Aubrey fakery

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Cover of Fifty Drawings by Aubrey Beardsley (1920).

I’ve long been fascinated by fakes and forgeries especially those one finds in the art world, when the ability to imitate another artist’s work succumbs to the temptation to defraud. Artistic forgeries succeed best when there are convenient gaps in an artist’s career, and when the historical record is vague enough to plausibly allow the existence of a lost or neglected work. The fake Aubrey Beardsley drawings that were presented by HS Nichols to the New York art world in 1919 are unusual for offending both these criteria. Beardsley and his work will be subject to renewed attention in March when Tate Britain stages the largest exhibition of his drawings for 50 years, and it was news of this that reminded me of the Nichols fakes. I know the drawings from an appendix in The Collected Works of Aubrey Beardsley (1967), edited by Bruce S. Harris, which presents almost everything that Nichols published in a subscriber-only collection, Fifty Drawings by Aubrey Beardsley, in 1920. Nichols had been in the Beardsley milieu in the London of the 1890s, and was for a short time a partner of Leonard Smithers, the publisher and pornographer who not only published Beardsley’s later works along with The Savoy magazine, but also commissioned the notoriously “obscene” Lysistrata drawings. Smithers was, by Victorian standards, a scoundrel, but also an aesthete, whereas Nichols seems to lack any redeeming qualities. One of the curators of the Tate exhibition, Stephen Calloway, describes Nichols in his 1998 study, Aubrey Beardsley, as “scurrilous”, and provides an account of the Nichols fakes:

That Beardsley’s style was more or less inimitable was sadly proved by almost all those, and there were many, who attempted to fake his work. From the period immediately after the First World War, at a time when AE Callatin and a number of other American collectors were beginning, really for the first time, to make Beardsley originals more valuable, forgeries began to abound. In 1919 a celebrated fraud was attempted when HS Nichols reappeared on the scene, claiming to have an important and sizeable cache of previously unknown Beardsley drawings. They were put on a show in New York. Considerable excitement was generated, especially when doubts about the authenticity of the works began to be voiced in several important quarters.

Denounced as fakes by Callatin, Joseph Pennell and other connoisseurs, these hopelessly inept specimens of the forger’s pen were vigorously defended by Nichols, who claimed in the New York Evening Post, “I know a great deal more about Beardsley than either Mr Pennell or Mr Callatin, but I absolutely decline to make known to the world what I do know”. In fact, he claimed to have had more intimate dealings with the artist than even his erstwhile partner Smithers. The drawings, fifty in number, were published in an expensively produced album, like the Van Meegeren Vermeers; it is difficult now, with hindsight, to see how anyone could possibly have been taken in even then. But, in spite of a useful essay on How to Detect Beardsley Forgeries by the great Beardsley scholar RA Walker, which specifically alludes to these efforts at deception, examples from this very group and others of their like still circulate and surface from time to time.

The note in the Harris book refers to a dismissal of the fakes by Oliver Brenning in the September 1919 edition of Vanity Fair, an article which may be read here (PDF). As for the Nichols book, this turned up recently at the Internet Archive so it’s now possible to see all the fakes in one place. Whoever was responsible for the Nichols drawings (I’ve seen Nichols himself credited) isn’t merely a bad imitator but is also a bad artist, with many of the drawings being remarkably graceless and inept. Beardsley’s art, especially his early work, is often grotesque (“I am nothing if I am not grotesque,” he once said) but it is never ugly. When they’re not being ugly the Nichols fakes assault one’s credulity by showing a pair of young women wearing clothes of a style unknown in the 1890s (Plate 15: “The Twins”), or plagiarising Alphonse Mucha (Plate 49: “Design for a Church Window”). I haven’t checked but I think another of the drawings may be a copy of a piece by Eugène Grasset.

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Whistler by unknown artist (not by Aubrey Beardsley, despite the signature).

Stephen Calloway is correct when he says that the fakes continue to circulate today, mechanical (and digital) reproduction having given them a life they really don’t deserve. (This post might be accused of extending that lifespan.) The Whistler portrait above is one of the more convincing examples which no doubt explains why it was credited to Beardsley in Nick Meglin’s The Art of Humorous Illustration (1973), a book from a reputable New York publisher, Watson-Guptil.

