Monday, November 18, 2013

Aubrey Beardsley by Joseph Pennell: An Early Notice

In volume one of The Studio, in 1893, under the editorship of Joseph Gleeson-White, a man whom we have mentioned many times on Front Free Endpaper as not having received his due for his influence on the art scene of the end of the nineteenth century, included not only an article that showcased probably the first publication in the UK of the photography of Baron von Gloeden, it also, in issue number one, had an article on Aubrey Beardsley by the American author and illustrator Joseph Pennell. This is really right at the start of Beardsley's career, indeed one of the illustrations from the article is a double page spread of Beardsley's work on Morte d'Athur for J. M. Dent. This was Beardsley's first commission and the illustration is captioned as 'forthcoming'. So it is interesting to see what Pennell made of this bright young thing. I imagine that it was actually Gleeson White who showed the drawings to Pennell and asked him to write about them:

"I have lately seen a few drawings which seem to me to be very remarkable. The very limited number which the artist is said to have produced makes their perfection of execution all the more remarkable. I am quite well aware that the mere fact of publicly admitting one's interest in the work of a new man, whose first work may be a delight to artists, is not considered to be good form in criticism. But what should one care about good or bad form - or criticism either, for that matter? For the criticism of art to-day is merely the individual expression of persons who mostly know nothing about their subject. Though artists may be struck with a man's earliest work, and though the creator of it may, and frequently does, never produce anything better, one usually waits until he is dead, or discouraged, before any visible sign of appreciation is granted him. Thus is the intelligent critic spared from making a spectacle of himself.

But whether Mr Beardsley's work is appreciated or despised - and my only fear is that he will suffer from over-appreciation and enthusiasm - the drawings here printed show decisively the presence among us of an artist, of an artist whose work is quite as remarkable in its execution as in its invention: a very rare combination. It is most interesting to note, too, that though Mr Beardsley has drawn his motives from every age, and founded his styles - for it is quite impossible to say what his styles may be - on all schools, he had not been carried back into the fifteenth century, or succumbed to the limitations of Japan; he has recognised that he is living in the last decade of the nineteenth century, and he has availed himself of mechanical reproduction for the publication of his drawings, which the Japs and the Germans would have accepted with delight had they but known it. The reproduction of the Morte d'Arthur drawing, printed in this number, is one of the most marvellous pieces of mechanical engraving, if not the most marvellous, that I have ever seen, simply for this reason: it gives Mr Beardsley's actual handiwork, and not the interpretation of it by some one else. I know it is the correct thing to rave over the velvety, fatty quality of the wood-engraved line, a quality which can be obtained from any process block by careful printing, and which is not due to the artist at all. But here I find the distinct quality of a pen line, and of Mr Beardsley's pen line, which had been used by the artist and reproduced by the process-man in a truly extraordinary manner. The decorative borders also are very charming. Mr Beardsley has recognised and shown by his work that decoration means, not the production of three or four fine stock designs, and the printing of these in books, to which they have no earthly relation, on a hand-press; but that decoration should be the individual and separate production of designs which really illustrate or decorate the page for which they were made, and that the artistic value of such designs is not lessened by the fact that they are quite as well, if not better, printed by steam than they have ever been by hand.

Although in all of Mr Beardsley's drawings which I have so far seen there are signs of other men's influence, I know no reason why this influence should not be apparent if the inventor of what we consider the type is not a worthy man to imitate. However, to say that Burne Jones, or even his far greater master Rossetti, invented what is vulgarly known at the Rossetti type, is absurd. They did not invent it: they have only recorded a type which is very common in this country, emphasising certain characteristics which no one had ever emphasised before. Mr Beardsley, in illustrating the Morte d'Arthur, wished an appropriate type; he has taken the one which appealed to him most, and he was perfectly justified in doing so. But it seems to me that he has drawn such special attention to it that it detracts from the otherwise great merit of his designs which he himself calls Japanesques, this type scarcely occurs at all. It is far more amusing to dwell upon what may seem its weaknesses, and though he had allowed recently a number of drawings to be printed elsewhere which are not worthy to be signed by him, some of the little head-pieces, notably one of men in armour, seem to me, in execution as well as design, quite equal to the best fifteenth century work. Then, too, his little landscapes are altogether delightful: though they are conventional in the right sense, they are not imitations. But most interesting of all is his use of the single line, with which he weaves his drawings into an harmonious whole, joining extremes and reconciling what might be oppositions - leading, but not forcing, you properly to regard the concentration of his motive. In his blacks, too, he has obtained a singularly interesting quality, and always disposes them so as to make a very perfect arabesque. Certainly, with the comparatively small amount of work which Mr Beardsley has produced, he had managed to appeal to artists - and what more could he wish?" - Joseph Pennell

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