Fine art: The convert ashamed of his ‘obscene drawings’

Beardsley in 1897: the crucifix above his desk is testament to his conversion

A small exhibition of portraits of Aubrey Beardsley at the National Portrait Gallery, Aubrey Beardsley: Artist and Aesthete, reveals a touching detail involving the socialite illustrator’s premature death. There is a picture of him in the Hotel Cosmopolitan, in Menton, France, where he died of tuberculosis aged 25. To the left is a crucifix: Beardsley had converted to Catholicism a year previously, and died with a rosary in his fingers. The next day his mother and sister arranged a Requiem Mass for him at Menton Cathedral; he was buried in the adjacent cemetery.

Beardsley’s passage “from Decadence to Catholicism” was one that was well-trodden. After him came Lord Alfred Douglas; John Gray, the poet and translator of Verlaine’s Catholic poems; the writer Ernest Dowson and Oscar Wilde’s friend Robbie Ross. All were artist-converts of fin-de-siècle England.

Beardsley was the ultimate Victorian hipster. He drew spindly, Japonism-inspired subjects taken from mythology on a flat perspective. His circle was inextricably linked with Oscar Wilde’s. When Wilde was arrested at the Cadogan Hotel, headlines screamed : “Oscar Wilde Arrested: Yellow Book Under His Arm”. Beardsley was art editor of The Yellow Book, an avant-garde magazine. In the public’s eye, they were arrogant, too-clever-by-half peddlers in obscenity (according to the Daily Mail).

On the day of Wilde’s arrest, offices of the similarly “obscene” Yellow Book were vandalised by crowds. WB Yeats said of Beardsley’s conversion: “I think his conversion was sincere … and yet I am perhaps mistaken, perhaps it was merely his recognition that historical Christianity had dwindled to a box of toys, and that it might be amusing to empty the whole box on to the counterpane.”

At any rate, nine days before his death Beardsley wrote to his publisher saying: “I implore you to destroy all copies of Lysistrata & all bad drawings… By all that is holy – all obscene drawings.” The illustrations were preserved.

Elsewhere, at Hauser & Wirth on Savile Row is the work of Fabio Mauri (Oscuramento: The Wars of Fabio Mauri), a post-war artist who died in 2009. In it is a life-size depiction of Mussolini’s Grand Council of Fascism in 1943. Leonine, leaden heads look out implacably from the conciliar table. Above them are busts of Garibaldi: a symbol of the ongoing justification for present events that the past creates.