Max Beerbohm

WAG 4976


This lithograph of the famous British caricaturist, theatre critic and writer, Max Beerbohm (1872-1956), is by Charles Shannon. Together with his partner, Charles Ricketts (1866-1931), Shannon played a fundamental role in reviving the medium of print in Britain. In 1896 they set up the Vale Press, through which they published beautiful small editions of acclaimed poetry, plays and fiction. They also produced their own periodical ‘The Dial’ and illustrated and printed books by authors in their circle, including Oscar Wilde and Michael Field (the pseudonym of the lesbian couple Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper). Max Beerbohm, known to his friends as ‘Max’, moved in the same circles as Shannon and Ricketts. Shannon’s print focuses on Beerbohm’s renowned dandy style. It was produced in 1896, the same year that Beerbohm wrote an influential essay on modern dandyism entitled ‘Dandies and Dandies’. In this essay Beerbohm sums up the essence of dandyism as being the ability to create the most extravagant effect, with the simplest of means. Paying tribute to his style icon Beau Brummell (1778-1840), the first English dandy, he enthuses: ‘in certain congruities of dark cloth, in the rigid perfection of his linen, in the symmetry of his glove with his hand, lay the secret of Mr. Brummell’s miracles’. Dandy style simplified and streamlined male dress, and made an art form out of cultivating an understated elegant and well-kept appearance. Beerbohm’s dandyism has fuelled speculation about his sexuality. Although not all dandies have been homosexual in orientation, there is a lasting association between the narcissism of dandyism and what is sometimes perceived as an excessive attention to male beauty within gay culture. According to Beerbohm’s own letters and his biographers, he was happily married to the American actress Florence Kahn (1878-1951) with whom he lived together in Ravello, Italy for over 40 years. Yet it also appears from his letters that the marriage was never physically consummated. It has been frequently suggested that the union with Kahn was therefore a marriage of convenience. Beerbohm has been variously characterised by biographers as either ‘naturally celibate’, ‘asexual’, or as a non-active homosexual, who was too weary – after the downfall of his good friend Oscar Wilde – of the possible negative consequences of acting upon same-sex desire. Charles Shannon’s own sexuality has also been the subject of frequent debate in recent years. They never publicly identified themselves as a homosexual couple, and Shannon seems to have occasionally been attracted to women. However it was, and still is, assumed that Shannon and Ricketts’ relationship was spiritual and romantic. If not necessarily physical, it was certainly devoted. The pair lived together for most of their adult lives.