Sir Henry Maximilian Beerbohm, IS NEAC PS (1872-1956)
Equally valued as a caricaturist and writer, Max Beerbohm sustained an elegant detachment in art and life. Though the tone of his drawings is often lightly wicked, it is also affectionate, for he hated to wound his subjects, most of whom he knew and liked. As a result, he was on safest ground in satirising artists and writers of the past, and in making many self-caricatures.
Max Beerbohm was born at 57 Palace Gardens Terrace, Kensington, London, on 24 August 1872, the youngest child of Julius Beerbohm, a prosperous corn merchant of mixed Baltic origins, and his second wife, Eliza (née Draper), the sister of his first wife. He was educated at Henry Wilkinson’s preparatory school at 11 Orme Square (1881-85), Charterhouse (1885-90) and Merton College, Oxford (1890-94). Self-taught as an artist, he was an intelligent student of caricature and revered the work of Alfred Bryan and Carlo Pellegrini (Ape).
On the edge of various fashionable groups, he produced lightly wicked sketches in pen and wash of many of the leading figures of the day. He contributed to The Strand Magazine (1892), Pick-Me-Up (1894) and Vanity Fair (1896) and published his first book of caricatures in 1896. Two years later, he began his only job, as theatre critic for the Saturday Review. He kept up prickly relations with his predecessor, Shaw and the editor, Frank Harris, and wrote a teasing first article, entitled ‘Why I ought not to have become a theatre critic’. With the actor-manager Beerbohm Tree as a half-brother, he had actually had constant access to the theatre from an early age and was well acquainted with a number of actors, directors and playwrights. He even complemented his work as a critic with attempts at writing plays, most successfully in an adaptation of his own story, The Happy Hypocrite (1896), produced as a curtain raiser in 1900. A severe judge of the work of others, he believed that significant drama should combine intelligence, beauty and reality, but his theatrical taste was broad enough to encompass both music hall and the Symbolist dramas of Maeterlinck.
Soon after the appearance of his novel Zuleika Dobson, a decade later, in 1911, Beerbohm resigned from his position with the Saturday Review. He decided that, on his marriage to the American actress, Florence Kahn, in 1910, he would retire to the Villino Chiaro, Rapallo, Italy; from then he returned to England only on short visits. Nevertheless, he remained one of the country’s best-known public figures. He was elected to the New English Art Club (1909), the National Portrait Society (1911) and the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers (1912). From this time, a number of exhibitions of his work were held at the Leicester Galleries, in 1911, 1913, 1921, 1923, 1925 and 1928. The Leicester Galleries mounted a retrospective in 1952, and a memorial show in 1957. He delivered the Rede Lectures at Cambridge between 1933 and 1935, and was knighted in 1939. Following the death of his wife in 1951, Elisabeth Jungmann became his secretary and companion, and on 20 April 1956 his wife. He died in Rapallo on 20 May 1956.
His work is represented in the collections of The Courtauld Art Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, Tate and the V&A; the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford), Charterhouse (Godalming) and Merton College Library (Oxford); and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center (university of Texas at Austin), the Lilly Library (university of Indiana, Bloomington), Princeton university Library and William Andrews Clark Memorial Library (university of California at Los Angeles). His archive is held by the Houghton Library, Harvard university (Cambridge MA).
Further reading: S N Behrman, Portrait of Max: an intimate memoir of Sir Max Beerbohm, New York: Random House, 1960; Alan Bell, ‘Beerbohm, Sir (Henry) Max(imilian) (b London, 24 Aug 1872; d Rapallo, 20 May 1956)’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, vol 3, pages 493; Lord David Cecil, Max, London: Constable, 1964; N John Hall, ‘Beerbohm, Sir Henry Maximilian [Max] (1872-1956)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford university Press, 2004, vol 4, pages 817-821; N John Hall, Max Beerbohm: A Kind of Life, London: Yale University Press, 2002; N John Hall, Max Beerbohm. Caricatures, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997; Rupert Hart-Davis, Catalogue of the Caricatures of Max Beerbohm, London: Macmillan, 1972; Rupert Hart-Davis (ed), Letters of Max Beerbohm 1892-1956, London: John Murray, 1988; Rupert Hart-Davis (ed), Max Beerbohm, Letters to Reggie Turner, London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 1964