25 OCTOBER 1997, Page 50

The monstrous Max

Kenneth Baker

MAX BEERBOHM'S CARICATURES edited by John Hall Yale, £.30, pp. 224 Max Beerbohm has a significant position in the development of English caricature because single-handedly he ended the long period of Victorian servili- ty. In the golden age of caricature from 1780-1830 Gillray and Rowlandson — and Beerbohm is in their class — depicted George III as a yokel, Pitt as a drunkard, the Prince of Wales as a woman-spanker and his wife, Caroline, as a whore being ridden by her swarthy Italian lover. Scurril- ity and irreverence were commonplace, but all this ended in the 1830s.

There was a change of mood. The country moved into a period of high- mindedness, where issues and causes were more important than personalities, and a young, virginal queen replaced two .old rakes. In the 18th century, individual prints were sold to the upper classes over the counter of print shops in the West End. In the 1820s, woodcuts started to replace the copper etchings; as these could be placed alongside the written text of an article they were printed in tens of thousands. The Vic- torian paterfamilias did not want his wife and daughters to read magazines in his drawing-room — where the legs of a piano were covered by a cloth — in which they could see bulging thighs, bare breasts, peo- ple farting, urinating, defecating and vomit- ing. Middle-class morality cleaned up the cartoon.

The weekly political cartoon in Punch, drawn successively by Leech, Tenniel, Raven-Hill and Partridge, was the spin- doctor's dream. The issue to be covered was decided by a committee sitting around the Punch table at which the line to take emerged. Political leaders were dignified figures, even when their policies were disastrous. Disraeli was never shown fighting his way through the army of bailiffs who perched outside his house; Gladstone's nocturnal visits to prostitutes in the Haymarket did not appear in cartoons; there was no hint of Rosebery having a nervous breakdown, or of his fondness for boys. As for the Queen, after 1870 any irreverent cartoons were tanta- mount to treason.

Max Beerbohm helped to put an end to all this. Thirty years before Lytton Strachey demolished the Eminent Victori- ans, Beerbohm's pen and brush had started undermining them. Politicians were the first victims. Balfour is drawn as a willowy, fainting figure almost turning into a question mark, which is not unfair for a prime minister whose main literary output was a book entitled In Defence of Philosophic Doubt. Beerbohm also knew that Lloyd George, long before the Marconi scandal and the selling of peer- ages, was a devious twister, whom he depicted as a dapper little man with shifty, sly eyes. Beerbohm also recognised that Churchill had an overwhelming conceit drawn from mega-selfconfidence. In one cartoon, the smoke from Churchill's cigar curls up creating another identical image of himself.

A Sailor King': George V, 1914 Beerbohm's jibes at the royal family cost him royal recognition, for it was not until 1939 that George VI, whom he had never caricatured, eventually made him a knight. Queen Victoria would not have been amused by his cartoon of Edward, Prince of Wales being stood in a corner on one of `the rare, the rather awful visits of Albert Edward to Windsor Castle'. Edward VII was a cartoonist's dream, though the Punch cartoonists drew him as a dignified figure. Beerbohm emphasised his raffish corpu- lence and his predilection for Jewish bankers and the nouveaux riches. One of my favourites, entitled 'Illustrating the Force of an Ancient Habit', shows Edward on a visit to France being greeted at a nun- nery. He usually visited the brothel, Le Chabonais, in Paris where, from a special chair, he selected the girl for the night. On this occasion he says to the Mother Superi- or as he inspects a line of nuns, Enfin, Madame, faites monter la premiere a gauche.'

Beerbohm portrayed George V as a diminutive figure alongside his high- necked, high-hatted wife. In one, he is drawn as a small figure in guard's uniform with a huge busby on a large horse, review- ing the massed troops on Horseguards, entitled, 'A Sailor King'. Beerbohm also wrote a ballad set in the stifling court at Windsor, where two courtiers argue: 'The King is duller than the Queen.' Oh no, the Queen is duller than the King.'

Beerbohm's artistic and literary talents worked very well together, for he added subtle and ironic titles to some of his draw- ings. The one of Baron Henri de Roth- schild shows him as pot-bellied, distinctly Jewish, obviously rich, with manicured nails and tiny shoes, leaning on the famous Rothschild pillar, and is entitled, 'One of Fortune's Favourites'. Another, of George Bernard Shaw, captured in one of his cock- ily assertive poses, is entitled 'Magnetic, he has the power to infect almost everyone with the delight he takes in himself.'

Some of his targets he disliked — Kipling was a Cockney, trumpet-blowing imperialist who had hijacked Britannia. He respected Henry James, Oscar Wilde and Lytton Strachey, but that did not prevent him from creating deliciously witty carica- tures of them which 'must be the exaggera- tion of the whole creature from top to toe'. That is where he excelled. His caricature of Oscar Wilde in 1894, with an amazing economy of line, became the most famous image of the playwright on the very precipice of disgrace. Later, Beerbohm regretted the cruelty of it: 'I felt as if I had contributed to the dossier against Oscar.'

It is all too easy to look upon his delicate water-colours and ink drawings as charm- ing confections — a rapier rather than a sabre. But, in his own later words, they were 'violent, monstrous and libellous'. The long Victorian afternoon was not just ended by the fin de siecle decadence in The Yellow Book; there was a real streak of vit- riol and acid. When he stopped drawing in the 1930s he said, 'Pity stepped in.' Beerbohm knew that he had a small and precious vein of real talent which he tend- ed very carefully, aiming always for perfec- tion. In 1910 he gave up the job of being a drama critic and went with his wife to live happily in Rapallo. In effect, he contracted out of that brilliant London life to which he had contributed so much from 1890 to 1910. When he was asked why he did so, he said, in a typically witty way, 'In the life I was following I had to be gregarious and I declined to gregare.' This is a delightful book, well edited by Mr Hall, who has added information about some of Beerbohm's forgotten targets. The quality of its reproduction is another triumph for Yale University Press.