The Carnival is Over? Beardsley’s Pierrots, The Savoy, and the Moral Battle for Modern Art

In 1893, Aubrey Beardsley described his art to a school friend. His work, he said, concerned subjects that were ‘quite mad and a little indecent’, starring ‘strange hermaphroditic creatures wandering about in Pierrot costumes or modern dress’.[1] Three years later Beardsley founded the publication The Savoy. Pierrot, the commedia dell arte clown, drifts through The Savoy’s pages, assuming various guises but always recognisable from his trademark white frilled blouse. This essay will trace these appearances in the magazine’s frontispiece, The Death of Pierrot, and Don Juan, Sganarelle and Beggar, arguing that the narrative implied in these drawings conveys a seriocomic account of the relationship between The Savoy and its public. In doing so, I argue Beardsley’s Savoy Pierrots dramatize the relationship between the misunderstood modern artist and the public.

Aubrey Beardsley, frontispiece to The Savoy, vols. 3-8, 1896. Philadelphia Museum of Art Library, Philadelphia

Just as he does in Beardsley’s drawings, Pierrot wanders in and out of Beardsley scholarship, his presence often noted but his meaning unexplored. Images of Pierrot are typically regarded as self-portraits, a tendency beginning in the biographies following Beardsley’s death. For Arthur Symons, The Savoy’s literary editor, Beardsley ‘was this Pierrot… It helped him to the pose which helped him to reveal himself’.[2] Julius Maier-Graefe wrote that hearing of Beardsley’s death made him picture ‘a four-post bed… under which Pierrot seems to be asleep’.[3] This tendency remains unquestioned, with later critics such as Kenneth Clark reiterating the claim.[4]

This identification is understandable. Although Pierrot’s initial appearances in commedia plays were unpromising, cast as a buffoon persecuted by his fellow players, the nineteenth-century Romantic avant-garde reinvented Pierrot. This was done in the shadow of Jean-Antoine Watteau, the rococo artist Beardsley idolised whose work was viewed by the Parisian avant-garde as a retreat from the vulgarity of the masses.[5] Watteau frequently painted Pierrot, emphasising his alienation from his onstage persecutors and also seemingly the audiences he stares melancholically out at. Coinciding with developments on the Parisian stage, on which performers imbued Pierrot with a newfound sense of existential suffering and tragedy, the rediscovery of Watteau’s Pierrots transformed the clown into a symbol of the artist’s struggle against a philistine public.[6]  The notion that Pierrot is Beardsley is, therefore, not unreasonable, but it is reductive. Turning to The Savoy’s frontispiece, we find that Pierrot is instead an allegorical figure, ironically dramatizing the moral battle for modern art.

Although the reappearance of this design throughout The Savoy’s issues was likely pragmatically motivated — issue three announced that The Savoy would become a monthly, not quarterly periodical, and the precarity of Beardsley’s health may have precluded this increased workload — this transformed the design into something of a logo.[7] Beardsley depicts an armed Pierrot atop a winged horse, its front legs aloft in the manner of a swaggering nobleman’s equestrian portrait. Beneath this is the inscription ‘Ne Juppiter quidem omnibus placet’ (‘not even Jupiter can please everyone’), a truism associated with the ruling class struggling to appease all its subjects. This is presumably intended satirically.

In The Savoy’s first issue Arthur Symons proclaimed the journal espoused the principle that ‘all art is good which is good art’ and that its editors were certainly not ‘Decadents’.[8] However, reviewers still harboured suspicions that the magazine fostered decadent elements owing to Beardsley’s involvement.[9] Pierrot’s victorious pose and the patrician connotations of the inscription suggests a mockery of critics’ concerns over a publication that stressed its nonideological principles.

