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My favourite illustrations #1 – Beardsley’s Toilet of Salome-blog

My favourite illustrations #1 – Beardsley’s Toilet of Salome

The Toilet of Salome was one of the illustrations accompanying the first English edition of Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome

Posted on: 4th December 2012

Last week I blogged about a new series I will be writing on my favourite illustrations and their creators. I am starting this series by focusing on my favourite illustrator of all - Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898). Beardsley’s black and white work – which was influenced by Japanese art – was marvellous.

Some of Beardsley’s most famous illustrations are those he did to accompany Oscar Wilde's play Salome – a collaboration which got them both into trouble.

Wilde first wrote Salome in French in 1891. It uses the biblical story of Salome, the stepdaughter of King Herod, who demanded the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter in return for performing the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’.

This story had appealed to many writers who had used it before Wilde. In fact, the playwright was so clearly influenced by Flaubert, Huysman and Mallarmé that some people even cast Wilde’s originality into doubt. But it was later Wilde’s turn to act as inspiration, when his German translation of the play was used as a basis for the libretto for Richard Strauss’ opera Salome.

Wilde began rehearsals for performance in London in 1892, but had to stop when the play was banned. The reason given was that it was illegal to depict Biblical characters on stage. However, the more likely motivation was the shocking subject matter of the play.

Subtle and sensitive depiction of a shocking topic

Beardsley’s illustrations were created for the English edition of the play, which was published in 1894. It is this collection which includes my favourite Beardsley illustration: the Toilet of Salome (the image above is another illustration from the collection, but see below for a link to a Toilet of Salome image). This picture was suppressed for some years because no publisher would take the risk of prosecution.

The problems with the Toilet of Salome illustration surely arose for the same reasons as those of the play itself: subject matter. The illustration is a beautifully drawn, subtle and sensitive depiction of female sexuality – a topic which alarmed Victorian men (and in which Beardsley was rumoured to have been instructed by his long-legged sister Mabel).

As this blog argues, the pictures and the play confronted the male-dominated society with ‘a view of woman which [it] did not want to consider’.  

The illustration is a wonderful example of Beardsley’s style. And here I can’t do better than the British Museum website, which says that it is “epitomised in the sparse but elegant economy of line, and the delicacy of detail”. 

(There is also a copy of the image at the link above.)

Beardsley conveys so much with so little – and for me, one of the most remarkable things is that he could do so at such a young age. (In 1894, he was only 21, and he died in 1898 aged just 25.)

The Yellow Book: controversial avant-garde periodical

The play caused a scandal and Beardsley was sacked from his role as Art Editor of The Yellow Book. This was an illustrated quarterly published in hardback from 1894 to 1897. Beardsley had come up with the idea with his friend Henry Harland, who acted as literary editor. Beardsley designed the journal’s cover, and there were other beautiful black and white artists inside. It also contained short stories. The Yellow Book cost five shillings, which was quite a lot of money for the time. From the outset, the journal was controversial because of its subversive content (The Times, for example, referred to the 'repulsiveness and insolence' of Beardsley's first cover design).

When I first saw Daniela Jaglenka Terrazzini’s black and white illustrations for our next book Brahma Dreaming, I was immediately struck by the similarity to the work of Aubrey Beardsley and the Yellow Book. It’s clear from Daniela’s monochrome work (and our subsequent conversations have confirmed this) that she has been influenced by Beardsley.

I have managed to find five copies of the Yellow Book, which I now own. I don’t think we have anything really comparable today, which is a shame. However, having seen Daniela’s drawings for Brahma Dreaming, I am confident that the spirit of the Yellow Book is still going strong.

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