Osbert Burdett wrote his book The Beardsley Period in 1925, twenty-seven years after Beardsley died, and nigh on quarter of a century after Oscar Wilde had died.

The premise of the book is a little unclear: the title itself being the assumed objective ‘The Beardsley Period’. It remains unclear even as far as fifty pages in whether Burdett is trying to reposition Beardsley, credit him more than he has been, broaden the understanding of his influence etc., or something entirely other.

However, Burdett delineates his own slant that ‘the nineties is not a period but a point of view’.[1] A view that is reasonable, considering Aestheticism was ‘not local or patriotic but cosmopolitan’.[2] As Burdett retorts, Aestheticism was ‘insincerity sincere’.[3]

The Rending of the Veil
Bell Scott, The Rending of the Veil (1869, Private Collection)

In May 1922, three years before Burdett’s book, W.B. Yeats published The Trembling of the Veil. In his introductory note, Yeats recalls how he found he had recorded Stephen Mallarme’s description of his ‘epoch being troubled by the trembling of the veil of the Temple’.[4] Yeats acknowledges that those words were still true for the early years of his life.

The interior preoccupations of Yeats were never, according to Burdett and I am inclined to agree with him, in syncopation with the flavour of the 1890s.[5] That period’s preoccupations was with a public ‘no less courted than despised’[6].

Burdett uses Yeats as a means of identifying ‘members’ of this mindset: he includes Wilde, Whistler, and additionally the poet and critic ‘Mr. Symons and Ernest Dowson’ but ‘not Mr. Yeats’.[7]

Burdett explains further, and it is worth quoting the passage in full:

Whistler had painted its [London, the metropolis in question] river-banks by night. Wilde delighted in the contrast of its luxury and wretchedness. Beardsley translated the contrast into masses of black and white, and, stripping the inhabitants of their masks, shows that to men without convictions the passions become identified with sin, and, in an age when the degradation of beauty had been pushed to its extreme, he took this degradation for his subject and proved how beautifully degradation itself could be depicted.[8]

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Beardsley cover design for Volume III of The Yellow Book (October, 1894, British Library)

Beardsley’s skill and mastery over line was such that he wove patterns into satires, but his name, despite being well respected abroad, is not one that people would quote as being representative of Britain.[9] Burdett suggests that the general verdict and criticism had, at his time of writing, ‘lost track of each other’.[10]

The 90s though was a moment of protest, with its own Bible, The Yellow Book. Interestingly, Burdett refers to The Germ which he says reminds us ‘that a faith without a canon bears small fruit’ – perhaps an indication that the Pre-Raphaelite’s reputation was in 1925 at its lowest.[11]

Image result for The GermThe mood of the 90s was a young man’s one, full of excess. Young men who were bored by middle-class standards and commercial activity. Their imaginations oscillate between the garret and Grosvenor Square.[12] ‘Land’s End is a small place, but it takes all day to get there. The point of view was called fin de siècle…but the cycle that it seemed to close was longer than a hundred years’.[13]

The first chapter, The Historic Background, goes back much further than one may anticipate. Recalling even further back then Dr. Johnson whose ‘morality was as English as a beef-steak’.[14] This section deals mostly with understanding moralities through the preceding history, discussing bold and striking ideas, and profitable truths and moving through Puritanism, Romanticism (which Burdett sees as being significantly linked to Pre-Raphaelitism and Aestheticism).

Beardsley design La Dame aux Camelias for Volume I of The Yellow Book (April, 1894, British Library). Original drawing held in Tate Collection.

Blake inevitably features in Burdett’s background but as someone who ‘was attempting to recreate a lost synthesis with a new symbolism of his own’.[15]  Although not explicit, and perhaps without the nuanced meaning we have at our disposal today, Burdett seems to imply that the individualism of the eighteenth century resulted in a deepening disillusionment within the end of the nineteenth century.[16]

There is little theory in the fin de siècle, even prior to that Carlyle shows his own limitations ‘in the absence of a general theory, falls back despairingly on the panacea of private heroism. It is his one point, but only the germ of a theory’.[17] Burdett mentions, only in passing really, the various names of the literary canon (Byron, Keats, Shelley, Dickens, Tennyson etc.) but it is with William Morris that Burdett recognises an exception to ‘this atmosphere charged with disillusion’.[18] To Morris, death was no little thing, ‘because life can be so good while it lasts. It is only a shadow cast by a cloud in the prevailing sunlight. To Morris, to point the contrast, the lights and shadows raised no question except that of their own loveliness.[19] Arnold on the other hand defined, without much of a theory either, the condition of the age Carlyle had complained about: he described the age as being ‘Philistine’. Tracing this further, Burdett places Pater there as a deep and wistful tapestry, whose prose enlarged ‘on the beauty peculiar to all shadows’.[20] For Burdett, the literature of the period was indeed a haunted literature, with disillusion for its spectre or refrain.[21]

The Converging Reaction, Chapter II, builds on the back of the ‘synthesis of behaviour in the sphere of conduct and scepticism in the sphere of thought’.[22] Thackeray asks ‘Shall I not acknowledge the change of to-day?’[23] But the disease and disillusion people recognised had no real challenge or remedy. Shelley offered none, although saw it plainly, Keats and Shelley were isolated, Tennyson was somehow a talent above the age, so it was not until the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood came along (Burdett here quotes 1850, not 1848, presumably based on exhibits rather than formation).[24] ‘Their art was mainly an escape from the present into a world of beautiful regrets’.[25] Burdett acknowledges the capture the modern mood of disillusion but maintains they had the memory and desire for a beauty that had perished from the world: their ‘pictures were sometimes like dreams painted between sleeping and waking…The characteristic figures were shadows in a land where colour alone was real, and haunted by tragic or imperfectly realised memories’.[26] The Pre-Raphaelites were ‘the inheritors of the earlier Romantic movement, for a departed beauty converted the pursuit of beauty into a religion, all the more easily because the Christian tradition had inspired so much of the art that they most admired’.