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When Virago published Keynotes & Discords by George Egerton in 1995 they used another of the fakes on the cover. This was particularly ironic when Egerton’s stories had been first published in John Lane’s Keynotes series, a line of books that not only took their name from the first Egerton volume but which were illustrated by Beardsley himself. The worst example of proliferation I’ve seen in print was the Beardsley postcard book published by Taschen in the 1990s which scattered the Nichols fakes among genuine Beardsleys, thus ensuring that the uninitiated would continue to litter the world with the things. Today we have Pinterest, home of the erroneous credit. I doubt the Tate exhibition will draw any attention to the fakes but now that Nichols’ book is online it’s easier for those who suspect an attribution to assuage (or confirm) their suspicions.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Under the Hill by Aubrey Beardsley
Aubrey Beardsley and His World
After Beardsley by Ryan Cho
Aubrey Beardsley’s Keynotes
Antony Little’s echoes of Aubrey
Aubrey in LIFE
Beardsley reviewed
Aubrey Beardsley in The Studio
Ads for The Yellow Book
Beardsley and His Work
Further echoes of Aubrey
A Wilde Night
Echoes of Aubrey
After Beardsley by Chris James
Illustrating Poe #1: Aubrey Beardsley
Beardsley’s Rape of the Lock
The Savoy magazine
Beardsley at the V&A
Merely fanciful or grotesque
Aubrey Beardsley’s musical afterlife
Aubrey by John Selwyn Gilbert
“Weirdsley Daubery”: Beardsley and Punch
Alla Nazimova’s Salomé

Under the Hill by Aubrey Beardsley

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Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings are reprinted endlessly but his writings receive less attention even though he lavished as much care on his literary efforts as he did on his illustrations. The major work is his unfinished novel, Under the Hill, a book whose descriptive filigree is as detailed as the drawings which accompany the text, and whose erotic passages ensured that the story was never published in full during his lifetime. Extracts appeared with illustrations in The Savoy, the magazine for which Beardsley was art editor; after Beardsley’s death a longer expurgated version was published by John Lane in 1903, together with Beardsley’s other writings including two pieces of verse, The Three Musicians and Ballad of a Barber.

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The Lane volume is a recent arrival at the Internet Archive, and while most of the material is familiar to me it does feature a few pages of Beardsley’s table talk which I’d never seen before. The expurgated Under the Hill is worth reading as an introduction to Aubrey’s florid writing style (and his obsession with clothing) but so much is missing that it can’t be considered representative of the author’s intentions. Under the Hill was published in full in 1907 in a private edition by Leonard Smithers, but the book had to wait until 1959 to receive a more public presentation when Olympia Press added it to their famous Traveller’s Companion series. The Olympia edition has the additional benefit of being completed by John Glassco, a bisexual Canadian poet, and accomplished pasticheur of erotic literature. Glassco not only matches Beardsley’s style while completing the story, he also provides a detailed history of the text, and a defence of its value as literature. If you’re a Beardsley enthusiast who already has most of the artwork then the Olympia book is worth seeking out.

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New English Library reprint, 1966.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
Aubrey Beardsley and His World
After Beardsley by Ryan Cho
Aubrey Beardsley’s Keynotes
Antony Little’s echoes of Aubrey
Aubrey in LIFE
Beardsley reviewed
Aubrey Beardsley in The Studio
Ads for The Yellow Book
Beardsley and His Work
Further echoes of Aubrey
A Wilde Night
Echoes of Aubrey
After Beardsley by Chris James
Illustrating Poe #1: Aubrey Beardsley
Beardsley’s Rape of the Lock
The Savoy magazine
Beardsley at the V&A
Merely fanciful or grotesque
Aubrey Beardsley’s musical afterlife
Aubrey by John Selwyn Gilbert
“Weirdsley Daubery”: Beardsley and Punch
Alla Nazimova’s Salomé

Beardsley’s Rape of the Lock

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This week’s reading has been Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, a capricious novel which features in its 18th century scenes encounters with some of the great poets of the era, including Alexander Pope. A number of references are made to Pope’s satiric The Rape of the Lock (1717), one of his most notable works which received an equally notable set of illustrations in 1896 from Aubrey Beardsley. The pictures here are from a copy of the first edition published by Leonard Smithers which can be seen at the Internet Archive where the collection features a large number of books created by or written about the artist. Even though Beardsley’s illustrations are endlessly reprinted I do like to see how they were first presented to the world, how the pages were typeset and so on. One detail from this first edition is that we see the credit on the title page: “Embroidered with nine drawings by Aubrey Beardsley.” The cover design is often reproduced in its original black-and-white state which fails to convey the intended effect of those great slabs of gold, while the illustrations within are some of the finest and most detailed of the artist’s career. If the PDF doesn’t really do them justice there are better copies to be found, here and here, for example.

