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Max Beerbohm

Max Beerbohm

In the early decades of the twentieth century, Max Beerbohm (1872-1956) was a well-known caricaturist, drama critic, and essayist, one of England's most popular-and at times, much pilloried-menof letters.

Born in London on August 24, 1872, Henry Maximilian Beerbohm was the last of several children of a Lithuanian-born grain merchant, Julius Ewald Beerbohm. His mother was Eliza Draper Beerbohm, the sister of Julius's late first wife. It was a well-to-do London family, and Max grew up with the four sisters from his father's second marriage. He was also close to four half-siblings, one of whom, Herbert Beerbohm Tree, was already a renowned stage actor when Max was a child.

An Undergraduate Prodigy

Beerbohm attended the Charterhouse School, a respected private academy for boys, and did reasonably well there. As a teen he became known for his wit and talent for sketching hilarious caricatures of his teachers and classmates. In 1890, he began at Merton, a college of Oxford University. Though he was an unenthusiastic student academically, Beerbohm became a well-known figure in campus social circles. He also began submitting articles and caricatures to London publications, which were met enthusiastically. By 1894, already a rising star in English letters, he left Oxford without a degree.

Through an acquaintanceship with an outstanding young illustrator and writer, Aubrey Beardsley, Beerbohm became involved with a controversial and acclaimed journal called the Yellow Book, upon its launch in 1894. For its first issue he penned "The Pervasion of Rouge," a satirical look at cosmetics, which were still considered somewhat disreputable for women. Beerbohm praised them for their ultimate good in terminating "the reign of terror of nature." This essay was singled out for vilification as "decadent," and subsequent issues of the Yellow Book containing his work, were roundly condemned by the establishment.

First Book

In 1895, Beerbohm went to America for several months as secretary to Tree's theatrical company. He was fired when he spent far too many hours polishing the business correspondence. There he became engaged to an American actress of the troupe, Grace Conover, a relationship that lasted several years. Returning to England, Beerbohm found success with his first book, a collection of essays he had written while still at Oxford and published by Lane in 1896. The Works of Max Beerbohm launched his career spectacularly. "Replete with mock-scholarly footnotes and biographical information, The Works epitomizes Beerbohm's penchant for deflating pretentiousness with satiric imitation," opined Ann Adams Cleary in the Dictionary of Literary Biography. "Anything large-ideas, ideals, literary works, London crowds-caused him dismay."

In his first book, the 23-year-old Beerbohm announced gravely that he would now retire from letters, having said all there was to say. Of course, he did not. He penned his first piece of fiction, "The Happy Hypocrite," published in the Yellow Book in 1897. The following year, the esteemed playwright and essayist, George Bernard Shaw, gave up his drama critic's post at the Saturday Review, and Beerbohm assumed the duties. The Saturday Review was undergoing a resurgence of popularity under its new owner, the writer Frank Harris, who would later become a close friend of Beerbohm's. It was Shaw, in his final Review piece, who bestowed upon Beerbohm the lasting epithet, "the incomparable Max."

True to form, Beerbohm's first review was titled "Why I Ought Not To Have Become a Dramatic Critic." For the next twelve years, he wrote over 453 pieces of drama criticism. His own experiences and connections in the London theater world made him relatively immune from awe when it came to the writers, directors, or performers. "His impressionistic criticism, always entertaining, was often wittily contemptuous of the pretensions of players, playwrights, and playgoers alike," declared Cleary in her Dictionary of Literary Biography essay. Many of these articles were published in the 1924 volume Around Theatres. Later collections, brought forth several years after Beerbohm's death, include More Theatres 1898-1903 from 1969 and Last Theatres 1904-1910, dating from 1970. Volumes of his essays-sequels to The Works of Max Beerbohm-appeared as 1899's More and Yet Again, issued in 1910.

Distinguished by Prose and Pen

At Charterhouse, Beerbohm had learned Latin, and he would later say the classical language training was of great importance to him as a writer. A background in Latin, Beerbohm wrote in an essay titled "Lytton Strachey," published in Mainly on the Air, was "essential to the making of a decent style," he asserted, because "English is an immensely odd and irregular language." He expounded on that thought in a sentence that made clear his intent: "There are few who can so wield it as to make their meaning clear without prolixity-and among those few, none who has not been well-grounded in Latin."

Aside from his talents as a devastatingly adept and witty writer, Beerbohm also enjoyed a burgeoning career as a caricaturist. His subjects were the literary giants of English letters, British politicians, and the royal family. In these comical drawings, Beerbohm satirized the foibles of friends and dignitaries alike. A much-reproduced one of Oscar Wilde-a friend of Beerbohm's-helped launch this side of his career in 1894, just before Wilde was jailed on charges of sexual misconduct.

Beerbohm enjoyed numerous exhibitions of his drawings in private London galleries like the Leicester. Kenneth Baker, writing in the Spectator in 1997, asserted that Beerbohm's caricatures "single-handedly … ended the long period of Victorian servility." The art of caricature, Baker went on to explain, had been extremely popular in eighteenth-century London, when print shops sold images of the royal family that went so far as to mock imagined sexual perversions. But during the Victorian era, English culture grew far more constricted and conservative, and political figures were depicted only as dignified personages. "As for the Queen, after 1870 any irreverent cartoons were tantamount to treason," Baker wrote in the Spectator. "Max Beerbohm helped to put an end to all this." Most of this artistic output was published in book form: Rossetti and His Circle, issued in 1922. It is considered representative of Beerbohm at the peak of his energies as a caricaturist.