To stress his point further, Burdett then quotes from Pater (who was reviewing Morris’ poetry) but interestingly, he does not specify Pater’s name:

Here, under this strange complex of conditions, as in some medicated air, exotic flowers of sentiment expand, among people of a remote and unaccustomed beauty, somnambulistic, frail, androgynous, the light almost shining through them.[27]

‘Pater sees Morris as a model of significant new developments in contemporary literary practice; these encourage Pater finally to propound the aestheticist values that conclude his review essay and The Renaissance’ (which the second edition of the Morris review becomes the conclusion for).[28]

Burdett’s interpretation is that the Pre-Raphaelite painters used simplicity in order to reawaken life in religious subjects, but in doing so ‘offended those to whom religion, like all else, must be a mask’.[29] It is perhaps worth remarking here that Burdett is rather cynical at points, particularly when it comes to the veneer of respectability he sees people (the Victorians) putting on. Burdett’s key observation though is the alteration of didacticism, a move from the didactic poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley and Byron (whom he claims were didactic) to Ruskin (again didactic, Burdett kind of describes Ruskin as an unhappy moralist really) to the Pre-Raphaelites (and although he does not at this stage of the book make the connection explicit, he is paving the way for the now generally accepted view that Aestheticism was born from Pre-Raphaelitism).[30] This change was further marked by the literary baton being passed from Tennyson to Swinburne, which Burdett sees as breaking ‘like a sudden tidal wave upon the apparent security of the islanders’.[31]

‘Philistinism is simply that side of life unillumined by the imagination’, wrote Arnold. With the ‘music of Ruskin’ and ‘the mysterious monotony of Pater’s prose rhythm’ the world had an opportunity to listen, but Arnold was ignored because he was so lucid.[32] Eventually the term Philistine itself became a term of abuse for Arnold, and he ‘is remembered as a prose writer for having thrown a single stone’: a woefully unfair collective memory, and one which entirely discounts the contribution of his poetry, which in his early years was meaningful, although perhaps not significant.

Burdett’s particular talent is in conveying the sense of embodiment which the Pre-Raphaelites caused, from the taste for medievalism to the blue and white china (of which Rossetti was a great collector). The desire for the handmade (a revolt against the machine) and a growing distaste for the so-called modern day improvements resulted in a pursuit of beauty. ‘Beauty became an obsession’ and Pater’s The Renaissance (1873) became its Bible.[33]

‘Perversely though, the pursuit of beauty was now disentangled from religion, and recommended as sufficient of itself’.[34] It is the removal of the mask which Burdett states as being the achievement of the ‘Beardsley period’.[35]

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Beardsley’s cover for Volume I of The Yellow Book (April, 1894. Cover design held in Tate Collection)

For further information on the 1890s refer:



For further information on The Yellow Book refer:




Images via Tate, British Library, Peter Nahum at the Leicester Galleries.


[1] Osbert Burdett, The Beardsley Period ((New York: Cooper Square Publishers, reprint 1969), p. 6.

[2] Burdett, The Beardsley Period, p. 7.

[3] Burdett, The Beardsley Period, p. 12.

[4] W.B. Yeats, The Trembling of the Veil (Privately printed for subscribers, T. Werner Laurie Ltd., 1922), p. V.

[5] I would still accept this position, even though Yeats declares ‘I was in all things Pre-Raphaelite’.

See: Burdett, The Beardsley Period, p. 7.

Yeats, The Trembling of the Veil, p. 5.

[6] Burdett, The Beardsley Period, p. 8.

[7] Burdett, p. 7 – 8.

[8] Burdett, p. 8

[9] Burdett, p. 9.

[10] Ibid., p. 10.

[11] Ibid., p. 11.

[12] Ibid., p. 13.

[13] Ibid., p. 16.

[14] Apud, Burdett, p. 25.

[15] Burdett, p. 29.

[16] Burdett, p. bottom of 29 – to top of 30. Although first used in 1797, Burdett would not have used the word individualism in the way we do now, by which I mean that it has become more politicised as a word since at least 1991. Refer OED.

[17] Burdett,. p. 31.

[18] Ibid., p. 31.

[19] Ibid., p. 31.

[20] Burdett, p. 32.

[21] Ibid., p. 33.

[22] Ibid, p. 38.

[23] Ibid., p. 39.

[24] Ibid., p. 44.

[25] Ibid., p. 44.

[26] Ibid., p. 45.

[27] Westminster Review, n.s., xxxiv (1868), 300-312

[28] http://www.victorianweb.org/authors/swinburne/harrison/epilogue.html Accessed 19/06//2017 13:40

[29] Burdett, p. 45.

[30] Burdett, p. 47. I also note that Burdett does not use the term Pre-Raphaelitism, which is again a change in critical language as this is now commonly accepted.

[31] Ibid., p 49.

[32] Ibid., p. 52.

[33] Ibid., p. 54.

[34] Ibid., p. 54.

[35] Ibid., p. 60.