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

The Far Tower: Stories for WB Yeats

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I said a couple of weeks ago that I had more cover designs waiting to be revealed, and this was one of them, arriving two years to the week after my earlier cover for The Scarlet Soul: Stories of Dorian Gray. Both books are collections of original fiction edited by Mark Valentine for Swan River Press, and both offer variations on works by Irish authors prominent during the 1890s:

“All Art that is not mere story-telling,
or mere portraiture, is symbolic…” — WB Yeats

Stories of magic and myth, folklore and fairy traditions, the occult and the outré, inspired by the rich mystical world of Ireland’s greatest poet, WB Yeats. We invited ten contemporary writers to celebrate Yeats’s contributions to the history of the fantastic and supernatural in literature, drawing on his work for their own new and original tales. Each has chosen a phrase from his poems, plays, stories, or essays to herald their own explorations in the esoteric. Alongside their own powerful qualities, the pieces here testify to the continuing resonance of Yeats’s vision in our own time, that deep understanding of the meshing of two worlds and the talismans of old magic.

Yeats had a career that extended beyond the fin de siècle, of course, and the title of The Far Tower alludes to The Tower, a collection of poems that Yeats published in 1928. (The first poem in the book, Sailing to Byzantium, is the origin of the phrase/title “no country for old men”.) Yeats’s poetry is very different to the Modernists, however, and remained infused with mystical resonances, something I tried to reflect in the cover design. In addition to the very Yeatsian symbol of the rose there are symbols for the four elements, and a pair of robed figures who can be taken as adepts of one sort or another, either the Golden Dawn (who Yeats was involved with for a time) or the various Theosophists and Rosicrucians of the period who fed his imagination.

The green-and-gold colour scheme matches the gold on green design that Thomas Sturge Moore created for the first edition of The Tower. Sturge Moore produced covers for a number of Yeats’s books but it was his splendid design for Axel by Auguste Villiers de L’Isle-Adam that gave me the nested circles and vertical division of the board. That edition happens to have a preface by Yeats so as an influence it isn’t too remote.

The Far Tower will be published in December but is available for pre-order now.

Previously on { feuilleton }
The Scarlet Soul: Stories for Dorian Gray
Form and Austin Osman Spare
Golden apples and silver apples
A Book of Images by WT Horton
The Savoy magazine

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

Aubrey Beardsley and His World

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This US TV programme isn’t the greatest quality, and it’s blighted throughout with a large watermark, but it’s a revelatory piece both for Aubrey Beardsley enthusiasts and Oscar Wilde aficionados. Camera Three was a CBS arts show which presented Aubrey Beardsley and His World on 12th March, 1967, as a preview for the Beardsley exhibition which had just opened in New York. This was the same landmark exhibition that made such a splash the year before at the V&A in London, and V&A curator Brian Reade appears in the programme to discuss Beardsley’s importance with host James Macandrew. It’s good to see Reade again (he was also in a later BBC documentary) since his Beardsley monograph is a great favourite of mine; as is typical of the period, he looks and sounds very upper class but his scholarship is always authoritative.

Ordinarily this would be enough to satisfy me, even though the programme only runs for 27 minutes and doesn’t tell me anything about Aubrey that I didn’t know already. The great revelation comes near the end with the appearance of Vyvyan Holland, the younger son of Oscar Wilde. Holland not only admired Beardsley’s work but actually met him in 1895 shortly before the artist’s untimely death. Holland was 9 years old at the time, and was taken to visit Aubrey by his mother; he was 81 in 1967, and died himself later that year so we’re very fortunate that he was captured on tape at all. The programme also includes a short extract from Alla Nazimova’s 1923 film of Salomé, with costumes and decor all based on Beardsley’s drawings. Watch it here.

Previously on { feuilleton }
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

Weekend links 368

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Piazzetta San Marco by Moonlight (no date) by Friedrich Paul Nerly.

• RIP Heathcote Williams (Guardian obit, NYT obit): poet, playwright, actor, artist, anarchist, stage magician, and no doubt many other things besides. Being a product of the counter-culture, and one of Britain’s foremost anti-establishment writers (his polemics against the Royal Family were unceasing), Williams was a regular in the early publications produced by my colleagues at Savoy Books; in fact there’s a piece by him in The Savoy Book itself. Consequently, Williams always felt like a distant relative even though we never met. Of his many film appearances, which ranged from low-budget independent productions to Hollywood junk, he was ideally cast as Prospero in Derek Jarman’s film of The Tempest, and he audaciously steals a scene from Tilda Swinton in Sally Potter’s wonderful Orlando. Elsewhere: Jeremy Harding on Williams’ run-ins with the gatekeepers, and Why D’Ya Do It?, a song by Marianne Faithfull with lyrics by Williams.

• Mixes of the week: Secret Thirteen Mix 226 by Chihei Hatakeyama, and SydArthur Festival 2: Summer of Love Edition by Head Heritage.

Geeta Dayal on composer and musique concrète pioneer Pierre Henry whose death was also announced this week.

Jonathan Meades reviews Vinyl.Album.Cover.Art: The Complete Hipgnosis Catalogue by Aubrey Powell.

• “Brutal! Vulgar! Dirty!” Polly Stenham on Mae West and the gay comedy that shocked 1920s America.

Hannah Devlin on religious leaders getting high on psilocybin for science.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Spotlight on…In Transit (1969) by Brigid Brophy.

• At Bibliothèque Gay: Matelots (1935) by Gregorio Prieto.

SD Sykes on reconsidering Venice, crumbling city.

Letters and Liquor

This Ain’t The Summer Of Love (1976) by Blue Öyster Cult | Orlando (1996) by Trans Am | Transit (2004) by Fennesz