Monday, October 30, 2023

Wilfred Scawen Blunt, an Amorous Adventurer and Quail with Scotch


Wilfred Scawen Blunt (1840-1922) in his 20s

While excavating my bookshelves a few weeks ago, I discovered Unquiet Souls by Mary Lambert - a book I had stashed away and forgotten years ago (yeah, I have serious tsundoku issues - links for the books at the end if you do too).

1895 Souls going-away party for new the Indian Viceroy, Lord Curzon 

The book was about a band of shimmeringly unorthodox, fin de siècle English men and women that were known as The Souls.

1906 Marlborough Set

The Prince of Wales’s crowd, ‘The Marlborough Set’ was the ‘smart set’ of the day.  Smart meant fashionable - the front row seats to the sports and arts and mostly shallow as shallow could be. They were known for their lavish town & country parties filled with DeBrett’s finest top-heavy titles (and a slight sprinkling of the spice of new money to foot the bills). 

Wyndham Sisters by Sargeant


‘The Souls Set’ had what money couldn’t buy. Mostly from old families, they were brilliant artists, writers, poets and statesmen who blossomed in Victoria’s reign and faded with Edwardian Age. They engaged in strong friendships, heady, penetrating conversations and discreet but frequent partner-exchanging romances within the group over the decades. 


Wilifred Scawen Blunt fondly remembered his time with The Souls among the Wyndhams, Lyttletons, Elchos and Balfours, Asquiths,Curzon Custs and Grenfells, “…I turned with redoubled zest to my social pleasures of the year before, and at this time saw much of that interesting group of clever men and pretty women known as the Souls, than whom no section of London Society was better worth frequenting, including as it did all that there was most intellectually amusing and least conventional. It was a group of men and women bent on pleasure, but pleasure of a superior kind, eschewing the vulgarities of racing and card-playing indulged in by the majority of the rich and noble, and looking for their excitement in romance and sentiment."


I saw a good read ahead. Then I noticed the face on the spine of the book beside it ….

Wilfred Blunt 1860s

Next to Unquiet Souls sat another long-lost volume.  I pulled it out and, whoa, the cover! How could I have overlooked the diabolically beautiful face of Wilfred Scawen Blunt with his gimlet eyes drilling into mine!! For all these years the book gathered dust with its neighbor? Tragic.

Blunt on Pharaoh by Anne Blunt

The volumes were rightfully bound together since Blunt had played with, worked with or slept with most of the Souls.  For all the prime ministers,Viceroys and famous creatives of the crowd – Blunt stood apart.

I started reading the Souls book – and enjoyed it – but the image of Blunt kept calling and, in the end, I burned through his story. The book, A Pilgrimage of Passion by Elizabeth Longford was full of tantalizing stories but the writing was a slog.  I got through it but just. Unsated, I ordered Blunt’s grandson’s book and hoped for a better guide to an amazing life -- the Earl of Lytton’s book, Wilfred Scawen Blunt did not disappoint and I was ensorcelled as it escaped most of the turgid technicalities of 19th century geopolitics and spent time with the man.

Esme Howard

Esme Howard remembered Blunt for an Atlantic Article written 15 years after Blunt's death in 1922, “Wilfrid Blunt was a well-known figure in English society, and also in Egypt. Tall, dark, and exceedingly handsome, he had been in the diplomatic service in his youth and was said, with what truth I do not know, to have been the only Englishman who had killed a bull in the bull ring at Madrid.”

Blunt 1881


Howard continued, “He was a poet of no mean order, and his sonnets, published by the Kelmscott Press, are many of them extremely beautiful. Immensely proud, but at the same time a born revolutionary, he gave endless trouble to the British authorities in Egypt by continually and actively taking up the cause of those who, like Arabi Pasha, were using every means in their power, even to the extent of open rebellion against the Khedive, to get the English out of Egypt.”

Lord Curzon

Many of the Souls stayed firmly attached to their ancient estates in England, but, like his friend Lord Curzon, Blunt had a genuinely passionate love for the East and wanted to improve the condition of the native populations that the British Empire overlords and their minions were abusing. Both men were tireless diplomats, learning the local languages to truly absorb the cultures. Both had wives who shared their husband's aspirations and worked to achieve them. But where Curzon was madly, deeply in love with his beautiful wife Mary, Blunt’s love life was more complicated.

Catherine ‘Skittles’ Walters


Blunt began his romantic crusades in earnest with a decades-long affair and friendship with one of the great English courtesans (and favorite of the future King of England) Catherine ‘Skitttles’ Walters that started in his 20s in Paris of the 1860s and continued till her death in 1920.  Women were mad for him and most remained close friends after the affairs had lost their fire (and some returned again and again!).  Men enjoyed his conversation and companionship.  Everyone - men and women both - remarked about his beauty.


Anne Noel Blunt (1837-1917), Baroness Wentworth
Anne Noel Blunt (1837-1917), Baroness Wentworth 


Blunt played the field for years, but married Anne, the granddaughter of great romantic poet Lord Byron(1788-1823), in 1869. She remained a steadfast life-partner and fellow world traveler till nearly the end of their lives (when the Blunt brought a live-in mistress into their home – a bridge too far even for the understanding Anne). 


