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Lillie’s Apologia


‘I resent Mrs Langtry, she has no right to be intelligent, daring and independent, as well as lovely’.

  • George Bernard Shaw

‘I would rather have discovered Lillie Langtry than America.’

  • Oscar Wilde

Lillie Langtry was a great and unique beauty.  She was considered such a one, in fact, that it became her career.  She was a professional beauty – a profession that could only have been devised during her heyday, the gilded, steely 1880’s. It was a subtle democracy:  a way for society to feast on demure helpings of scandal, and for the tiny rivulets of respectability to trickle into the demimonde.

The PB’s face and form were her invitation – the key to unlock any door, to gain entrance to any party.  Her image was seen daily, on the postcards and photographs that were displayed in shop windows:  desire pressed under glass.  She decorated any room – she gave it cache, and was that new acquisition required by the clever and discerning hostess.

Yet to our eyes, Lillie seems strange, almost coarse-looking.  Her face is broad, with a bone structure that is unsubtle and a profile that is strong and indelicate.  Her eyes are pale and distant.  Her torso is powerful and buxom, disappearing into a waist that is as cinched and twisted as a bound foot.  She seems to our modern sensibilities, graceless and unfeminine.

But we are only looking at a photograph.  Lillie Langtry’s beauty dates to an earlier time – her profile and build were considered classical Greek – ‘Praxitelean’ – her followers likened her to a goddess.  Oscar Wilde proclaimed her “The New Helen of Troy”.  Her Amazonian physicality alienated her from her dainty contemporaries.

Photographs do not share with us her famous coloring; we can only envy those who witnessed it first-hand: the blue eyes; rich, milky skin and auburn hair that set around her neck like bronzed sunlight.

In addition, Lillie’s intelligence set her apart – it set a fine balance, crossing a vast ocean of wit to journey from ribald, to masculine, to a winking modesty.  She was daring, sly and feral.  No photograph would dare show that.

All things considered, she was irresistible.

It is common knowledge – among those who make it a point to know such things – that Lillie Langtry was the first officially recognized mistress of King Edward VII:  an admirer of lovely and witty women.  She became good and lasting friends with his modest but pretty wife, Alexandria.

But Lillie herself had many lovers, as is the wont of a lovely and witty woman.  For her wanderings she has – then as now – been labeled infamous, immodest, a courtesan, a jeweled whore.  But I find this wild labeling, however, to be unfair.

I believe that Lillie was a romantic; she fell in love often, and with great generosity:  as if her latest love would be her last and greatest.  Would we not do the same?  What would we do, what would we give, if we thought we had reached our final love, our final day?

Why, everything.


Aubrey’s Christmas

Aubrey Beardsley and a few other select souls began The Savoy magazine in 1896, shortly after the artistic demise of the Yellow Book (physically, it continued – naughty in color only – until 1897).  Aubrey had been summarily released from his artistic duties in 1895, after the debacle of Wilde vs. Queensberry.  Having used his depraved and blessed talent to illustrate Wilde’s play ‘Salome’ – there was born in the public’s febrile imagination an artistic friendship between the two (actually, they rather disliked each other).   Society’s ignorance had made sure that Oscar Wilde was safely out of the way at Reading Gaol, and that Aubrey Beardsley was out of a job.  The new, yellow literature had been deserted; the season of scandal had ended.

Aubrey Beardsley drowned 19th century aesthetics in decadence, in the hothouse breathlessness of a corrupt garden.  He had two years to live and the thick, debauched creativity ran like an urgent river through his tubercular blood.  The Savoy was born out of this resentment and panic – but lived for only one year.  He drew each of the covers – perfect, shocking – with the premiere issue that indicated his state of mind:  it featured a tiny, nude putto  preparing to urinate on a copy of The Yellow Book.  (it was edited out immediately, but this Aubrey always found it quite marvelous)

Hidden inside of issue number 1 was a delicate gift; a greeting – a welcome.  It was a Christmas card designed by Beardsley, an illustration that lifted the Mother and Child from their poverty and shepherds and transported them to a forest chilly with the verdant shadows of centaurs and druids.  Her robe did not glow with crescent moons and lilies; rather it was rich with emblems of the earth – leaves and flowers – and beheld a curving hem trimmed with fur.  She had become a pre-Raphaelite maiden with loose, immodest hair – sitting in a cold, green world:  lost in a flourishing land.

