Isabel Saunders examines how scandal and secrets can make or break art
On the sixth of April, 1895, Oscar Wilde was arrested in his room at the Cadogan Hotel in Knightsbridge for ‘gross indecency’. After the first jury declared themselves unable to reach a verdict, Wilde was retried and subsequently convicted. Wilde was imprisoned, in the first modern media scandal. Interested parties may know that it was a trial which encompassed many of the most fashionable men in London, including the son of the Marquis of Queensbury, who instigated the series of prosecutions and Arthur ‘Bosie’ Douglas, and that it was a trial that fuelled a maelstrom of outrage and vitriol on both sides. They may have mused upon the horrible irony of his famous comment, that the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. They’d possibly have done so over gin and tonics, or across dining tables, just as Wilde’s contemporaries did.
Even these devotees of men-about-town or sensational scandal reports, however, are unlikely to know that when Oscar Wilde was escorted from his hotel en route to Holloway, he was about to ruin another promising career. Under his arm, he was carrying a book in a yellow wrapper, a copy of a fashionable and scandalous French novel. At the time, the Yellow Book, a magazine of art and literature in the New Style, was taking the art world by storm, and by an unhappy chance the book under Wilde’s arm was assumed by the reporters waiting avidly for him to descend to be not the original, but the satire. Crowds had put out the windows of the Yellow Book’s publishers by the end of the day, and in a panic the editor was fired. And so the mainstream career of Aubrey Beardsley was finished.
It was the beginning of a tragic spiral for both men and for similar reasons. Wilde had been the toast of London society, and was royalty in the social and literary spheres, but his wit and genius were all in exposing the contradictions and the hypocrisies of his audiences. His work was popular, essential reading to the glitterati of the fin de siècle, but no less popular was his dramatic fall. Beardsley too, though an extraordinarily talented draughtsman, was defined in life and work by his sense of the ridiculous and the sublime. Beardsley had been given his big break by Wilde’s translation of Salome, and it is a work which, like Wilde’s most famous piece, The Picture of Dorian Gray, explores the sometimes dark power of beauty and desire. In 1894, Beardsley’s strange, Eastern influenced illustrations appeared in the English translation, and revolutionised the boundaries of satire and good taste. Beardsley’s drawings, like Wilde at his best, do not inspire simple emotions, but exploit the now familiar Victorian fears of sex, violence, death and damnation, set in the heart of civilisation’s drawing room.
Wilde said that ‘Illusion is the first of all pleasures.’ Like most of his most famous bon mots, this is only half realised in his work, as it is in Beardsley’s. The characteristic thrill of both comes from lifting the veil and suggesting the raw motivation beneath, but also in the layers and flamboyance of social illusions. The illustrations of the Yellow Book show society ladies, beautifully clothed and delicately drawn, all dressed up and nowhere to go. It’s all about the contrast. And it is this more than anything that the makes the descent of both men so tragic.
Wilde, Beardsley and their set made their names by showing the body beneath the veils, by showing that beneath the charm and frills of even the most exalted society member lay human motivations and secrets. For Wilde particularly, it was the exposure of the author’s secrets and motivations that turned the stories into reality.