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Leonard Smithers was notorious in Victorian London for his publishing of pornography but he tried to use the proceeds to occasionally produce works with a better reputation such as this. Beardsley had also been tarred as a pornographer, of course, but here he restrained himself in order to do justice to a book he admired. There is one possible exception in the cover design; I’m afraid I couldn’t find the reference but one of Beardsley’s critics asserts that the open scissors and fatal lock of hair shown in the mirror create a surreptitious image of the female pudenda. With many other artists this interpretation might be dismissed as fanciful but Aubrey filled his early drawings with phalluses and breast shapes, and his unfinished novel, the erotic fantasy Under the Hill, has a title referring to the mons pubis. No other artist of the time would be so daring even with a pornographer for a publisher; it was just this sort of impudence which infuriated his more staid contemporaries. Under the Hill is far more overt in its sexuality and its writing style owes something to Pope’s era which Aubrey adored. The posthumous edition of that book, containing other Beardsley ephemera, can be found here.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive
The book covers archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Savoy magazine
Beardsley at the V&A
Merely fanciful or grotesque
Aubrey Beardsley’s musical afterlife
Aubrey by John Selwyn Gilbert
Beardsley’s Salomé
“Weirdsley Daubery”: Beardsley and Punch
Alla Nazimova’s Salomé

The Savoy magazine

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Further retrievals from the depths of the Internet Archive (and thanks to Lord Cornelius Plum for the tip) come in the form of three bound editions of The Savoy magazine, a British art and literary periodical which ran for eight issues from January to December 1896. Aubrey Beardsley was art editor and chief illustrator, Arthur Symons the literary editor and the publisher was the heroic and duplicitous London pornographer Leonard Smithers whose patronage and, it should be noted, exploitation of Beardsley’s work kept the artist solvent during his last two years.

A thesis could be written (and no doubt has been) exploring the curious symbiosis between pornography publishers and the artistic avant garde. Smithers was a proud purveyor of what he called “smut” but he also complained about all the money he lost supporting poets and down-at-heel writers. Posterity can thank him for publishing Teleny, the classic early work of gay fiction attributed to Oscar Wilde, as well as Beardsley’s Lysistrata illustrations and The Savoy, a magazine founded in the fallout of the Wilde scandal when The Yellow Book dropped Beardsley from its staff in order to appease its more conservative contributors. The magazine’s run was short due to poor sales after WH Smith’s refused to stock it, worried again about the controversial nature of Beardsley’s art. (Speculative fiction magazine New Worlds faced similar problems with Smith’s in the late Sixties.) This seems astonishing to us now when looking at the world-class roster of contributors to the first issue, a list which included two future Nobel winners—George Bernard Shaw and WB Yeats—as well as Max Beerbohm, Ernest Dowson, Havelock Ellis, JM Whistler, Charles Shannon, William Rothenstein, and Beardsley writing and illustrating the first part of his erotic caprice, Under the Hill.

Beardsley’s illustrations are very familiar from book reproduction but it’s good to see them in the context in which they first appeared, and to be able to read some of the features. The later issues include pages of adverts which always fascinate for their contemporary detail.

The Savoy: Volume 1 | Volume 2 | Volume 3

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Jugend, 1897
Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration
Jugend, 1896
Jugend Magazine revisited
Teleny, Or the Reverse of the Medal
Beardsley at the V&A
Merely fanciful or grotesque
The Great God Pan
Jugend Magazine
Aubrey Beardsley’s musical afterlife
Aubrey by John Selwyn Gilbert
“Weirdsley Daubery”: Beardsley and Punch
Alla Nazimova’s Salomé

Teleny, Or the Reverse of the Medal

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Bibliothèque Libertine edition (1996).

The quintessence of bliss can, therefore, only be enjoyed by beings of the same sex… Teleny

More Wildeana, and yes, it’s that painting againTeleny is an authorless and explicitly homoerotic novel often attributed to Oscar Wilde although what evidence there is regarding its creation points to it being the work of several hands. It was published in a limited edition by Leonard Smithers in 1893 then subsequently reissued in a variety of editions which, being illicit and copyright-free, suffered excisions and textual amendments. Smithers was a good friend of Wilde’s and in addition to being Victorian London’s most prominent pornographer (a sign in his Bond Street shop window proudly declared “Smut is cheap today”), also financed The Savoy magazine and kept Aubrey Beardsley solvent after the artist’s commissions dried up following Wilde’s imprisonment in 1895.

The convoluted history of Teleny begins with its mysterious origin, recounted here by Beardsley scholar Brian Reade in Philippe Jullian’s 1969 Wilde biography:

