Aubrey Beardsley’s passion for his cross-dressing sister

The decadent artist was inseparable from his elegant actress sister Mabel. Is she the key to his fantasy world?

Oswald Birley's 1910 portrait of Mabel Beardsley as a page (detail)
Oswald Birley's 1910 portrait of Mabel Beardsley as a page (detail) Credit: Wilson Centre for Photography

In the Roman Catholic section of a cemetery in north London, where at dusk one recent evening the only visible living things were a piebald raven and a sprinting fox, stands an ivy-covered cross. Many of the headstones around it, largely from the turn of the 20th century, are twisting and broken and similarly inscribed, “in loving memory”. This one marks the remains of “Mabel, wife of George Bealby Wright and sister of Aubrey Beardsley”, who died in 1916 and who, though memorably colourful in life, is now known only in relation to a man who worked in black and white.

Though he became associated with erotica and mischievous, gender-fluid characters, many of Aubrey Beardsley’s drawings – which are due to be celebrated in a large-scale exhibition at Tate Britain next month – featured glamorously stylised women, long, lean, crowned with clouds of hair. Performers, prostitutes, bookshop browsers, creatures of legend and creatures of habit, they regularly inhabited the cover of The Yellow Book, the magazine of which Beardsley was art editor. The “Beardsley Woman” was often a lone figure, confident in her own world, less symbolic of fin-de-siècle scandal than of incipient emancipation.

Mabel Beardsley, who was older than her brother by a year minus three days, was, it seems, present for everything – she encouraged Aubrey to give up his job in an insurance office and become an artist. She gave The Savoy, his post-Yellow Book periodical, its name. It was because of her that he met Edward Burne-Jones, an important influence against whom he later rebelled, and with her that he visited James McNeill Whistler’s Peacock Room, a cultural milestone he recorded with a swift sketch of them both. Her red hair and willowy figure may have been the basis for many of his drawings. Oscar Wilde described them as opposites: Mabel a “daisy” and Aubrey “the most monstrous of orchids”. The siblings were, until his death at the age of 25, inseparable. Was Mabel the original Beardsley Woman?

As children, they looked like twins. They played duets on the piano, recited Dickens and copied Kate Greenaway. Mabel had dismissed the work of Thomas Carlyle by the age of six. They went on to perform plays for their parents, with illustrated programmes – their mother recalled a three-hour cross-dressed Doctor Faustus, with Mabel in the title role. When Aubrey was sent away to school he wrote to Mabel directly (“We have pudding every day… We have a dog named Fido”), and when he died in 1898 he left everything to her. Afterwards, in tribute, she dressed only in black and white.

It doesn’t take much reading between the lines to conclude that Mabel Beardsley was not a gifted actress. “Aubrey used to encourage her,” their mother later wrote, “But I used to tell her the truth about herself.” Before Mabel made her professional debut in 1894, at the Assembly Rooms in Malvern in Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance, her mother was invited to watch a rehearsal. “I picked up my skirts and sat gingerly on a rather dirty bench,” wrote Ellen Beardsley. “I pretended to be quite charmed with everything and everybody, though it was borne in upon me more than ever that my spirited offspring certainly supply me with a perpetual series of little shocks”.

The Slippers of Cinderella (1894) by Aubrey Beardsley Credit: University of Delaware

Mabel spent the rest of her brief career in small touring productions or, when in London, as an understudy. Once, a friend persuaded an American manager to hire her for his company, and he spent the period of her contract telling her she couldn’t act, but he kept her on because he enjoyed her company at dinner. “You may tell her without insulting her that she is not an actress,” wrote one arts reporter, before covering up with sycophancy: “because any distinguished part comes naturally to her… She knows everybody and shines everywhere, but it is always with her own original light, as a star among moths.”

Offstage, Mabel was undeniably theatrical, and part of a theatrical crowd. She attended the opening night of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband in the box of Ada Leverson, Wilde’s patron, and her clothes were written up in The Lady. This “uncommonly pretty girl” often wore mauve or scarlet or “shrimp pink”, offsetting the tones of her deep red hair. Instead of walking, she was said to glide.

One reporter suggested that her Catholicism was not merely a matter of religion but of temperament as well. “In everything she does or says there lingers an aroma of chivalry and quixotic fancy,” he explained. In 1901 she caused, according to Max Beerbohm, “a great sensation” in Dieppe. “She trails about all day in evening dress,” he wrote to a friend, “low neck, no sleeves, and a train as long as the Rue de l’Hôtel de Ville, which she carries swathed over her arm”.

