Mother, and wrote his friend G. F. Scotson-Clark that the Miss Alexander was “a truly glorious, indescribable, mysterious and evasive picture.” He liked the Mother even more, and drew a sketch of it for Scotson-Clark that appears to have put Mrs. Beardsley into the frame, a younger Mother with a more modern bonnet. Further, Aubrey wrote, he had just bought an 1859 Billingsgate byWhistler, “a gem in the shape of an etching.”Why make fun two years later of the Master ’s plump wife? He would not identify the subject, he assured Lane. He’d call the picture A Study in Major Lines. When Whistler finally saw a portfolio of Beardsley’s drawings—the illustrations for The Rape of the Lock—Whistler in effect confessed earlier sins. “Aubrey,” he said, “I have made a very great mistake—you are a very great artist.” Beardsley wept openly, andWhistler, worried that Aubrey had thought it was a joke and meant in irony, consoled him: “I mean it—I mean it—I mean it.” Beardsley was still emotionally a boy. John Lane, by the way, would not chance angering Whistler. The picture of Trixie Whistler never appeared in TheYellow Book and Beardsley did not commit suicide. After leaving school in Brighton, Beardsley wrote to a former master:“I...


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