Phil May And Beardsley
( Originally Published 1921 )
IN studying the work of Phil May, the first thing noticeable is how much of value he put into it by a process of leaving out. It is as though he put his extraordinary amount of observation into a sieve, and riddled away everything but what was essential to his purpose. Concision of statement was characteristic of his mind : he disliked long legends beneath his drawings, wishing them to require as little accompanying letter-press as possible, and that the drawing itself should convey the jest. A wellfknown drawing of his in an early " Annual " was that of a lion-tamer who has returned home after a spree, and, being afraid of his termagant wife, has locked himself into the lion's den. The wife is shown outside the cage with a bedroom candlestick.
" You Coward ! " is the legend. He thought the " You " unnecessary, and regretted that the " Annual " had gone to press with it. His conversation was staccato rather than fluent, at all times.
He had very keen, clear sight, and saw people as individuals rather than as " types," and aided his retentive memory by perpetual sketching wherever he was. Though he never scribbled, but always drew with definite and clear intention, he filled piles of sketch books big and little, and covered reams of paper trying over ideas. Large as is the mass of his published work, the bulk of sketches and studies made for it was immense ; but of this he destroyed a great deal as he went along. Even so, collectors should be upon their guard against forgeries, many of which, even to completely filled sketch books, passable to the unwary, may be met with.
Superficially, Phil May's work, like Beardsley's, is quite easy to imitate. Both are dangerous in that way to a young student who gets bitten with a too exclusive admiration for either of them, without going through the schooling that the one derived from life itself, the other from aft ; the product alone should not be taken as a guide without studying the mental processes infvolved in the production. To produce a real " Phil May " the study should be from life, more than from one of his drawings, and, if this is done, the student will be able to stand firmly upon his own feet.
In view of Blake's appreciation of Hogarth, it is interesting to place in juxtaposition with him Phil May and his work, which it is easy to imagine he would have appreciated still more as being more nearly, even than Hogarth, his artistic counterpart. I had almost said " spiritual " as well as artistic, — but spiritually as men they had more in common than appears on a superficial glance—but, as Blake saw not the tree, but the Dryad, so in Phil May he would have seen the spirit of universal sympathy, pity and love which was the burden of his own message. Phil May was gregarious and concrete in his appreciation of his kind, loving men and women, where Blake was a solitary and abstracted soul loving mankind. Blake was a moralist, while Phil May might be said to be none at all, and yet Phil May, in a certain sense, was Blake's ideal man. He was happily born in that he had no malice in his blood. An injury to Blake was resented passionately, though forgiveness was the central tenet of his creed ; with Phil it was allowed to run off like water from a duck ; or, when most felt, was shaken off, as a dog shakes himself dry. Blake was always neglected and poor : Phil was even too much run after, and perhaps " his spirit worked, lest arms and legs want play." He made a good income, but was too easily generous and was always " hard up "—Blake made next to nothing, yet was probably never in debt. Blake, while " not easily jealous," was irascible, touchy, and combative, where Phil was perhaps too easily acquiescent and genial. Much more often than Blake, Phil had occasion to say :
" Thy friendship oft hath made my heart to ache,
Do be my enemy for friendship's sake."
Yet this fiercest of all epigrams Blake said once for all to the more or less inoffensive Hayley ; Phil never said it to any one of the crowd of worse than Hayleys who surrounded him, sponging, flattering, and spoiling him. Blake's work suffered from a defect of life lived in fellowship with the common run of mankind, just as Phil's suffered from excess. But between this completeness of contrast we get almost the entire range of expression in illustrative art. It was my happy fortune to become well acquainted with the work of Blake as a schoolboy, and at about twenty-one to form an intimate friendship with Phil May that lasted from the time I first met him when he was five or six and twenty until his death.
It is almost a pity that Phil, with all his knowledge of historic and modern costume and his interest in it, the stage, and the dramatic side of life as he saw it lived, for which he had so quick an eye, should have left practically no book illustrations, nearly everything he did being printed in ephemeral publications, unbound or simply paper-covered, so that it is already becoming rare in its original state. On his death selections of his work were collected and republished in book form, but the " Parson and the Painter " (which was itself a paper-covered selection from his work in the St. Stephen's Review) must have fallen to pieces and been thrown away except for stray copies here and there. Some people were wise enough to bind up the " Annuals " ; " Guttersnipes " was in thin boards, so stood a better chance of survival than most of his work, and as it contains some of his best, freest, and most mature this is lucky.
Time brings about its revenges in this way : Blake was never the public idol that Phil May was ; his work was never spread broadcast, yet every rare scrap that he did is now ticketed and catalogued ; while Phil's lavish and popular output has now dwindled by the wastage of Time into a scarcity that before long may match that of Blake, though the original drawings of course remain.
Blake, so far as his art is concerned, shows an almost entire lack of humour, his mind being preoccupied with the abstract and eternal, regardless of the things of every day, regarding time as an unbroken unit. For Phil it was the perpetual change and bustle of night and day, and the turning of one into the other in the wearying search for fun that wore him out. At heart he was as sad a man as Blake was happy, but it is the fun of the spectacle that he gives, seen through his kindly and pitying, but hopeless, eyes ; while Blake, looking inward, finds terror and solemnity unlit by a gleam of humour, but always with the shining hope that the New Jerusalem shall be built " in England's green and pleasant land," whereas " My Strand " was the land of Phil May's heart's desire.
