Sir Max Beerbohm
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Image courtesy of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
The Encaenia of 1908, 1908
Pen and black ink, pencil and watercolors
32.0 x 40.8 cm
Bequeathed by Mrs. Guedella, 1945
WA 1945.10

Born in London in 1872, Sir Max Beerbohm was well-known throughout British literary and artistic circles for his biting wit and critical eye.  Educated at Oxford, Beerbohm was a student at Merton College and looked back upon his years at Oxford with great happiness—it was there that he met a few of his closest friends with whom he corresponded for the rest of his life. 

Max, as he is referred to in all scholarly works, was equally known for his writing as for his caricatures.  Though he never had formal art training, a number of his caricatures had been published in magazines such as The Strand, Sketch, Pall Mall Budget, and Pick-Me-Up by the time he was in his early twenties.  In 1896, he published a book of essays, The Works of Max Beerbohm, and simultaneously published a book of caricatures entitled Caricatures of Twenty-Five Gentlemen.[i]  Though he had already gained a reputation for his caricatures, it was really the publication of these two books which secured his fame among the London elite at the young age of 24.  Max spent much of his life doing freelance work; in fact, his only regular job was as the drama critic for the Saturday Review from 1898-1910, taking over the post vacated by George Bernard Shaw, who had recommended him for the job.  The end of his run at the Saturday Review coincided with his decision to marry an American actress, Florence Kahn, and retreat to Italy for the rest of his life.  While in Italy, Max continued to draw caricatures for exhibitions at the Leicester Galleries.  He also continued to write, producing a novel, entitled Zuleika Dobson in 1911, a compilation of his parodies in A Christmas Garland in 1912, a book of short stories entitled Seven Men in 1919.  He also completed a number of collections of his essays and theater criticism. 

The Encaenia of 1908 was drawn in response to Oxford’s annual conferring of honorary degrees in 1907.  One of the honorees that year was Rudyard Kipling—a writer for whom Max Beerbohm had a very public distaste.  In an article published in the Saturday Review in July of 1907, Beerbohm criticized his beloved alma mater for making what he called a “very popular move” in conferring an honorary doctorate on Kipling, saying that “… it is not the business of an [sic] university such as Oxford to make popular moves.  Mr. Kipling’s gift has its fit reward, I think, in the applause of a crowd which will soon cease to remember him.  If Oxford wished to honor a writer of fiction, she should have selected someone working on a less popular, a higher plane of art.”[ii]  Thus the “comic Encaenia” was born.  The inscription on the work reads: “The Encaenia of 1908—being an [sic] humble hint to the Chancellor, based on the Encaenia of 1907, whereby so many idols of the market-place were cheerily set up in the groves of the Benign Mother.”  Max’s version of the 1908 Encaenia includes (from left to right) Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Hall Caine, an enormously popular novelist and playwright, John Campbell, the pastor of the city temple, Eugene Sandow, a German “strong man,” one of the pioneers in the sport of bodybuilding, Prince Edward of York, later King Edward VIII, who would have been 14 at the time, Thomas Lipton, a millionaire grocer and yachtsman, Lord Curzon, the chancellor of Oxford at the time, John Burns, a Labour party politician and trade-unionist, G.R. Sims, a journalist and author, and Little Tich, a music hall-comedian, who was a friend of Max’s.  He once said of Little Tich: “He was tiny.  I felt gross beside him… he used to slosh about in great boots.  They were as long as himself and the walk he managed in them was, well, incommunicably funny.”[iii]  Max’s choices for his version of the Encaenia of 1908 would certainly not have been contenders for an honorary degree.  In the background are landmarks of Oxford’s campus, the Sheldonian Theatre and the Old Ashmolean building. 

In a 1901 essay entitled “The Spirit of Caricature,” Max describes what he considers “the perfect caricature”:

The perfect caricature (be it of a handsome man or a hideous or an insipid) must be an exaggeration of the whole creature, from top to toe.  Whatsoever is salient must be magnified, whatsoever is subordinate must be proportionately diminished… The perfect caricature is bold in its execution, simple and ingenuous to its beholder as a wild flower.  For a caricature is a form of wit, and nothing so ruthlessly chokes laughter as the suspicion of labour.[iv]  

Using Max’s own description of a caricature, it may be more apt to consider the Encaenia of 1908 a cartoon as opposed to a caricature.  Always drawing solely from memory, Max’s caricatures of single figures are more exaggerated, more calligraphic in its brushstrokes, and less detailed in its representation of the human body than the Encaenia.  While there is no denying that the figures in the Encaenia are exaggerated, Max’s hand in his other caricatures from the same period is freer and more sketchy.  Sizes and body parts are more exaggerated in other works than in the Encaenia.  The Encaenia of 1908 is a very carefully worked out composition; great attention is paid to each individual figure.  Pencil seems to have been used first, to sketch out the entire composition.  Many of the figures are modeled with pencil, such as in the muscles in Eugene Sandow’s arm and in G.R. Sims’ cheek.  Laid over the pencil are light washes of watercolor, so subtle that the shadows cast from the figures are barely perceptible.  There is also a light wash of watercolor in the background to denote the difference between the ground and the sky.  Over the watercolor, fine lines of ink are used almost to reinforce the pencil lines, though the pencil remains, adding a dimension of tonality.  This work does not have the hasty, sketchy sense of his other caricatures.  Max takes care in rendering the architecture in the background as well as the particular expressions of each person, perhaps because he took Oxford’s misstep very seriously and wanted this message to be seen that way.

[i] Hall, N. John. Max Beerbohm: Caricatures. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997.

[ii] A reprint of this article can be found in a compilation of Max’s work for the Saturday Review.  See Sir Max Beerbohm, “About, and In, Oxford.” Last Theatres. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1970.  I am indebted to Mark Samuels Lasner for pointing me to this essay.

[iii] Cited in Hall, Max Beerbohm: Caricatures, p. 195.

[iv] For more on this topic, see Sir Max Beerbohm, “The Spirit of Caricature.” A Variety of Things. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1928.

Alison Chang

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