Beardsley’s Rape of the Lock


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.


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 Aubrey Beardsley archive
The illustrators archive
The book covers archive