Aubrey fakery


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.


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.


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.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The Aubrey Beardsley archive

Beardsley reviewed


More Aubrey Beardsley ephemera. These pages are from the bound edition of The Studio for 1894, reviews of two of Beardsley’s earliest publications: the first editions of Le Morte d’Arthur (which was published in multiple volumes), and the illustrated edition of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé which sealed Beardsley’s reputation as a major force in the art of the 1890s. The reviews lavish praise on both works, unsurprisingly since Beardsley had received the magazine’s support from the very first issue. It’s interesting to note even at this early stage mention of the rumblings of discontent which would grow increasingly loud in the following years. Also that The Peacock Skirt is here given the name The Peacock Girl.


NEW PUBLICATIONS. Le Morte d’Arthur. By Sir Thomas Mallory. Illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley. (London: J. M. Dent & Co.)—Salome. By Oscar Wilde. English version. Illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley. (London: Elkin Mathews & John Lane.)—It is no use, for the sake of maintaining the dignity of Sir Thomas Mallory, to deny that for this portly quarto, with its gold emblazoned cover, the interest centres in the designs which decorate rather than illustrate its text. Even Professor Rhys’ able introduction on the famous romances fails to detain one long from going on to the wealth of “black and white” in the volume. Since Mr. Joseph Pennell introduced Mr. Aubrey Beardsley in the first number of The Studio, barely ten months have passed, yet already (as the designs we receive in the Prize would alone suffice to prove) he has his disciples, imitators, and even (in a clever menu of a Glasgow dinner) his parodist. France and America have praised or attacked him, and to a following of younger men he is the latest and strongest force in decorative art. Here analytical criticism would be obviously out of place, but the volume before us may be cordially praised as a whole, and the four illustrations here reproduced (by the publishers’ kind permission) advanced as proof of the fancy and invention of the artist, and of his powerful handling of masses of black.

While Mr. Pennell, in his criticism—with reference more especially to certain separate drawings each complete in itself—laid the greatest stress upon “the use of the single line with which he weaves his drawings into a harmonious whole, joining extremes and reconciling oppositions,” here it is rather the balances of masses and the simplifying of forms to their most naive presentation that are so fascinating. Ornament for its own sake is plentiful and composition of figures, some individual to an almost dangerous degree, others perhaps slightly reminiscent of earlier work; but all these are most impressive from their bold use of white upon black. It is curious to see how often the design seems dug out of the wood, rather than drawn upon paper and reproduced by a mechanical process. A more perilous style to imitate could hardly be found, for its faults are easier copied than the astounding fertility and freshness of invention which more than redeem them. Only very rash or very foolish draughtsmen would attempt to do so; yet the suggestive influences of this book will probably affect modern design for some time to come.

As a feast of fantastic and eerie conceptions, some of rare beauty and not a few wrought with grotesque diablerie, it will delight (or exasperate as the case may be) all who take an interest in the applied arts. As the work of an artist who has not long been out of his teens, it is peculiarly noteworthy; for if one joined Mr. Beardsley’s few detractors and set aside all they failed to appreciate, the residue would offer enough motives for the stock-in-trade of a dozen less prodigal pattern-makers for years to come. To the publishers, whose enterprise made such a luxurious edition possible, to the artist, who has put so much of himself into it, the public should be grateful. For, like or dislike it, it will be long before a book so interesting and unconventional issues from the press, and one is left eagerly awaiting the remaining portion of the work.


In the new edition of Salome we find the irrepressible personality of the artist dominating everything—whether the compositions do or do not illustrate the text—what may be their exact purpose or the meaning of their symbolism, is happily not necessary to consider here. Nor is it expedient to bring conventional criticism to bear upon them for nothing in ancient or modern art is so akin that you could place it side by side for comparison. Audacious and extravagant, with a grim purpose and power of achieving the unexpected—we had almost written the impossible—one takes it for itself, as a piquant maddening potion, not so much a tonic as a stimulant to fancy. Those who dislike Mr. Beardsley’s work will be happy in the possession of the documentary evidence to support their opinion, while those who find it the very essence of the decadent fin de siècle will rank Salome as the typical volume of a period too recent to estimate its actual value, and too near to judge of its ultimate influence on decorative art. All collectors of rare and esoteric literature will rank this book as one of the most remarkable productions of the modern press. We have to thank the publishers for allowing us to reproduce The Peacock Girl, a full-page design that is typical of the work, The binding, a coarse pale blue canvas, with decorations in gold, Mr. Beardsley’s chosen device, being on the back cover, is entirely admirable.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The Aubrey Beardsley archive

Aubrey Beardsley in The Studio


Aubrey Beardsley in the year 1893 was 21, and on the threshold of being catapulted to fame (and notoriety) via his illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s Salomé. Some of Beardsley’s drawings in the distinctive style he called “Japanesque” had already appeared in The Pall Mall Magazine, and he was hard at work on some 600 illustrations and embellishments for Dent’s Le Morte D’Arthur which began publication in 1894. Some of those illustrations are featured in the glowing introduction by Joseph Pennell which appeared in the first issue of The Studio magazine in April 1893 (when Beardsley was still only 20), a title that became the leading showcase for the British end of the Art Nouveau movement in the 1890s. Pennell’s appreciation also included Beardsley’s Joan of Arc’s Entry into Orleans, a piece which showed how much the artist’s early work owed to Mantegna, and the first drawing of Salomé which later helped secure the Wilde commission. The Joan of Arc picture was reproduced as a fold-out supplement in the magazine’s second issue.


All the major Beardsley books refer to Pennell’s article but I’ve never had the opportunity to see it in full until now, thanks to the excellent online archives at the University of Heidelberg. There are many volumes of the international editions of The Studio at the Internet Archive but for some reason these don’t include the early numbers; at Heidelberg we can now browse the missing issues. In the first volume in addition to Beardsley there’s a piece about Frederic Leighton’s clay studies for paintings and sculptures, illustrations by Walter Crane and Robert Anning Bell, and an article on whether nude photography can be considered art. In this last piece several of the examples happen to be provided by Frederick Rolfe aka Baron Corvo, and Wilhelm von Gloeden, two men who we now know had other things on their mind when they were photographing Italian youths.

The collected volumes of The Studio from 1893 to 1898 may be browsed or downloaded here. I’ve not had time to go through the rest of these so I’m looking forward to discovering what else they may contain.




Detail from Joan of Arc’s Entry into Orleans.


Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The Aubrey Beardsley archive

Old New Orleans


If you know the names Lafcadio Hearn and Joseph Pennell it’s surprising to see them brought together for this 1885 guide to the city of New Orleans. Hearn is better known for his many books about the folklore of Japan and China, while Pennell was a highly regarded artist and illustrator with a predilection for impressionistic cityscapes. The book is part of the Internet Archive so details are scant but it looks like a gathering together of prior work about the city with no single author—Hearn and others are credited inside. The deteriorated glamour of New Orleans means the illustrations are more picturesque than usual. Hearn had a fascination with ghost stories so he’d no doubt appreciate the view of the Haunted House on Royal Street. Browse the rest of the book here or download it here.





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