Pretty Greetings

Was Arthur Symons, the publisher, pleased with Beardsley’s portrait of this spiritual family?  Or did the Virgin’s androgeny and low-cut gown disturb him?  Did he only recognize the seductive history of the roses that breathed so close to her – or was he aware of her other name, ‘The Mystic Rose’?  Did he think it right that the Child wore a Victorian gentleman’s shirt?

I have a pretty good idea of what his opinion was.  But it matters not.  Because this Aubrey finds it quite marvelous.

Happy Christmas, my marvelous, ethereal, unknown friends.

The Other Aubrey’s Birthday

"If I am not grotesque, I am nothing."

This is just a note, light and quick like a well-wisher's shadow, to wish my sickly, skinny boy a happy birthday.  He would be 137 today, dapper and milk-skinned, had tuberculosis not shot his lungs full of holes.  He died in 1898, unable to push his body to his 26th birthday – exhausted by the blood-lettings, and by his art that drove Victorian England to an insanity of fear.

It was a fear of the decadence, eroticism, lush beauty and unbridled richness – crawling under the skin like iridescent beetles – that ran through his drawings.  It was the fear of the terrifying life that beat behind the shadows and lived within the lines of those illustrations.

He was Oscar Wilde's 'monstrous orchid', in a gray suit and yellow gloves, effete and marvelous.  I can't imagine what it would have been like to meet him, yet I follow him always.

So happy birthday, Aubrey Beardsley.  I have never experienced such grotesque loveliness.

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The Peacock Room

On four walls he painted a glittering, gilded cacophony, golden feathers dripping down leather walls, wings that panted against the ceiling, multitudes of patterns that made a mockery of empty space.

Peacocks make human noises; they scream and cry in jagged, lonely tones.  But nature apologized to the male of the species for this atonality by providing him with iridescent rainbows that glistened and rippled as he moved, with an aurora borealis glowing from his feathers.  Painters, and all aficionados of color, love his betrayal of earthiness, his irresponsible exhibitionism.  He was seemingly made for negligence and beauty.

Beardsley drew skirts of peacock's tails that curled around the ankles, and clouds of feathers that breathed over Salome's shoulder:

Wilde made the peacock a symbol of languor and decadence; James MacNeil Whistler dedicated an entire room to this stunning bird with a cry like Lazarus waking in his tomb.

In 1876 Frederick R. Leyland commissioned Whistler to decorate his dining room.  Leyland's preferences were serious and symmetrical and he should have known better than to let such an artistic sprite into his home.

Using pots full of gold metallic leaf, he covered the ceiling and panels of the walls in a thin layer of liquid metal, the alloy that began humbly as grains rolling in the bellies of streams and rivers.  He then chose one color and investigated its darknesses, chosing its varied shadows as carefully as if they were the newest silks from Lyons.  This palette of blue – prussian, cobalt and indigo – was used to sew a textile of feathers that flowed with impatient currents, wings that were as lush and stiff as brocaded draperies, tiny aristocratic heads poised on necks a swan would envy.

Four peacocks were created: four golden tapestries embroidered into the walls; four gardens clipped into a manicured maze that branched into gilded tangles; four streams of light siphoned from the sun and diluting that bright star.  He called his glowing aviary:  "Harmony in Blue and Gold:  The Peacock Room".

In a creative thrill Whistler wrote to Leyland, telling him that his dining room was "really alive with beauty – brilliant and gorgeous while at the same time delicate and refined to the last degree".

Leyland hated it.  He hated the sunburst of feathers that blazed across his dark room like a sunset caught in a bottle.  He hated the tendrils of plumes that charted burnished rivers from wall to wall.  He hated the effete delicacy of the poised and posing birds.  He hated their inescapable loveliness.

He hated Whistler's price.

There was a violent quarrrel – not surprising with two such high examples of ego – and Leyland eventually agreed to pay…half of Whistler's stated amount.  He intensified the insult by paying in pounds instead of guineas.  Pounds were the currency of trade, not of artists and other professionals.  Furthermore, in the 1870's, a pound was worth twenty shillings, with the guinea twenty-one.  Whistler lost the arguement, lost money and lost face.

But he got the last laugh.

He gained access into the offending room and painted one more masterpiece.  It was a confrontation between two peacocks, frozen in the movements of an angry ballet: one standing with its feet straddling a pile of silver shillings, its throat a path of aggressive ruffles, alluding to Leyland's favored ruffled shirts.  The other peacock, recoiling before its rich and greedy rival, has a silver crest feather resembling the lock of white hair that curled above Whistler's forehead.  This altercation was called, "Art and Money, or, The Story of the Room." 

This was finished in 1877.  Whistler never stepped foot in the room again.

