On 21 August 2021, Beardsley turned 149 years old while the Aubrey Beardsley Society celebrated its first year. Two Beardsleyites extraordinaire, Professor Margaret Stetz and Dr Kate Hext, helped us mark the occasion in style by speaking on the topics of utmost decadent interest. The event was organised by the Aubrey Beardsley Society in association with the British Association of Decadence Studies and Birkbeck Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies. Please watch recorded talks below and admire a new animation by the Artist in Residence in the opening credits.
Margaret D. Stetz
Aubrey Beardsley, Down Among the Women
That women—imaginary ones, at least—were central to Beardsley’s visual works is a notion that no one would question. Less certain, however, is our knowledge of the role that actual women played in his professional life or, indeed, of the role that he and his art played in the lives and works of his women contemporaries. How did they regard both Beardsley himself and his black-and-white images? And what uses did they make of him in their own art and writings?
In this paper, I would like to “re-view” some of the terrain that I first explored over twenty years ago, in an article (“The Yellow Book and the Beardsley Myth”) published in the Journal of the Eighteen Nineties Society (No. 26, 1999). There, I had examined the favorable portrait of Beardsley that the “New Woman” and Bodley Head author, Netta Syrett, offered in her 1939 memoir, The Sheltering Tree, while also focusing on a troubling point—Beardsley’s seeming exclusion of women artists from the Yellow Book during his time as its art editor (an exclusion that also applied to Syrett’s sisters, two of whom were artists whose works would later be welcomed into the periodical, but only after John Lane had fired him from that post in 1895).
Now, however, I intend to look at a wider range of evidence in considering Beardsley’s place “down among the women” (to play upon the title of a novel by Fay Weldon). Netta Syrett will again figure here, but through her later fiction about the Bodley Head world, Rose Cottingham (also known as The Victorians) from 1915. So, too, will E. Nesbit, with a comic poem that mocked the appearance of the so-called “Beardsley Woman.” On the visual side, I will pay careful attention to the uses that the American-born poster artist, Ethel Reed, made of Beardsleyesque style, as well as to the work of Celia Levetus and of the photographer, Zaida Ben-Yusuf.
But consideration will also go to the British actress, playwright, poet, and belles lettristic prose writer Ella Erskine. In a short profile of her published in a 1909 issue of the Bookman—at the time when her volume of prose sketches, Shadow-shapes, was about to be issued by Elkin Mathews—Erskine claimed to be a cousin of Aubrey Beardsley, a fact that I have been unable to confirm. Why did—indeed, why would—any woman writer wish to affiliate herself in 1909 with Beardsley’s memory and reputation? I will try to answer that question.
My presentation will conclude with a brief mention of the ongoing global influence of Beardsley on women artists today, including Kuniko Tsurita and Audrey Niffenegger.
Beardsley at the Cinema
Aubrey Beardsley was reanimated by American cinema. Across the history of moving pictures he and his works have had an afterlife onscreen, variously, as artistic inspirations, symbols of sexual transgression and horror.
This paper is a brief history of Beardsley in Hollywood. It puts his posthumous Hollywood career in the context of America’s Beardsleymania in the late 1910s and ‘20s, including the artists who considered Beardsley to be a key influence. It discusses the significance of Beardsley’s style in Nazimova’s Salome (1923), The Black Cat (1934) and Ziegfeld Follies (1944), with clips from films and close analysis of how they draw on Beardsley and effects of doing so in the new context of commercial cinema.
Looking back at Beardsley through the eyes of filmmakers offers a new perspective, bringing into focus aspects of his work that have slipped from critical view. And so, this paper will use its focus on cinema to re-engage with Beardsley’s art to pose questions on mobility (or immobility) and the peculiar dimension of horror in his pictures.