The humour seems befitting of Beardsley. Amused by provocation, Beardsley’s letters are laced with mock-concern for ‘philistines’, notably asking Leonard Smithers whether ‘the philistine was yearning’ for the third volume of The Savoy.[10] His defence of his work in the Pall Mall Budget was addressed to ‘those who profess to find my picture unintelligible’ and saw Beardsley feigning offence at being labelled ‘decadent’.[11] Moreover, it is in the spirit of The Savoy. Symons’s editorial note for the issue that immediately predated this Pierrot celebrated that reviews had been ‘for the most part unfavourable’ because ‘any new endeavour lends itself… to the disapproval of the larger number of people’.[12] His final editor’s notice echoes the combative rhetoric of Beardsley’s drawing, lamenting that The Savoy did not ‘conquer the general public’ and must ‘retire from the arena’.[13] In reality the reception of The Savoy was generally positive, but evidently admitting this would have confounded the rebellious spirit of The Savoy’s founders.[14] They were waging, to some extent, a fictitious battle, a fact which is perhaps reflected in one unelucidated source of inspiration for Beardsley’s frontispiece. The drawing is sometimes now called Puck on Pegasus, a bizarre combination of characters that has no artistic heritage beyond an 1862 book of verse by Henry Cholmondeley-Pennell of the same name, and Beardsley’s design recalls a dramatically simplified version of George Cruikshank’s frontispiece to this. [15] The coexistence of this reference to a mischievous fairy and a conquering warrior suggests a knowing playfulness in Beardsley’s provocation.

George Cruikshank, Puck on Pegasus, 1862. Library of Congress, Washington

Beneath this lies a subtler point about The Savoy and its (imaginary) reception. Unlike Cruikshank’s drawing in which Puck rides a rocking-horse, Pierrot rides a real winged horse. Beardsley’s drawing thus far more readily calls to mind the mythological image of Perseus riding Pegasus after killing Medusa, something that would not have escaped Beardsley’s extensive knowledge of classical literature.[16] The identification of Pierrot with Perseus is striking, insinuating an equal kinship between the artist’s vanquished enemy and Medusa. In doing so, Beardsley is not merely asserting his victory over public miscomprehension but turning critics’ assertions of immorality back on them. The Savoy, Symon’s opening editorial suggested, could hardly be responsible for morally suspicious material. Any impropriety detected must be, by the logic of Beardsley’s classical allusion, the result of The Savoy’s critics inventing decadence in innocuous artworks and having their invented perversions reflected back at them, like Medusa’s face in Perseus’s shield. Assuming a ludicrously grandiose role entirely at odds with his diminutive appearance, this Pierrot is at once a statement of defiant superiority and an ironic comment on the importance of the theme.

Aubrey Beardsley, The Death of Pierrot, 1896. Philadelphia Museum of Art Library, Philadelphia

What a difference a few issues can make, it seems; the next time we encounter Pierrot in The Savoy he lies upon his deathbed. The Death of Pierrot perhaps cleaves most closely to the autobiographical reading of Beardsley’s Pierrots. Kenneth Clark was likely right, however, in stating that it is likely not concerned with Beardsley’s actual death. Clark noted that the Savoy drawings are ‘no longer shocking’ and reads The Death of Pierrot as a memorial for ‘the death of [this] side of his talent’.[17] I would argue, however, that Pierrot still stands more for The Savoy than for Beardsley. 1896 saw the worsening of Beardsley’s health, with Robert Ross recording he became ‘a permanent invalid’.[18] By the end of summer, he wrote to Smithers that ‘I don’t believe I shall pull through the winter’.[19] Rather than his apparently lessening talent, I suggest Beardsley is instead depicting the death of The Savoy itself owing to his lessening influence. David Colvin noted that Beardsley, Symons, and Smithers all had greatly differing views of what The Savoy stood for, and it is likely that Beardsley saw his withdrawal in fatalistic terms.[20]

In the drawing, Pierrot is visited by his fellow commedia characters. Although Beardsley’s accompanying text states Pierrot is treated ‘with much love’ by them, the ominous closing remark that they carry him ‘whither, we know not’ suggests a level of irony in mentioning their loving devotion. This is supported by the disturbing figures his visitors cut. The two closest to him turn to us with fingers over their lips, a pantomimic prelude to a cruel surprise entirely befitting Pierrot’s typical role in commedia plays. More alarmingly, the third figure, armed with a sword, looks on Pierrot with a venomous expression. The enemies, once triumphantly crushed under Pegasus’s foot, are at the door, waiting to strike the perilously weakened Savoy and, as the text says, remove it from the public eye. This is not, however, the end. In Don Juan, Sganarelle and Beggar in The Savoy’s final issue, Pierrot appears for a curtain call in his most surprising guise.