Charles Hirsch, a Parisian bookseller, came to London in 1889 and opened a shop in Coventry Street where he sold Continental books and newspapers. Wilde was a frequent customer of his, and Hirsch used to obtain for him Alcibiades enfant à l’Ecole and The Sins of the Cities of the Plain. Many of these were reprints of well-known works of this character. Towards the end of 1890 Wilde brought into the shop a thin paper commercial-style notebook, wrapped up and sealed. This he instructed Hirsch to hand over to a friend who would present his card. Shortly afterwards, one of Wilde’s young friends whose name Hirsch had forgotten by the time he recorded the incident called at the shop and after showing Wilde’s card took away the packed-up notebook. A few days later the young man came back and handed the manuscript to Hirsch, saying another man would call and collect it in a similar manner. In all, four men seem to have taken away and returned the manuscript, and the last left the wrapper undone. Succumbing to temptation, Hirsch opened the parcel and read the contents of the notebook, the leaves of which were loose. On the cover there was a single word TELENY; inside about 200 pages of a novel which appeared to be a collaborative effort. No author’s name was given. The handwritings were various; there were conspicuous erasures, cuttings-out and corrections. Hirsch believed that some of the writing was Wilde’s. In due course Hirsch gave the manuscript back to Wilde. He next came across Teleny when he found it had been printed by Leonard Smithers in an edition privately issued and limited to 200 copies, with only the imprint ‘Cosmopoli’ at the bottom of the title page, and the date 1893. In this printed version, Paris had been substituted for London as the scene of the action, and there were certain differences of detail. There was an added sub-title Or the reverse of the Medal, and the Prologue had been cut out. When Hirsch got to know Smithers in 1900, he asked about the book, and was told that Smithers had wished not to upset the self-respect of clients by leaving the story with a London background. There was also Des Grieux. A Prelude to Teleny which was announced for publication by the Erotica Biblion Society in 1908. One can go over the names and literary mannerisms of some of the better-remembered persons in his circle in 1890, but to associate any of them with the authorship of Teleny would be difficult. Copies of Teleny in the 1893 edition are very rare indeed. The British Museum has one, but those in private possession have been reduced in number no doubt by executors and others who considered them unfit for anything else than fire. A new edition was brought out by the Olympia Press of Paris, and in it Wilde was definitely, but mistakenly, credited with the authorship; and an expurgated version was produced in paperback form by Icon in 1966, with an introduction by Montgomery Hyde.

Neil McKenna in The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (2003) is convinced of Wilde’s involvement whereas Richard Ellmann firmly dismissed the notion. Some of the dissent is perhaps a result of competing agendas, in McKenna’s case a determination to establish a firmly gay persona for the author. McKenna explores Wilde’s sex life in detail, something that Ellmann frequently skates over. Ellmann, meanwhile, has a better grasp of Wilde’s literary prowess and evidently thought that Teleny didn’t adequately match the rest of the author’s work. I remain agnostic on the issue while being struck by the frequent use in Teleny of flower metaphors which the narrator deploys when describing the object of his affection. Having recently read McKenna’s book (which quotes throughout from Wilde’s letters), and re-read The Picture of Dorian Gray, it’s impossible to avoid Wilde’s continuous recourse to flower imagery when referring to people or even items of furniture. The most famous instance of this was his description of Aubrey Beardsley and sister Mabel in a letter to Ada Leverson: “What a contrast the two are—Mabel a daisy, Aubrey the most monstrous of orchids.” On the debit side I’d say that Wilde is unlikely to have invented the central relationship between Camille de Grieux and his Hungarian lover, René Teleny. McKenna’s book also makes it clear that Wilde preferred younger men, particularly teenagers, and would no doubt have outlined a different story had he been the sole originator.

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left: Gay Men’s Press edition (1986); right: La Musardine edition (with Egon Schiele cover, 2009).

Everyone who discusses Teleny, however, is agreed that its prose is far more finely-wrought than much general writing of the period, never mind the era’s pornography. The sexual description is powerfully erotic and gives the lie to that canard (perpetuated by the egregious Auberon Waugh and his annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award) that describing sex is almost always a mistake. Describing anything poorly is a mistake, the challenge is to do the thing well, and Teleny describes the encounters of its pair of lovers better than many writers would manage today.

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Genuine (left) and pastiche (right) Beardsley designs.

With such an intriguing work it’s always a boon if there’s further discussion on the subject, and the Wilde connection pays off here with a whole section of the Oscholars website being devoted to the book. Of particular note is John McRae’s introduction to a revised and textually corrected edition published in 1986 by London’s Gay Men’s Press. Jason Boyd, meanwhile, argues that the book could never be wholly attributed to Wilde. Also present is a page showing different cover designs for the various editions, some of which are shown above. As well as the inevitable Wilde portraits and Beardsley designs there’s the surprise appearance of Flandrin’s Jeune Homme Assis au Bord de la Mer on several editions. Other pages at Oscholars include plates from an illustrated edition of the book whose publisher and illustrator, Uday K Dhar, forbid reproduction elsewhere, an all-too-common example of copyright paranoia which ensures the audience for their work remains a limited one. By contrast, artist Jon Macy has an entire site devoted to his comic strip adaptation of Teleny. His black-and-white drawing and attention to detail combine to make his book another item for the shopping list.

Update: The Oscholars site appears to have folded so the links now connect to archived pages.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The Oscar Wilde archive
The recurrent pose archive