Max  Beerbohm and The Age of Improvement

In a recent Jot we looked at the way Sir Max Beerbohm ‘ improved ‘ certain books in his library by adding illustrations to them or altering their printed illustrations to make a point about the authors. Some of these books were inscribed to him by the authors, but that didn’t seem to bother Beerbohm. On occasion he would also add false inscriptions from famous people, such as Queen Victoria.

The source of information concerning these amusing interventions may have been the catalogue of ‘ The Library and Literary Manuscripts of the late Sir Max Beerbohm ‘that Sotheby & Co issued to accompany the sale of the author and artist’s library on 12 and 13thDecember 1960. Beerbohm had died in (  ) and his widow followed him on (  ).

Anyone wishing to obtain some idea of Beerbohm’s literary likes and dislikes could hardly do better than to study this catalogue, which is profusely illustrated. It is quite obvious that he didn’t take to Rudyard Kipling and the feeling was probably mutual.

Jot 101 Beerbohm Kipling improvement 001

Here is a description of Lot 136.

KIPLING ( RUDYARD) BARRACK-ROOM BALLADS and other verse; the illustration on the title-page altered by Max Beerbohm  into a portrait of Kipling, blood dripping from his red fingernails; signature of Beerbohm and an inscription: ‘H.M.B. from F.H.H. on fly-leaves, original cloth.                                                                                                                            8vo 1892

And here is Lot 137.

KIPLING (RUDYARD)  A Diversity of Creatures , Max Beerbohm has introduced a pen-and-ink caricature portrait of Kipling, behind bars, into the design facing the title-page, and under the author’s name has written: ‘the Apocalypic (sic) Bounder who can do such fine things but mostly prefers to stand ( on tip-toe and stridently) for all that is cheap and nasty’; pen-scoring on last page, original limp red calf gilt                                                                                                                                                                                                               8vo Macmillan and Co., 1917

And Lot 139

Le Gallienne (Richard) RUDYARD KIPLING, A CRITICISM, inscribed on fly-leaf by the author : ‘ For Max from Dick. June 1900’, the portrait of Kipling altered by Max Beerbohm into a bitterly satiric caricature, and the title changed from ‘ Rudyard Kipling ‘ to ‘Rudyard Kipling’s soul’, original cloth, the leaf bearing the portrait detached and fore-edge frayed. 8vo 1900.

And lot 239

To the frontispiece of Frederick Whyte’s A Bachelor‘s London(1931), which features a drawing by Josephine Harrison entitled ‘ The House of the Light that Failed ‘, Beerbohm has added a pencil caricature of Kipling and four lines of verse parodying the poet:

Fred Whyte ‘e done me bloody proud,

So to Je’ovah Thunder-browed

Says I, “ O Jah, be with me yet,

Lest I forget, lest I forget.” 

But Kipling wasn’t the only target. Lot 138 is a copy of William Butler Yeats by someone called H. S. Krans, which features a portrait of the Irish poet that Beerbohm has altered so dramatically to make him appear like a be-whiskered Edwardian gentleman of letters.  Beneath this unrecognisable portrait Beerbohm has inscribed: ‘yours cordially, Butler. ‘


Beerbohm certainly didn’t warm to the work of Violet Page, who wrote under the name Vernon Lee. Added to the title-page of her Gospels of Anarchy(1908) he stuck a woodcut of a prim elderly Victorian lady holding a cup of tea. In addition he inscribed on the inner cover: ‘Poor dear dreadful little lady! Always having a crow to pick, ever so coyly, with Nietsche (sic) , or a wee lance to break with Mr Carlyle, or a sweet but sharp little word of warning to whisper in the ear of Mr H. G. Wells or Strindberg or D’Annunzio ! What a dreadful little bore and busybody!…’


Finally, Lot 209 is one of the most hilarious examples of Beerbohm’s improvement schemes. It is the one he inflicted on his copy of A Souvenir of the Charing Cross Hospital Bazaar, June 1899. This publication, edited by Herbert Beerbohm Tree, contains contributions from some of the best known artists, authors and musicians of the time, accompanied by a portrait of each contributor. There are 49 of these portraits, each of which has been altered by Beerbohm using pen and brush and Indian ink to great comic effect. The subjects treated include: Alfred Austin,  F. Anstey, William Archer, Sir Robert Ball,  Sir Walter Besant, Augustine Birrell, Sir Hall Caine, John Davidson, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, W. E. Henley, Dean Hole, Anthony Hope, Henry Arthur Jones, Andrew Lang, Sir Sidney Lee, Sir Lewis Morris,  Stephen Phillips, Sir Arthur Pinero, W. Pett Ridge,  A.C. Swinburne, Mrs Humphrey Ward, Sir William Watson, Theodore Watts-Dunton and Israel Zangwill. The musicians include Sir Edward Elgar, Sir Edward German, Sir Hubert Parry, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and Sir Arthur Sullivan. [R Healey]


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