Firstly, it is striking that Pierrot features in this drawing at all. Although Pierrot appears in Moliere’s Don Juan, he is absent from the scene Beardsley chose to depict. As Beardsley summarised in a letter to Smithers, he depicts the scene ‘where Don Juan and Sganarelle [his valet] meet the beggar in the wood. Don J. offers him a Louis d’or if he will curse and blaspheme. The beggar refuses to do so and at last Don Juan gives him the money “pour l’amour de l’humanite”.’[21] It is unsurprising, therefore, that he had to clarify that ‘Yes Sganarelle is the figure in black’ as it is Don Juan, not Pierrot, he was theoretically depicting, despite the fact his figure wears Pierrot’s unmistakeable costume.[22] Pierrot/Don Juan’s act of proffering a coin should have been enough for Smithers to know who this figure is, and hence there would have been no need to clarify that Sganarelle is the figure in black. Owing to Beardsley’s economic technique, however, the coin in Pierrot/Don Juan’s palm is difficult to discern as such. It is demarcated only by a circular black outline in a white hand against an identically white background, looking more like a hole than a solid form. Appearing to bare a hole in his palm to the beggar, Pierrot appears as Christ, proving the truth of his resurrection by proffering his stigmata wounds to an astonished audience.

Aubrey Beardsley, Don Juan, Sganarelle and Beggar, 1896. Philadelphia Museum of Art Library, Philadelphia

Not only is the substitution of Christ for clown perplexing, but it also does not explain the incongruity of substituting Don Juan for Pierrot. Rather, these two images — Pierrot-as-Don-Juan and Pierrot-as-Christ — coexist in the drawing just as Pierrot-as-Puck and Pierrot-as-Perseus coexist in the frontispiece. There is one possible key to these peculiarities, again seeing Pierrot doing battle with the public while pleading The Savoy’s innocence. The substitution of Don Juan for Pierrot is perhaps the most important element in communicating this latter message. Moliere’s Don Juan, in many ways, encapsulates the fears Beardsley’s critics felt about Beardsley. Sganarelle introduces him as ‘the most shameless sinner ever born’ who ‘shuts his ears to all reproaches’ and ‘makes me witness so many horrors’.[23] Indeed, he is something of a proto-decadent, justifying his dissolute lifestyle by inviting Sganarelle to ‘not think about the unpleasant things that could happen, only about the pleasure of this moment’.[24] In Moliere’s text, Don Juan gives the coin to the beggar who refuses to blaspheme to demonstrate the beggar’s foolishness in waiting for divine assistance that will never come, and his statement that it is done ‘pour l’amour de l’humanite’ is an ironic expression of Juan’s atheism.[25]

As Beardsley would have known this — Robert Ross recorded that Beardsley was ‘full of Moliere’ — it is significant that he does away with these details in his letter to Smithers.[26] In Beardsley’s retelling, Don Juan’s actions seem less like an act of cruelty and more like a reward for piety. This extends the point made by the frontispiece Pierrot, who only reflects The Savoy’s detractors’ failings back at them. Where they expected the decadence of Don Juan, they are met with a benevolent Pierrot. As The Savoy’s mascot, Pierrot again protests its innocence; yet again, the criticisms levelled at the magazine appear to be the fault of the critics and their presupposition of its actually non-existent immorality. Beardsley is not so much illustrating Moliere’s text as he is exploiting its antihero’s reputation for decadence to wrongfoot his detractors. Looking only at the title, or looking at the drawing only briefly, it would appear to depict a moment of immorality — it is only those who sincerely attempt to understand Beardsley’s work who realise that this is unfounded.

Beardsley’s artistic act of transubstantiation, turning a coin into a holy wound, labours the point to a preposterous degree. It is hard to say whether the drawing is animated by the spirit of the Beardsley who gloried in provocation or a profoundly ill Beardsley beginning to embrace Catholicism. If it is a joke, it chimes with the Latin inscription of the frontispiece. No longer vanquishing his enemies, Pierrot instead bares the wounds they inflicted upon him, confirming that he has miraculously risen above them- his last appearance in The Savoy was, of course, upon his deathbed. As Symons cited poor sales causing The Savoy’s abandonment, it is possible that the wounds Pierrot bares are the wounds dealt to the magazine by the public. At the same time, he remains a mortal figure offering his symbolic riches to the beggar who stares in rapt attention. Beardsley’s final statement of The Savoy’s relationship to its critics thus confirms its innocence and superiority to the masses, wrongfooting readers with its allusion to Moliere’s amoral Don Juan and insinuating, through invoking the resurrection, the ultimate victory of The Savoy’s rarefied spirit.

