The Masked Woman: Aubrey Beardsley at Tate Britain

Today, I am going on an adventure. I am venturing forth! After all the staying in of Lockdown—I am going out! Out to see the Aubrey Beardsley exhibition at Tate Britain. It seems a very long time since I didn’t feel like a caged bird. But today, this caged bird due to easing of lockdown is going to Tate Britain. The gallery has reopened. It is the opening day and I have a ticket.

The exhibition was supposed to run from the 4th March – 25th May 2020 but Coronavirus and the lockdown scuppered that. The new dates are 27th July – 20th September 2020

Aubrey Beardsley 1872-1898

Aubrey Beardsley, an artist with an unmistakable style and renowned for his remarkable black and white drawings, illustrations, line and block prints and a notorious reputation. Editor for the scandalous Yellow Book (Yellow was considered an erotic colour) he belonged to an artistic and literary circle that epitomised the decadent artistic culture of the 1890’s. Friends and colleagues included Oscar Wilde, Toulouse-Lautrec, Robert Ross, Sir Max Beerbohm, Walter Richard Sickert, Ernest Dowson, Charles Condor and John Gray.

Aubrey Beardsley | Self portrait

All humanity inspires me. Every passer-by is my unconscious sitter; and as strange as it may seem, I really draw folk as I see them. Surely it is not my fault that they fall into certain lines and angles.

Aubrey Beardsley

On my way to the Tate

I walk all the way from home to Tate Britain avoiding public transport (I’m never going on the Tube again). The walk takes me across Blackfriars Bridge through Paris Gardens, down The Cut and onward past the closed Old Vic theatre, then on to Lower Marsh and through the Archbishops Park to the Lambeth Bridge. My feet are beginning to hurt. How far have I walked? It can’t be more than three of four miles…

I take a short rest before crossing the bridge over to the Tate on the other side of the river on Millbank (I have intentionally walked along the south bank as I think it’s quicker and is ‘as the crow flies’ avoiding the river curve of the Embankment). Well, I think it’s the shorter route from home, but right now my feet disagree.
A squashed sandwich and a drink from my small backpack help revive me.

Exhibition

I have a timed ticket and just make the schedule (gone are the days when you can just turn up any old time. I pull up my face covering (a scarf that makes me look like a bandit) and enter with some anxiety. There are other people in the gallery. Is it safe?

I hope it is safe. Most people are wearing masks and seem to be keeping away from me (nothing unusual there! Haha). I begin to relax as I start to enjoy seeing all the wonderful pictures on display.

The Masked Woman

On the back of a painting standing in the centre of a gallery is this intriguing portrait of an untitled masked Lady.

‘The Masked Woman with a White Mouse | Photo: Lesley Scoble

I took this snapshot for reference purposes, but as it turns out I rather like the juxtaposition of a present day masked lady walking past.

Caprice (painted 1894) is the only known painting painted in oils by Beardsley. And unusually, it is painted on both sides of the canvas. Two paintings for the price of one! Caprice shows two figures — a lady dressed in black holding a white muff with a white feather plume in her hat. There is a small figure in red of a child servant. The picture is presumed to depict an 18th century scene when it was considered fashionable and a status symbol to have a black servant boy dressed in exotic style — however the similarity of it to an illustration in the Yellow Book (vol 2. July 1894) suggests to me that it portrays The Comedy Ballet of Marionettes performed by Theatre-Impossible.

The work was begun in the studio of Walter Sickert but remained unfinished and abandoned when the tenancy lease ran out of his house in Pimlico. The painting was found by the new tenant of 114 Cambridge Street, Pimlico, along with discarded drawings (which were destroyed) but the painting was salvaged and later went on to be sold to the Tate in 1920.

The Yellow Book

Beardsley was created art editor in 1894 of The Yellow Book. Yellow was an outrageous colour of the time expressing eroticism. The publication led to overnight fame for Beardsley. His avant-garde bold black and white artwork made him and the Yellow Book a notorious and spectacular success. However, in 1895 this all changed dramatically. The association of Beardsley with his drawings of Salomé and the connection with Oscar Wilde and the ongoing scandal of the trials resulted in him losing his job as art editor.

Oscar Wilde and Romain Coolus | by Toulouse-Lautrec | Lithograph on paper 1896

It was thrilling to see this lithograph by Toulouse-Lautrec!

Toulouse-Lautrec created this lithograph of the two authors for the double bill programme of the first performance of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé and the French author Romain Coolus’s play Raphaël

Aubrey Beardsley by Walter Richard Sickert

Walter Sickert painted his friend Aubrey Beardsley in 1894 . The picture shows Beardsley at Hampstead Cemetery at an unveiling of a memorial bust of their mutual friend the poet John Keats who died at a young age from tuberculosis; and the thin appearance of Beardsley in Sickert’s picture precludes the same fate. Beardsley died in Menton, the south of France on 16th March 1898 from TB at the age of only 25.

Walter Sickert’s painting of Aubrey Beardsley is on display in a room painted in the ‘decadent orange’ that he loved and was the colour scheme for the house he and his sister Mabel briefly owned in Pimlico in 1894.

