Friday, August 5, 2011

Beresford Egan's Illustrated Fleurs du Mal in (Yet Another) Binding to Behold

by Stephen J. Gertz

Binding by Robert Porter, 1990.

"He is a lad after your own elegant, elongated young man, with a penchant for gold-tipped cigarettes and gaudy neckwear. He changes his raiment four times a day and never sits down more than he can help for fear of de-creasing his trousers. He wears two rings on his right hand and carries a Malacca cane. When he walks he reminds me of Rasputin (my borzoi, not the Mad Monk), and when he talks, which is often and at great length, he puts one in mind of Oscar Wilde."

Color Frontispiece

In the description above, proffered by a character in his semi-autobiographical novel, Pollen (1933), Egan is describing himself c. 1925. He was, as he admitted, "overdressed, ambitious, and dissatisfied." He was oppressed by the local obsession with money-making, and had an eye and ear for satire, i.e. he illustrated The Sink of Solitude (Hermes Press, 1928), a parody of Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness).

“Born in England [in 1906?], Egan was educated in South Africa. After working as a bank clerk, he became sports cartoonist on the Rand Daily Mail in Johannesburg. By the time he returned to England in 1926, his satirical bent was well established. In London, he first became known as a draughtsman and also made his name as a writer" (Alan Horne, The Dictionary of 20th Century British Book Illustrators, pp. 175-176).

"1928 was Beresford Egan's first fruitful year in London...In that year he illustrated in black and white Les Fleurs du Mal, [LoĆ¼ys'] Aphrodite, Cyprian Masques, and an edition of De Sade [each released in 1929]" (Allen, Paul. Beresford Egan: An Introduction to His Work, p. 14).

He had a constitutional aversion to censorship. "Mr. Egan's pictures have noticeably a literary quality. Tte drawings...might be described as satiric essays in Love and Virtue. They are vigorous and necessary indictments of the pruderies of the formative years of this century, and as searchingly moral as the writings of Mr. Havelock Ellis wee concerning the pruderies of the latter years of the nineteenth century" (poet and novelist Seton Peacy, The Preface, May, 1932).

Egan was quick to point out that his drawings were not meant to stimulate revolting attitudes but, rather, to engender a revulsion against them. "You think some of my drawings inspire lust? No, no, no. They show people the sort of things they get up to without seeing themselves from a place of detachment. I want to show them the ugliness of what they are doing and so cruch their foolish idealising. I show the real visual and moral ugliness of the prostitute and the hypocrite...

"...Can you really believe that I am the sort of man to draw prostitutes for the pleasure of it?...If all the amusements of Soho depended upon me they would have to close down. I can easily create something beautiful for you to hang in your room, but my satirical drawings are meant to be grotesque. It is right that you should be horrified. That is the correct attitude to my art...What I do is in revulsion - to shock by the power of my satire!" He was chronically irritated by the sins of society.

Egan "used many media including oil, watercolour, chalk, scraperboard, gouache and pencil, but mostly used a brush or pen. As his skill increased, he used solid blacks instead of cross-hatching—he wrote in Epitaph (1943) that he used ‘Black and white with no linear half-tones to confuse the issue, no photographic realism to frustrate the design.’ Egan’s work has often been compared to that of Aubrey Beardsley, but in Egan’s case, the feeling of decadence is a reflection of his disgust—he wrote that ‘What I do is in revulsion—to shock by the power of satire!’” (Horne, op cit.).

He did not appreciate the comparison to Beardsley.

"In drawing, his mastery of the single line was compared to that of Beardsley, but Egan... always wanted to repudiate that particular influence.The quality of a line is determined by the instrument employed and, while Beardsley used a pen, Egan's work was for many years executed with a No. 3 sable hair brush. 'The trained eye should see this,' he wrote indignantly in [another of his semi-autobiographical novels] Epitaph [1943], but trained eyes are rare and critics unnumerable.'" (Allen, p. 12).

"Beardsley's predominant object is one of decorative and exquisitely detailed pattern in general effect. To this his interest in anatomy and facial expression is subordinated; whereas these latter constitute the main interest of Mr. Egan's drawings, which, almost devoid of alien decoration, arrest entirely by their means" (C. Bower Alcock, Egan's collaborator on Fleurs du Mal, writing in Arts & Crafts, 1928).

"The fellow has a line. Intellectually, his weakness is that he does try so hard to shock us; and it is then, and then only, that he makes us cry: the Beardsley touch! For Egan is original enough in all conscience" (G.K.'s Weekly, October 27, 1928).

A Beardsley - Egan comparison that discusses only technique and style neglects the obvious fact that these two artists swam deeply with the Decadents, producing some of the most dramatic examples of decadent imagery yet to be created and, in their deceptively simple drama and self-conscious delight, unlikely to be surpassed.

Regarding the custom binding for this copy of Fleurs du Mal,  master binder Robert Porter writes, in a signed autograph note dated February 1990 that accompanied it: 

“Les Fleurs du Mal. The binding is dark green morocco with onlays of red, yellow, blue, mauve, purple, orange, green, grey & black, gold & blind tooling. The onlaid petals have two shapes, which are reversible, & two sizes, to make both flowers & leaves. The theme is simple: the bright colours on the upper cover symbolize the delights & pleasures; the lower cover with its sombre effects symbolizes the ‘du mal’ element. The flowers themselves are, of course, symbolic, not real. The colours are deliberately gaudy although, one hopes , attractive, & similar to the colours of the frontispiece. The image I have in mind is of medieval enamel. Gold emphasises their brightness. The lower cover shows the same shapes & patterns dead & withered. The colours are black & grey with missing shapes outlined in blind. The spine shows the constituent parts & acts as a form of transition between the two parts.” Signed on the verso: “The book. R.L. Porter. Bookbinder.”

[EGAN, Beresford, illustrator]. BAUDELAIRE, [Charles]. Fleurs du Mal in Pattern and Prose by Beresford Egan and C. Bower Alcock. London: The Sophistocles Press and T. Werner Laurie Ltd., [1929].

Limited to 500 numbered copies (this copy being No. 83), signed by the illustrator, Beresford Egan. Large quarto (11 1/2 x 9 3/16 inches; 292 x 233 mm.). At foot of title: “For private circulation and sold only to subscribers.” 142, [1, printer’s imprint], [1, blank] pp. Inserted color frontispiece (“Imaginary Portrait of Baudelaire”), with captioned tissue guard, title vignette and vignette on p. [135] in black and green, and fifteen full-page line drawings in black and white by Beresford Egan. Decorative woodcut initials and tail-pieces.

Bound by Robert Porter in full dark green morocco. Front cover with a stylized floral and leaf design in onlaid red, purple, maroon, turquoise, tan, yellow, orange, blue, and green morocco gilt. Back cover tooled in blind in the same design with black and gray morocco onlays. Smooth spine lettered in blind and decoratively tooled with gilt dots and with maroon, tan, red, brown, yellow, gray, and black morocco floral onlays. Top edge trimmed, others uncut. Marbled endpapers.

Allen B.3(a).

Images courtesy of David Brass Rare Books, from a copy I handled five years ago, with my thanks.

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