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Following Footsteps

When I go to London, I make it a point to visit certain places.  I go to the Cafe Royal, to see if I can still hear the discreet voices, long since hushed; glamorous and disgraced.  I go to Paxton & Whitfield to look at the cheese (fortunately, it's a cheese shop).  I go shopping at Fortnum and Mason – I get lavender oil for my mother and anchovy paste ('Gentleman's Relish') for my father.  I go to Liberty's of London, where I spend mad money on luscious scarves – burnt the color of autumn, or colored a dusky blue and edged in cream embroidery.

I also visit a street:  because it has a history, an isolated tragedy in the life of a man, in the world of art.  It is Vigo Street, and in 1887 a publishing house opened its doors to that street and to the artistic traffic of a Victorian London dripping with naughtiness and simply panting to be published.

This was the house of John Lane and Elkin Mathews and it was called The Bodley Head, after Sir Thomas Bodley, the founder of the Bodleian Library.  And in the two years spanning 1894/1895 its books became a byword for notoriety, scandal and beauty.  Leonard Smithers' fabled collections bound in human skin.  'The Happy Hypocrite', Max Beerbohm's fairytale of masks and redemption.  'Stella Maris', Arthur Symon's love poem to a prostitute ("I know/Your heart holds many a Romeo").  'Under The Hill' by Aubrey Beardsley – light, baroque, a minuet of Victorian pornography.  And 'The Yellow Book', the periodical colored like the French novels gentlemen read in secret (and ladies not at all) – a collection of essays, poems and illustrations:  new decadent, irresistible – a dirty pool in which the demi-monde could finally see its reflection.

The newspapers mocked, the critics were shocked:  everyone was happy until April 3, 1895.  Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labor on that day, for "acts of gross indecency", despite his lucid wit, his moving speeches and the applause that followed him like his shadow.

On the following day, crowds gathered outside The Bodley Head – shiny toppers mixed with scruffy caps, frock coats intermingling with ragged shirts…for once the classes stood shoulder to shoulder, and it took a posture of ignorance to do it.  Curses were shouted, stones were thrown – heat and ugliness filled the air.  And it was all because of the irresponsible reasoning of the mob:  the decadence The Yellow Book would surely welcome criminals such as Wilde – wasn't his good friend Aubrey Beardsley (i.e. 'Awfully Weirdsley' – oh, Punch, stop; you're killing me!) its Art Editor?  And wasn't this the place where their evil words and tainted thoughts were printed?  Tear it down!  Tear it down!

No matter that Wilde and Beardsley hated each other, ever since the fiasco over 'Salome'.  Wilde wrote the play in French, and ignored Beardsley's offer to translate it into English.  Wilde was disappointed in Beardsley's illustrations:  they were "like the naughty scribbles a precocious boy makes on the margins of his copybooks."  Aubrey never forgave him.

No matter.  Oh April 4, the mob sought the source of this artistic dissipation and swarmed through Vigo Street, up to the windows of The Bodley Head, each person intent on casting the first stone.

So – I always walk across Vigo Street when I'm in London.  I imagine it without department stores, traffic cones, buses and walking directions painted on the asphalt.  I try instead to see it powdered with dust:  crowded with carriages, broughams, landaus and all manner of horse drawn conveniences.

I try to hear the tramp of feat, feel the anger in the air, see the shards of glass bursting from shattered windows.  I try to comprehend history's shame and the destruction of genius.

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The Cafe Royal

I believe a while ago the Vox Question of the Day was to explain the name of your site.  I was highly enthused about that one, but as my computer was acting stupidly I was unable to act on that question.

However.  All seems serene for the moment, so  here we go.  The Cafe Royal was the Main Attraction of Victorian London.  It was where you went to eat, drink, socialize and to be seen.  Oscar Wilde had his only civil meeting with the Marquis of Queensberry there.  He lunched with Bosie there.  Max Beerbohm went there; he called the cafe's domino room the 'haunt of intellect and daring' .  The artist and wit Will Rothenstein drank vermouth there.   W. B. Yeats, Ernest Dowson, Arthur Symons, George Bernard Shaw, Paul Verlaine - AUBREY BEARDSLEY went to the Cafe (no doubt nursing the glass of milk his tuberculosis relegated him to, rather than a dose of grusome, green absinthe).   Civil and not-so-civil society attended.  It was the epitome of everything that was artistic, ravishing and scandalous in the late 1890's.

The collection of luminous names and voices that that place contained makes my head REEL.

So I honor it here.   And it serves as a reminder that I too should be as luminous as I possibly can.

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