Pierrot is arguably not, therefore, a self-portrait but a representative of The Savoy whose battles explore the artist’s relationship with the public. The result is a series of drawings that at once express the misunderstood superiority of The Savoy while also regarding the pomposity of this position with a self-conscious eye. Harmonising with Symons’s editorial notices, Pierrot dramatises the public life of The Savoy by appropriating mythic narratives that ironically elevate the battle over its contents to laughable levels. Indeed, this is possibly the grandest statement of the artist’s superiority over the public. Faced with charges of immorality, Beardsley never dignified this by responding earnestly — rather, like Pierrot, he simply fashioned a mask, eternally laughing.


Samuel Love is a first-year PhD candidate in History of Art at the University of York who is currently based in Edinburgh. His thesis examines visual art and the re-enchantment of English High Society between the world wars, focusing on the function of glamour and fantasy in the work of artists such as Cecil Beaton, Rex Whistler, and the Zinkeisen sisters. He attained a Masters degree from the University of Edinburgh in 2019 for his thesis ‘Oh England, My Lionheart! Englishness and the Countryside in Art Between the Wars’, exploring the work of Stanley Spencer, Cecil Beaton, and Eric Ravilious. Since 2018 he has written and spoken on modern British art in a variety of contexts, discussing figures including Edward Bawden, Eric Ravilious, and Kate Bush. Some of his work can be found on Art UK, including a short history of Pierrot and modern art. Most recently, Liverpool University Press’s upcoming publication Art and the Sea will include his chapter discussing national identity and nostalgia in Edward Bawden’s mural The English Pub.Since reading The Picture of Dorian Gray as a pretentious fifteen-year-old, Samuel has held a long-standing interest in decadence, dandyism, and the aesthetic legacies of the 1890s in British art and culture. His fascination with Pierrot as a totem figure for modern artists is one result of this, just as a predilection for velvet jackets is another. He continues to horrify friends and family alike by insisting on decorating his room with a large, wall-mounted porcelain Pierrot’s head. 


[1] Letter to G. F. Scotson-Clark, c. 15th February 1893. In The Letters of Aubrey Beardsley, ed. Henry Maas, Plantin, 1990, 43

[2] Symons, Arthur. The Art of Aubrey Beardsley. Boni and Liveright, Inc., 1925, 28-9

[3] Meier-Graefe, Julius. Modern Art: a Contribution to a New System of Aesthetics. Heinemann, 1908, 258

[4] Clark, Kenneth. The Best of Aubrey Beardsley. Doubleday, 1978, 150

[5] Sund, Judy. “Why So Sad? Watteau’s Pierrots.” The Art Bulletin, vol. 98, no. 3, 2016, 323

[6] Ibid.

[7] Symons, Arthur. “Editorial Note”. The Savoy, vol. 3, 1896, 7

[8] Symons, Arthur. “Editorial Note”. The Savoy, vol. 1, 1896, 5

[9] Contemporary reviews can be found at:

[10] Letter to Leonard Smithers, 10th June 1896. Letters, 136

[11] Letter to the editor of the Pall Mall Budget, 27th April 1894. In Beardsley, Aubrey. Under the Hill: and Other Essays in Prose and Verse, Lane, 1921, 69

[12] Symons, Arthur. “Editorial Note”. The Savoy, vol. 2, 1896, 5

[13] Symons, Arthur. “Editorial Note”. The Savoy, vol. 7, 1896, 7

[14] Colvin, David. Aubrey Beardsley: a Slave to Beauty. Welcome Rain, 1999, 82

[15] Cholmondeley-Pennell, Henry. Puck on Pegasus. Routledge, 1862.

[16] Ross, Beardsley, 21

[17] Clark, Best of Beardsley, 150

[18] Ross, Beardsley, 25

[19] Letter to Leonard Smithers, 31st October 1896. Letters, 157

[20] Colvin, Slave to Beauty, 77

[21] Letter to Leonard Smithers, 3rd October 1896. Letters, 176

[22] Letter to Leonard Smithers, 8th October 1896. Letters, 182

[23] Moliere. “Don Juan.” Scapin; and Don Juan, by Moliere, trans. Albert Bermel, Applause, 1987, 60

[24] Ibid., 64

[25] Ibid., 88

[26] Ross, Beardsley, 16