At an artists’ ball at the Grafton Galleries in 1910 she dressed as an Elizabethan page in a fur-trimmed tabard and tights, and was later painted that way by her friend Oswald Birley, with an added falcon for effect. That picture can be seen in the Tate exhibition.

A year later another friend, W Graham Robertson, painted her in men’s clothing: dark waistcoat and jacket, pinstriped trousers, bow tie, hair pinned back to look short. He inscribed it to “Philip Beardsley” – a private stage name perhaps; if so it was one she shared with her brother, who had also used “Philip” as a pseudonym. If only the cross-dressing Mabel had met Virginia Woolf: there are aspects of her that anticipate Orlando.

A photography of Aubrey Beardsley (1893) by Frederick Evans Credit: Wilson Centre for Photography

In 1966 the Victoria and Albert Museum held a landmark Beardsley exhibition. At that point, there were people still alive who had known the Beardsleys, or claimed to have known them. When the curator Brian Reade wrote his accompanying text, anonymous sources led him to speculate not only about the possibility of incest between the siblings, but whether Mabel may have miscarried Aubrey’s child.

Six years later the same trail was followed by Malcolm Easton in his book Aubrey and the Dying Lady. The notion that Mabel’s lost child was Aubrey’s was discredited, but Easton was in touch with Reade, who remarked by correspondence that: “There is a legend, still maintained in the hearsay of living persons, that Aubrey was fully incestuous. What is beyond doubt, I would say, is that there is enough internal evidence to suggest at the least subjective incest (so to speak).”

Easton hypothesised that the nude figure in one of Beardsley’s drawings, the frontispiece for John Davidson’s Plays, was a portrait of Mabel, and he went so far as to picture Aubrey pickling Mabel’s miscarried embryo, keeping it in his wardrobe, and taking it out now and then in order to draw it.

Beardsley’s recent biographer, Matthew Sturgis, gives mercifully short shrift to these theories, which are clearly prurient and – perhaps more importantly from an art-historical point of view – over-literal. Anyone familiar with Beardsley’s drawings will know that they are exaggerated outlines rather than warts-and-all observations. The Beardsley Woman need not have been one in particular. However, since Aubrey was as close to his sister as he was, and had spent a lifetime looking at her, her presence in his fantasy life is what matters (which may be what Reade meant by “subjective incest”). They were each, perhaps, an essential component of the other’s mind.

By all accounts, Mabel was wicked and gracious – “a conversationalist of conspicuous individuality”. Before she gave up acting in 1905 she married a co-star, George Bealby Wright, an old Etonian six years her junior. He barely features in memories of the salon where she held weekly lunches, attended by old friends such as Beerbohm, as well as Captain Robert Scott, and a number of writers: Henry James, J M Barrie, Somerset Maugham and W B Yeats.

One regular salon-goer was Charles Ricketts, the illustrator and designer, who made – when Mabel fell ill with the uterine cancer that killed her – dolls for her based on her brother’s illustrations (“I have promised Mabel Beardsley a Beardsley doll,” he wrote to a mutual friend). At Christmas in 1912, Ricketts arrived with his patron, Edmund Davis, bearing a tree decorated with toys. Inside each toy was a sweet; she gave one to Yeats, for whom she now reserved Sunday afternoons.

“I will keep the little toy she gave me and I daresay she knew this,” Yeats wrote to his friend Lady Gregory. “On a table near were four dolls dressed like people out of her brother’s drawings. Women with loose trousers and boys that looked like women. Ricketts had made them, modelling the faces and sewing the clothes. They must have taken him days. She had all her great lady airs […] Then she began telling improper stories and inciting us to do the like. At moments she shook with laughter. […]

“I lay awake most of the night with a poem in my head,” he continued. “I cannot overstate her strange charm – the pathetic gaiety. It was her brother, but her brother was not I think lovable, only astounding and intrepid.”

The poem Yeats lay awake with was a seven-part sequence, “Upon A Dying Lady”, a magnificent poem regardless of one’s interest in its model. Her eyes, Yeats wrote, were “laughter-lit”, “her speech a wicked tale”. “She is playing like a child/ And penance is the play,/ Fantastical and wild…”

This was the private Mabel: the basis for Yeats’s famous line: “We have naught for death but toys.” In the poem, she turns her dolls’ faces to the wall – as if, for all the flamboyance, eroticism and scandal in her circle and its art, there were some things that should not be seen. Mabel Beardsley, at 44, was in no doubt that she was on her way to heaven. Her only question was who would introduce her there. “It should be my brother,” she commented to Yeats in passing, “but then they might not appreciate the introduction”.

Aubrey Beardsley is at Tate Britain from March 4 to May 25. Details: tate.org.uk