Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Religious Sensibility of Beardsley

Aubrey Beardsley (1872 - 1898)
"V" (from "Volpone"): Elephant
Drawing (1898)
Black ink and graphite on white paper
actual: 17.9 x 16.2 cm (7 1/16 x 6 3/8 in.)
Harvard Art Museum/Fogg Museum

There is a great deal of literature about the artist Aubrey Beardsley (1872 - 1898). However there is very little about his religious beliefs. Possibly because most works about Beardsley concentrate on the erotic aspects of his work and seem to regard him as a rebel against Victorian conformity and sensibility. Religion and rebellion do not sit well together.

But to ignore the religious side of Beardsley is to ignore the most important part of his character. No one is advocating his canonisation.

But perhaps his early death deprived the Catholic Church of an important religious artist.

In 1895 Arthur Symons met Beardsley at Dieppe. In 1966 he recalled one of their meetings that summer:

"It was on the balcony or the Hôtel Henri IV at Arques, one of those September evenings, that I had the only quite serious, almost solemn, conversation I ever had with Beardsley. Not long before we had gone together to visit Alexandre Dumas fils at Puy, and it was from talking thoughtfully, but entirely, of that Parisian writer, and his touching, in its unreal way so real, Dame aux Caméllias (the novel, not the play), which Beardsley admired so much, that we passed into an unexpectedly intimate mood of speculation.

Those stars up yonder, whether they were really the imprisoning worlds of other creatures like ourselves ; the strange ways by which the soul might have come and must certainly go ; death and the future : it was of such things that I found him speaking, for once without mockery. And he told me then a singular dream or vision which he had had when a child, waking up at night in the moonlight and seeing a great crucifix, with a bleeding Christ, falling off the wall, where certainly there was not, and had never been, any crucifix.

It is only by remembering that one conversation, that vision, the tone of awe with which he told it, that I can, with a great effort, imagine to myself the Beardsley whom I knew, with his so positive intelligence, his imaginative sight of the very spirit of man as a thing of definite outline, transformed finally into the Beardsley who died in the peace of the last sacraments, holding the rosary between his fingers."

One of the key figures in the conversion of Beardsley was Marc-André Raffalovich (11 September 1864 – 1934), a French poet and patron of the arts. In 1896, he converted to Catholicism and and joined the tertiary order of the Dominicans as brother Sebastian

Here are extracts from some letters which Beardsley wrote to Raffalovich about his conversion and at the time of his formal reception into the Church in March-April 1897

By way of background Beardsley moved to a guest house in Bournemouth on the English South Coast. The guest house was known as Muriel (also called Cheam House) in Exeter Road, which stood just off Bournemouth Square and was demolished as recently as 1995.

Father Bearne appears to have been a Jesuit priest at the local Church, the Sacred Heart Church which was opened in 1875. The building was designed by the architect Clutton. Its architecture is a mixture of neo-gothic and neo-Norman influences, popular in Victorian times.

"To: André Raffalovich
Wednesday [31 March 1897]

Muriel, Bournemouth

My dear André

Very many thanks indeed for your little line and kind enclosure

This morning I was received by dear Father Bearne into the Church, making my first confession, with which he helped me so kindly. My first communion will be made next Friday. I was not well enough to go up to the church, and on Friday the Blessed Sacrament will be brought me here. This is a very dry account of what has been the most important step in my life, but you will understand fully what those simple statements mean. I don`t feel I can write a long letter today.

Your letter has just arrived. I am touched more than I can say with all your loving sympathy.

I am feeling so happy now.

Goodbye my dear friend and brother, and with the deepest gratitude for all your prayers.

I am ever yours most affectionately
Aubrey Beardsley"

On 1st April 1897 he again wrote to his friend:

"My dearest Friend and Brother,
Father Bearne. came to see me this afternoon, & brought me such a dear little Rosary, that had been blessed by the Holy Father. He explained to me the use of it. I feel now, dear André, like some one who has been standing waiting on the doorstep of a house upon a cold day, & who cannot make up his mind to knock for a long while. At last the door is thrown open & all the warmth of kind hospitality makes glad the frozen traveller. ..."

Then after his First Communion he wrote:

"To André Raffalovich
Friday [2 April 1897]

Muriel, Bournemouth

My dear André, my dear Brother,

The Blessed Sacrament was brought to me here this morning. It was a moment of profound joy, of gratitude and emotion. I gave myself up entirely to feelings of happiness, and even the knowledge of my own unworthiness only seemed to add fuel to the flames that warmed and illuminated my heart.

Oh how earnestly I have prayed that the flame may never die out !

My dear André, I understand now so much you have written to me that seemed difficult before. Through all eternity I shall be unspeakably greatful to you for your brotherly concern for my spiritual advancement.

This afternoon I have felt a little sad at the thought of my compulsory exile from Church just now; and that the divine privilege of praying before the Blessed Sacrament is not permitted me.

You can guess how I long to assist at Mass, and you will pray, I know, that I may be strong enough to do so.

Goodbye dear André.

I am yours very affectionately
Aubrey Beardsley"


  1. I recently found your blog and have been enjoying your entries very much. Thank you.

    Aubrey Beardsley died at the age of 25 about a year after his conversion to Catholicism. His late conversion informs his deathbed request. Nine days before he died he wrote a note to his publisher which read in part "Jesus is our Lord & Judge. I implore you to destroy all copies of Lysistrata, all that is holy, all obscene drawings."

    This final wish was not carried out. Still, he died a penitent. The Church may indeed have lost a great artist, but it won a great soul.


  2. Thank you for your kind comments.

    It is rather sad that most comment about Beardsley is about the "decadent" nature of his art. Very little if anything is said about his conversion.

    I think the above letters indicate that it was a deep and genuine conversion. Some people have rather surprisingly cast doubt on this.

    Even during his "decadent" days, the religious impulse was there. That is clear from what Symons says. It is also clear from his letter when wrote:

    "I feel now, dear André, like some one who has been standing waiting on the doorstep of a house upon a cold day, & who cannot make up his mind to knock for a long while. At last the door is thrown open & all the warmth of kind hospitality makes glad the frozen traveller. ..."

    I think that it was the late Cardinal Hume who once said that you cannot really tell how someone is going to turn out until they reach the age of 25 or 26.