A review of Max Beerbohm’s 60-year career is a subject better suited for an Art History thesis than a blog post. (For example) on Brown University’s The Victorian Web: literature, history and culture in the age of Victoria, there is a five-part series devoted to The Divinity and the Disciple: Oscar Wilde in the Letters of Max Beerbohm, 1892-1895.
I found the Britannica Concise Encyclopedia to offer the best concise introduction to Sir Henry Maximilian Beerbohm (who was knighted by George VI in 1939; belatedly, it was widely believed, because of Beerbohm’s mockery in 1911 of the king’s parents, about whom he had written a satiric verse.)
Max Beerbohm: English caricaturist, writer, and dandy. His sophisticated drawings and parodies were unique in capturing, usually without malice, whatever was pretentious, affected, or absurd in his famous and fashionable contemporaries. His first literary collection, The Works of Max Beerbohm (1896), and his first book of drawings, Caricatures of Twenty-five Gentlemen (1896), were followed by the charming fable The Happy Hypocrite (1897) and his only novel, Zuleika Dobson (1911), a burlesque of Oxford life. His story collection Seven Men (1919) is considered a masterpiece.
“I was a modest, good-humoured boy. It is Oxford that has made me insufferable.” — Beerbohm
Beerbohm was a well-known socialite at Oxford … “Wildean style was fashionable among Beerbohm’s circle of friends, and he cultivated their flippancy, their taste for the precious and artificial and nonsensical, their pose of amused self-admiration, and their impish pleasure in shocking.” [from Letters]
He also began his writing career at Oxford – his articles and caricature submissions were well-received by London publications including The Strand.
And then he met Oscar Wilde through his half-brother, renowned stage actor Herbert Beerbohm Tree. This began the odd relationship between he and Wilde – “from 1892 to 1895, Beerbohm became an increasingly deft satirist. Having mastered Wilde’s style through imitation, Beerbohm parodied it. Having enumerated Wilde’s faults with a critical eye, Beerbohm satirised them.”
Beerbohm was friendly with Aubrey Beardsley and his parody, In Defence of Cosmetics, appeared in The Yellow Book’s first issue and was followed several years later by The Happy Hypocrite. The story was also produced as a stage show in 1900 at the Royalty Theatre in London,
The plot is the inverse of The Picture of Dorian Grey‘s good vs evil theme. The protagonist is one Lord George Hell, who has led a dandified life of gambling and ill-got gains. He falls in love with Jenny, a beautiful and innocent dancer, but she will only marry a man with the face of a saint. Hell purchases a perfect mask to woo Jenny and proposes marriage to her – she accepts and he signs the marriage registry as George Heaven. He then makes a total moral conversion, but an old adversary confronts him. After a scuffle, the mask falls off and George is revealed – but his face now has the contours of the perfect mask. The story ends with a passionate kiss between the newlyweds as the mask melts in the sun.
“The younger generation is knocking at the door; and as I open it there steps spritely in the incomparable Max” — George Bernard Shaw
So said Shaw upon interviewing Beerbohm in 1898 to succeed him as drama critic for the Saturday Review, on whose staff Beerbohm remained until 1910. From 1935 onwards, he was popular radio broadcaster with an eclectic show for the BBC. In 1942 the Maximilian Society was created in Beerbohm’s honour.
He died in 1956 at the Villa Chiara, a private hospital in Rapallo, Italy aged 83, shortly after marrying his former secretary and companion, Elisabeth Jungmann.
UPDATE: Here’s ends this blog’s exploration of the illustrated- quarterly, The Yellow Book. I next want to take a look at the artist Erté because I love his work ~ and, I had no idea that he illustrated over 200 covers for Harper’s Bazaar magazine (first published in 1897.)