Aubrey Beardsley by Walter Richard Sickert

Aubrey’s sister Mabel Beardsley painted in 1905 by Sir Oswald Birley 1880-1952

Mabel Beardsley as an Elizabethan page-boy | Oil painting: Sir Oswald Birley painted 1905

I was struck dumb by the beauty of the painting of Aubrey’s elder sister Mabel dressed as an Elizabethan page. The paintwork is luscious! And, is that a peregrine falcon that she has perched on her arm? Wow! It is a stunning painting.

Mabel was an actress. She was a friend of W.B. Yeats who was captivated by her. Yeats was a constant visitor to her dying bedside, where she was surrounded by dolls. He wrote poems especially for her, and one such poem was Upon a Dying Lady. The quote here is of the second verse. Why? Because I like the second verse! And I felt that in an already longish blog I would ration the length of this poem!

Upon a Dying Lady

Verse II
Certain Artists Bring Her Dolls and Drawings

Bring where our beauty lies
A new modelled doll, or drawing
With a friend’s or an enemy’s
Features, or maybe showing
Her features when a tress
Of dull red hair was flowing
Over some silken dress
Cut in the Turkish fashion,
Or it may be like a boy’s
We have given the world our passion
We have naught for death but toys.

W.B. Yeats

A masked lady looks at The Lady with the Rose

A masked lady looks at The Lady with the Rose |Ink, wash and graphite on paper | Photo: Lesley Scoble

Social distancing measures eases the usual over-crowding of popular exhibitions enabling more space to enjoy the many works of this prolific artist. In his brief life he produced a lot!

In the Style of Aubrey Beardsley

There is a whole room showing work by other artists who have copied Beardsley’s style.

The unique unmistakable art of Aubrey Beardsley has influenced art and design in so many ways, inspiring artists in his own short lifetime right up to the present time. Consequently he is one of the most copied artists in the illustrative world. Greg Jarvis’s artwork for the cover for the Flowers of Hell Album 2009 ‘Come Hell or High Water’ is just one example.

Come Hell or High Water

Flowers of Hell Album Cover 2009 | Artwork in the style of Beardsley by Greg Jarvis

Risqué picture by Gerald Scarfe in the style of Beardsley

Risqué picture in the style of Beardsley by Gerald Scarfe hides behind a curtain | Photo: Lesley Scoble

There is much to see and I recommend this exhibition if you get the chance. I haven’t even mentioned half of what is on display!

Finally, here is my attempt at copying Beardsley art!—my own self portrait in the style of Aubrey Beardsley’s self portrait! *top of post

Self portrait in the ‘style of Aubrey Beardsley‘!

Boat Ride Home

The thought of walking all the way back home didn’t appeal as my feet by now were protesting just a little bit. By the bus stop a big poster warns to avoid public transport. I have no intention of getting on a bus! However, I might consider a ride on the deck of a boat. So, I encourage my exhibition weary feet to walk across the bridge to St George’s Wharf and hope there will be one going in my direction.

The jetty is empty of any passengers and moves gently beneath my feet. I stand upon it bobbing up and down and take in the view. I love being close to the river. 

I look up the timetable and find there is a limited service operating with a boat due in half an hour. The ticket machine had someone’s bank card in it (I gave it to the chap in charge on board – so if you left your card there the boat company should have it. Or, contact me for info). 

I buy a ticket to Blackfriars pier and wait alone on the jetty.  Opening a packet of crisps and a fizzy drink I relish the soft river breeze on my face. There is a sullen grey sky and it begins to drizzle but not enough to dampen my newly awakened spirit of adventure.

On the boat there were only two passengers in the spacious cabin. I walk through to the outside bit at the stern. I love being outside and when the engines start up I feel like a kid on a fairground ride.  The boat moves away from the pier and the engines’ thrust creates a surge of frothing river. I watch the spume and wake of the boat as we speed downstream towards St Pauls.

I watch the wake of the boat as we speed down river towards St Pauls | Photo: Lesley Scoble

I feel carefree in a momentary sense of care-freedom! I tear off my mask and breathe.

The London Eye from the deck of my Thames Clipper Boat | Photo: Lesley Scoble

I always enjoy a boat ride — but this one has made me feel I have escaped from ‘lockdown house arrest’! For now, at least.

Stay safe and keep well

6 comments

  1. Thank you so much for writing this, your descriptions are amazing – I felt like I was there with you! Especially as the galleries and museums near me are still all closed, it was really lovely to read this post as I am missing them. I love your self-portrait too – how did you make it?

    Like

    • Thank you Caitlin for you smashing comment 😊🙏 I am so pleased to have taken you along with me on my visit to the gallery. I have missed being able to go to them too! Be patient and keep safe and let’s hope normality is not too far away.
      Thank you also for your compliment about my self portrait!— I drew it on my iPad Pro with an Apple pencil in the Procreate art app. I love working in digital art as well as the traditional methods!
      Stay safe 💚

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I really enjoyed reading this blog and having a preview and info about the exhibition. I also love the river and any kind of sea craft and reading this makes me want to go and try it for myself.

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