Aubrey Beardsley

Messalina and her Companion


Not on display

Aubrey Beardsley 1872–1898
Graphite, ink and watercolour on paper
Support: 279 × 178 mm
frame (Royal): 503 × 375 × 20 mm
Presented by A.L. Assheton 1928


Beardsley produced this image as an illustration for an edition of the satirist Juvenal's (AD60?-140) lewd and salacious text, the Sixth Satire, privately printed by Leonard Smithers. It was first published as an independent image in 1897, in Aymer Vallance's The Second Book of Fifty Drawings, erroneously titled Messalina Returning Home. Messalina (d.AD48) was the wife of the Roman emperor Claudius (10BC-AD54). She was notorious for her sexual appetite and Juvenal describes her nightly excursions from the Imperial Palace to work as a whore in a local brothel. She

called for her hooded
Night-cloak and hastened forth, alone or with a single
Maid to attend her. Then, with her black hair hidden
Under an ash-blonde wig, she would make straight for her brothel,
With its odour of stale, warm bedclothes, its empty reserved cell.
Here she would strip off, showing her gilded nipples and
The belly that once housed a prince of the blood.
(Juvenal, Sixth Satire)

Beardsley was an important contributer to the Decadent movement, which included a number of writers and artists profoundly disillusioned by the materialism of the world at the end of the nineteenth century. Many turned their back on the real world and took solace in alchemy, spiritualism and hallucinatory drugs. Others attempted to reflect the decline of society in their work and saw parallels in the Latin poetry of the so-called Silver Age, a period of decline in Roman literature. Drawing on Juvenal's text Beardsley illustrates a civilization - that of late Imperial Rome - sinking into moral and physical decline. The Juvenal drawings are close in style to Beardsley's drawings for The Yellow Book, an avant-garde journal of which Beardsley was art editor. Much of this work is abstracted, the overall effect achieved by picking out broad areas of white against a black background. The silhouette of Messalina's evil companion is merely indicated by a rough outline in white. Her tiny skull-like face beneath the black bonnet, her hand emerging from a flowing white cuff, a dainty leg and the floral pattern of her dress bring the figure to life with a brilliant economy of expression.

This is the earliest of Beardsley's illustrations of Juvenal. Two years later he produced a second image of Messalina in Messalina Returning from the Bath (1897, Victoria and Albert Museum, London). The colour was not part of the original drawing, but was added, apparently by Beardsley, before 1898.

Further reading:
Kenneth Clark, The Best of Aubrey Beardsley, London 1979, pp.134-5, reproduced p.135.
Brian Reade, Aubrey Beardsley, London 1967, revised edition, 1987, p.351, no.393, reproduced pl.392.
Simon Wilson, Aubrey Beardsley: A Centenary Tribute, exhibition catalogue, Kawasaki City Museum, Kanagawa 1998, p.249, no.170, reproduced p.211.

Frances Fowle
December 2000

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Display caption

Messalina was the wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius, and was noted for her sexual appetite and depravity. At night she would leave the Imperial palace to voluntarily work in a brothel, a journey which Beardsley depicts here. The design was produced for an edition of Juvenal's 'Sixth Satire', published by Leonard Smithers. Smithers published a succession of erotic material in the 1890s, some of it illustrated by Beardsley. Previously refuted or ignored, the female libido was very much a topic of quasi-scientific and religious debate in the 1890s, when opinion began to acknowledge it for the first time. This coincided with the beginnings of a reconsideration of women's status in society.

Gallery label, March 1999

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Catalogue entry

Not inscribed.
Pencil and Indian ink, later tinted with watercolour, 11×7 (28×18).
Purchased from the Antiquarian Guild Ltd (Duveen Drawings Fund) with the aid of a subscription from A. L. Assheton 1928.
Coll: Leonard Smithers;...; the Hon. Evan Morgan, sold 1928 to the Antiquarian Guild Ltd.
Exh: International Society, 1898 (169, repr.), as ‘Messalina returning from the Bath’; Tate Gallery, 1923–4 (37).

Lit: Vallance in Fifty Drawings, 1897, p.210, as ‘Messalina returning home’; Vallance in Ross, 1909, p.99, No.126, as ‘Messalina’, and p.109.

Repr: Early Work, 1899, pl.79 (without colouring); Aubrey Beardsley, A Second Book of Fifty Drawings, 1899, p.195 (without colouring); Later Work, 1920 ed., pl.63 (without colouring); Best of Beardsley, 1948, No.52 (without colouring); L'Oeil, No.90, June 1962, p.33.

There is another ink drawing, possibly for an ornamental initial, on the back, together with a guarantee dated 27 April 1898 by Leonard Smithers, the publisher and bookseller who paid Beardsley a regular allowance from the summer of 1895 in return for the exclusive copyright of all his future work; he is said, however, to have forged Beardsley's work after his death. This drawing was first published without colouring as an illustration to Juvenal's Sixth Satire, privately printed by Smithers in 1897; one of the four other drawings used is that normally referred to as ‘Messalina returning from the Bath’ (repr. Later Work, 1920 ed., pl.158). The Tate Gallery's drawing has hitherto been catalogued as ‘Messalina and her Companion’, but it seems best to return to the title used by Vallance in Fifty Drawings, a publication with which Beardsley himself was associated. The reproduction in the International Society's exhibition catalogue shows that the drawing had already been coloured by 1898.

Published in:
Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, London 1964, I

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