Magazine article The Spectator

The Monstrous Max

Magazine article The Spectator

The Monstrous Max

Article excerpt

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 servility. 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. Scurrility and irreverence were commonplace, but all this ended in the 1830s.

There was a change of mood. The country moved into a period of highmindedness, 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 Victorian 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, people farting, urinating, defecating and vomiting. Middle-class morality cleaned up the cartoon.

The weekly political cartoon in Punch, drawn successively by Leech, Tenniel, Raven-Hill and Partridge, was the spindoctor'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 tantamount to treason.

Max Beerbohm helped to put an end to all this. Thirty years before Lytton Strachey demolished the Eminent Victorians, 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 peerages, 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.

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. …

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