Beerbohm and the Duke of Windsor

Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli and Edward VII were favorite targets of Beerbohm's pen. In 1923, another show of his work was held at the Leicester. Included was a caricature of the heir to England's throne, the man who later became the Duke of Windsor. The prince was still an enthusiastic bachelor as his brothers settled down into marriage, and Beerbohm's Leicester show exhibited "Long Choosing and Beginning Late," a drawing which presented an elderly prince marrying the daughter of his boardinghouse-keeper, complete with the Times of London newspaper announcement. It caused a great stir, and newspapers decried Beerbohm for his disrespect to the throne; one even portended this as "The End of Max Beerbohm."

In response, Beerbohm removed the drawing from the exhibition, and a few years later it was sold to a private party. Remarkably, in 1936 the actual Prince of Wales, by then King Edward VIII, abdicated his throne in order to marry an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson, whose mother had once run a boardinghouse in Baltimore, Maryland.

Beerbohm mocked the royal family in other ways. During the reign of the Duke of Windsor's father, George V, the court was known for its confining, and rather colorless atmosphere. For friends' eyes only, Beerbohm once penned a verbal duel between two courtiers that read, in part, "the King is duller than the Queen … Oh no, the Queen is duller than the King." Someone passed it to the royal family, and it was said that the jest kept Beerbohm from the honor of knighthood for twenty years. But Beerbohm also told one of his biographers, S. N. Behrman, that the Windsor family owned several of his caricatures of their ancestors for their own private amusement.

Moved to Italy

Beerbohm had become a well-known figure in London literary circles. In 1908, he became engaged to Florence Kahn, an acclaimed actress from Memphis, Tennessee who was then touring England. They married in 1910, and Beerbohm gave up his post at the Saturday Review. He and his wife moved to a home called Villino Chiaro in Rapallo, Italy. At the time, Italy was a very inexpensive place to live, added to its bounteous geographic attributes. Beerbohm, however, never learned to speak Italian in his five decades as an expatriate.

In Rapallo he began writing fiction in earnest. His first and only novel, Zuleika Dobson, was published in 1911 and met with great success. Set at Oxford, it is a comic tale of a femme fatale visitor who lays waste to the entire male student population. The following year, a volume of Beerbohm's literary parodies, A Christmas Garland, Woven by Max Beerbohm, was published. It contained essays on the holiday season that mimicked the style of some of the greatest living writers of the day: Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, and H. G. Wells. Another of Beerbohm's literary parodies was published in 1946 and mocked the style of Henry James. The Mote in the Middle Distance offers up "James's convoluted syntax within a trivial context," explained Cleary in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, as "Jamesian children lengthily consider the moral ramifications of peeking in Christmas stockings."

An Eminent Retirement

The Beerbohms returned to England in 1915 on account of World War I, but were back in Rapallo by 1919. That same year, another book of fiction, Seven Men, was published. This work contained short-story profiles of six fictional characters; Beerbohm himself being the seventh. One of them, "Enoch Soames," followed the tragicomic tale of a failed writer, certain that history would correct the judgment of his peers. He struck a bargain with the devil in order to time-travel to the British Museum reading room in 1997, where he was appalled to find even more vicious negative assessments of his work.

Beerbohm more or less retired in the mid-1920s, and enjoyed the publication of a ten-volume series of his writings and caricatures. It bore the already-used, though now more appropriate title, The Works of Max Beerbohm. These were brought forth between 1922 and 1928 by Heinemann, his longtime publisher. By now Beerbohm was in his fifties. He returned to England around 1936 when his wife was cast in a revival of Peer Gynt on the London stage. Beerbohm resumed writing essays when the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) invited him to give regular broadcasts. The success of these programs made Beerbohm a well-known emeritus of British humor. They were collected in the 1946 work, Mainly on the Air.

In 1939, Beerbohm finally received the title of "Sir" when he was knighted by King George VI. He and Florence remained in England throughout World War II. His humorous radio broadcasts helped to improve the morale of Britain's war-torn populace. In 1942, the Maximilian Society was created in his honor, upon the occasion of his seventieth birthday. Formed by a London drama critic, it boasted 70 distinguished members, and planned to add one more fan of Beerbohm's on each successive birthday. Their first get-together feted him with a banquet and the gift of seventy bottles of wine.

Beerbohm's wife died in 1951, and for the next few years a German woman named Elisabeth Jungmann looked after the ailing writer. They married in secret just a few weeks before he died on May 20, 1956 in Rapallo. His ashes lie in an urn at London's St. Paul's Cathedral. The most recent collection of his art, Max Beerbohm's Caricatures, was published in 1997.

Further Reading

Behrman, S. N. Portrait of Max: An Intimate Memoir of Sir Max Beerbohm, Random House, 1960.

Cyclopedia of World Authors, edited by Frank N. Magill, Salem Press, 1997.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 34: British Novelists, 1890-1929: Traditionalists, edited by Thomas F. Staley, Gale Research, 1984.

Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 100: Modern British Essayists, edited by William Blissett, Gale Research, 1990.

Spectator, October 25, 1997. □

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