To go back—it was Phil May who should have illustrated Chaucer and not Blake nor Stothard—and what an inimitable series could he have made of drawings to Shakespeare's comedies from his unrivalled knowledge of human types and characters, his power over the expression of face and figure, and his remarkable sense of " situation." It should not be overlooked that while many so-called humorous artists are supplied with "jokes " to which they simply make " confversation " drawings more or less appropriate, Phil May was in the main his own jester, and that the humour of the legend is almost invariably on all fours with the drawing, being direct from life and its daily happenings, with only the same spice of caricature to give it immediate force and enough to remove it from the banality of common experience unfiltered through a selective mind. Something would strike him in the talk which he would seize, and with a twist of fancy lift into the realm of the comic or the absurd. I once asked him if he ever dreamed a joke. Many a time, he said, things amused him in dreams, but they were no good in the morning, and that the only one he ever used was that of a toper lying in the street with " (Hic !) jacet " as legend.
There is a curiously prevalent notion, even among those who most enjoy a humorous drawing, that because it is humorous it is by that much less as a work of art. It is far more easy to draw a dozen backboneless, long-robed figures in wings with characterless faces, playing archaic fiddles with the bow sideways across the keyboard, than to draw a Cockney child running away from a policeman and chaffing him as he runs. Yet the one, though nobody is moved by it in any way, is regarded dutifully as high art because of its subject , and the more difficult performance, which takes everyfone between the ribs, is passed over, no matter how finely observed, arranged and characterized, as of less account, simply because it is funny. Presumably in some such spirit people would sometimes say to Phil May, " Why don't you do something serious ? " His comment was, " If you're going to be serious you've got to be so damned good."
" Serious " he was on occasion where his sympathies were touched. But, as though shy of anything approaching sentimentality, it was rarely that he allowed rein to his pathetic humour, though it is not difficult to find examples of it. The little written foreword to " Gutterfsnipes," which contains a note of slightly false and specious pathos, was suggested by the publisher. He had simply copied it out.
He had walked every day for a week from his studio in Holland Park Road to the Graphic Office, close to the Law Courts. " What a saving in hansoms ! " I said. " Yes, but think of the crossing-sweepers," he replied, and there was less than half a jest intended. I have no doubt whatever that it cost him much more to walk than to drive. Of sympathy of this kind plenty can be found in his work.
The nearest popular immortal to compare him with that I can think of is Burns. While his method of expression hardly varied, having ,been set for him largely by his environment, like the language of a native country, he yet made his monosyllabic style of noun and verb extraordinarily elastic, seeing all things with a fresh eye and giving out what he sees in the " Volafpuk " of line. His humour has to a large extent gone into the language. Those clean-cut yet kindly summaries of life which he made from week to week and from day to day have become part of the general possession, like that of Burns.
His influence on " black and white " is still traceable in England and Australia, where he worked ; increasingly and to the good, as the underlying principles of his art rather than the temporal accidents of appearance become more absorbed, and this influence can only be to the good. Gustave Dore.
Facts existed for Beardsley no more than as he would have them ; Nature " put him out." He liked the world well aired, not crude and raw ; solid facts got in the way, and were a stumbling block in so entirely artificial and amusing a world. If a physical fact was ugly it had to be dismissed, or at least, charmingly put—its sting drawn and made amusing and unreal. Apart from the line of pattern he was an insecure draughtsman. Pattern deals in length and breadth alone ; " thickness " introduced a factor he never succeeded in mastering ; so that when, as he does on occasion, he suggests light and shade or modelling, it' is generally with timidity, and his unity fails. His style at its purest depends upon rhythm of line and balance of pattern, half tones of colour being arrived at by a free use of ornament upon costumes, furniture or hangings, a dotted line being frequently resorted to where a full line would have come out of place and jumbled the objects in the composition.
There are indications in his later work of an endeavour to enrich his technique, as though he was beginning to chafe under the restraint of a style so limited in its powers of objective expresfsion. It rejected what someftimes he wished to include. He wrote with as much delicate artificiality as he drew, and made as pretty arabesques of fancy, his work being all of a piece.
There is something illuminating in the passage to which one of his best drawings is an illustration : " Would to heaven," he sighed, " I might receive the assurance of a looking-glass before I make my debut ! However, as she is a Goddess, I doubt not her eyes are a little sated with perfection, and may not be displeased to see it crowned with a tiny fault."
" A wild rose had caught upon the trimmings of his ruff, and in the first flush of displeasure he would have struck it brusquely away and most severely punished the offending flower. But the ruffled mood lasted only a moment, for there was something so deliciously incongruous in the hardy petal's invasion of so delicate a thing, that Fanfreluche withheld the finger of resentment and vowed that the wild rose should stay where it had clung—a passport, as it were, from the upper to the under world."
" The very excess and violence of the fault," he said, " will be its excuse," and, undoing a tangle in the tassel of his stick, stepped into the shadowy corridor that ran into the very bosom of the wan hill—stepped with the admirable aplomb and unwrinkled suavity of " Don John." (" Under the Hill," The Savoy, No. 1).
This is as near to nature as he ever got, and it is just possible that it unconsciously conveys the hint of an almost sentimental regret in the highly self-conscious artist.