“Those who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.”
This lithograph of the famous British caricaturist, theatre critic and writer, Max Beerbohm (1872-1956), is by Charles Shannon (1863-1937). Together with his lifelong partner, Charles Ricketts (1866-1931), Shannon played a leading role in reviving the art of printmaking in Britain. In 1896, the couple set up Vale Press, publishing beautiful small editions of poetry, plays and fiction. They also produced their own magazine, The Dial, and illustrated and printed books by authors in their circle of friends including Oscar Wilde and Michael Field (a pseudonym of the lesbian couple Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper).
Beerbohm moved in the same circles as Shannon and Ricketts. Shannon’s 1896 print focuses on Beerbohm’s renowned “Dandy” style. It was made the same year that Beerbohm wrote an influential essay on modern Dandyism, Dandies And Dandies, where he sums up the essence of Dandyism as being the ability to create the most extravagant effect, with the simplest means. Paying tribute to his style icon Beau Brummell (1778-1840), the first English Dandy, he wrote:
“In certain congruities of dark cloth, in the rigid perfection of his linen, in the symmetry of his glove with his hand, lay the secret of Mr. Brummell’s miracles”.
Dandy Style simplified and streamlined male clothing, and made an art form out of cultivating an understated elegant and smart appearance.
Although not all Dandies were gay, there is a lasting association between the self-awareness of Dandyism and the wrongly perceived notion of excessive attention to male beauty in Gay Culture.
Beerbohm was married to the American actor Florence Kahn (1878-1951). They lived together in Ravello, Italy for more than four decades. But, according to his letters, the marriage was never physically consummated. It was more than a marriage of convenience, instead it was what they used to call a Lavender Marriage, an early 20th century term for a male-female marriage in which one or both partners was gay or bisexual but devoted to each other, yet taking lovers on the side.
Beerbohm had to be especially careful about his gayness after the downfall of his good friend Oscar Wilde. Being gay in Britain at the time, could easily lead to a prison term.
In 1892, Strand Magazine published 36 of his drawings of “Club Types”. Their publication dealt, Beerbohm said:
“A great, an almost mortal blow to my modesty”.
The first public exhibition of his caricatures was as part of a group show at London’s Fine Art Society in 1896; his first one-man show at the Carfax Gallery in 1901.
Usually inept at drawing with hands and feet, Beerbohm excelled in heads and with the dandified male dress of a period with true elegance. His caricatures were published widely in the fashionable magazines of the time.
The court of King Edward VII was the subject for special affectionate ridicule. But, many of Beerbohm’s later caricatures were of himself.
Major collections of Beerbohm’s caricatures are at The Tate, the Victoria And Albert Museum, Harvard University, and important privately-owned collections.