Saturday, March 01, 2008

My Nineties 2: Aubrey Beardsley, Richard Burton, Swinburne

More from the memoirs of Walter T Spencer, bookseller...
[illustration: Sir Richard Burton]...
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Aubrey Beardsley came to my shop for the first time about the year 1890, before he was much known. He was such an extraordinary looking man, exactly like the signed photograph hanging in my parlour, that I cold not help wondering for long who he was. Then came an occasion on which he made a purpose and asked me to put the volume aside for him, and at last I knew his name. Later on he suggested that he might illustrate a book for me to publish. In those days Beardsley’s beautiful decorative work was, I thought, a revelation in art. His later output, that with which everyone is familiar, was entirely different. He had come under the influence of Smithers - and, I must add, Sir Richard Burton.

About 1888 Sir Richard Burton was a frequent visitor to my shop, and I learned a good deal about what he called his “Yellow Breakfasts,” held once a week at his rooms, close to my shop. Merry gatherings they seemed to have been, and the guests generally included, I think, Swinburne and Whistler, Wilde and Beardsley. The gathering would have spent the night at some club or another, playing cards and drinking. Then they would adjourn at dawn to Burton’s for breakfast.

Mr. Watts-Duncan told me that it was from this circle that he rescued Swinburne when he took him away to Putney. “Why,” exclaimed Watts-Duncan, “the man couldn’t drink more than three brandies without going under the table!” Sir Richard Burton told me that it was at one of these parties that Whistler first saw Oscar Wilde. “Who is this dammed young Irishman?” he asked in a loud voice while he adjusted his monocle.

One of the best studies of Aubrey Beardsley is that which was written many years ago by Mr. Arthur Symons. I had known Mr. Symons well enough, and long enough, to be of use to him while he was compiling the Clarendon Press edition of the peasant John Clare’s poetry in 1907. Among my manuscripts was the “copy” prepared by Clare for “The Rural Muse” of 1835. In addition to the poems printed in that early volume were others which the publishers evidently rejected as unworthy of publication. But Mr. Symons took the manuscript along with him into the country and was able to discover several pieces worth publishing, which had not previously appeared in print. Another loan was a copy of Clare’s “Shepherd’s Calendar.” I have a letter before me now from Mr. Symons in which he writes: “Could you still, as you kindly intimated, lend me this one to print from? If you do not wish the book to go to the printer I will have the poems copied. I am sending my own copies, and I think they will be careful of them.” All of which reminds me that on another occasion I had much pleasure in assisting Mr. Downey, who published the authoritative edition of Charles Lever’s works in thirty-seven volumes to make the bibliographical compilations.

When Mr. Edmund Brooks, the Minneapolis bookseller and excellent friend whom I have already mentioned in this volume, desired the acquaintance of Mr. Symons so that he could arrange with him to write something especially for publication by him, I was able to arrange a meeting. I remember well how he, Mr. and Mrs. Symons and I dined together at Hampton Court. The outcome of the event was “London: A Book of Aspects,” of which book Mr. Brooks presented me with a copy bound in full morocco. It is out of my reach, however, at the moment, being on my “gift-copy” bookshelves away in the Isle of Wight.

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