He had dozens of women throughout his long life – many were friends and wives of friends and even daughters of friends. Anne stuck with him – although often living separately from him at one of their many homes and finally staying at Sheykh O'Beyd in Egypt on her own -- with her beloved horses. Blunt remained impossibly amorous till the end.  His notorious, My Diaries by Wilfred Scawen Blunt was locked for 50 years after his death so as not to reveal the secret trysts of the living… it is a GREAT read for the full flavor of the times. 

Anne with Blunt, with her horse Kasida)
Anne and Wilfred Blunt
Anne and Wilfred in Egypt

Blunt was incredibly lucky to have had Anne, a brave and willing partner who accompanied him on many of his most dangerous and exotic travels.  Together they traversed thousands of miles on camels, horses and on foot through wild deserts and mountains, living with the local tribes, trading information and procuring the finest Arab horses and all the while writing poetry and sending diplomatic missives.  Blunt was a polymath force of nature. E.M Forster called Edwin Scawen Blunt “an English gentleman of genius.”  He was also a man who fought for lost causes.

Blunt and Anne on an Irish postcard

He fought for, wrote furiously about, and was jailed in the cause of Irish Independence and against the English  aristocracy's cruel tenant evictions which left a huge swath of farmers starving and homeless. He wrote some rather potent words about his time in Galway Gaol in his 1888 poem,  In Vinculis.  It inspired Oscar Wilde's better known Reading Gaol poem and helped to get Winston Churchill's attention. But Blunt's attempts to exact some kind promises of prison reform from his friend Winston were fruitless - the "convent without god" saw no improvements from his fervent ministrations.



“A prison is a convent without God.
Poverty, Chastity, Obedience
Its precepts are. In this austere abode
None gather wealth of pleasure or of pence.
Woman’s light wit, the heart’s concupiscence
Are banished here. At the least warder’s nod
Thy neck shall bend in mute subservience.
Nor yet for virtue – rather for the rod.



In his day, Wilfred was a well-known poet known for Love Sonnets of Proteus in 1880 and Wind and the Whirlwind in 1883 – much respected in his time but now virtually forgotten. Today he is more remembered for his spicy diary than his poetry.  Much of it is quite good and his correspondence with friends and inamorata were festooned with lovely verses – oh how we are starved for such letters these days.

The Blunt family motto was “respiciendo prospiciendo” looking forward looking back so I thought I would share 2 of his poems to give you the idea of his way with words.

To One Who Would Make A Confession


Oh! leave the past to bury its own dead.
The past is naught to us, the present all.
What need of last year's leaves to strew Love's bed?
What need of ghosts to grace a festival?
I would not, if I could, those days recall,
Those days not ours. For us the feast is spread.
The lamps are lit, and music plays withal.
Then let us love and leave the rest unsaid.
This island is our home. Around it roar
Great gulfs and oceans, channels, straits and seas.
What matter in what wreck we reached the shore, 
So we both reached it? We can mock at these.
Oh! leave the past, if past indeed there be;
I would not know it; I would know but thee.


On the Shortness of Time 


If I could live without the thought of death,
Forgetful of Time's waste, the soul's decay,
I would not ask for other joy than breath,
With light and sound of birds and the sun's ray.
I could sit on untroubled day by day
Watching the grass grow, and the wild flowers range
From blue to yellow and from red to grey
In natural sequence as the seasons change.
I could afford to wait, but for the hurt
Of this dull tick of time which chides my ear.
But now I dare not sit with loins ungirt
And staff unlifted, for death stands too near.
I must be up and doing--ay, each minute.
The grave gives time for rest when we are in it.


There was poetry and then there were his Arabian horses. 

Blunt 1881

The Blunts introduced the finest Arabian horses to England in 1878 and established roots at a magical house in Egypt - Sheykh O’Beyd. In 1895, the Philosopher Frederic Harrison wrote very fondly of his visit and for " the pleasure and instruction I received under his roof and in his tent." He described the estate:  "The garden , which covers around 40 aces, is full of oranges, olives, apricots in blossom and roses in bloom - so that, although it is in the Desert, it is a wilderness of water and greenery.  The fruit trees are now in blossom and the crops are intensely green - the early corn is 2 feet high and the tall grasses are as fresh as cowslips in May.  The house is an airy Egyptian villa in two stories, with a  large flat roof on which we spend early morning and evening, take after noon tea and coffee and lounge - and would sleep if it grew hot enough."

Sheykh O'Beyd in Egypt 
Anne Blunt Drawing of land around house

Thanks more to Anne and his daughter Judith's tireless work, the line of Crabbet Arabian Stud horses are still legendary all over the world.

Crabbet House 
Blunt's daughter Judith (1873-1957) with some of the horses at Crabbet

The intersection of the Souls and Blunt was felt strongly in the formation and celebration of the Crabbet Club which met once a year in June for many years.

Blunt described the formation of the club in the 1870s in his diaries of 1890.  It grew from shared school days and the inclination to keep the spirit going with athletics and contests once a year.  “It was in that summer that the Crabbet Club, which was to acquire a certain social celebrity, was established on a footing which was to gain for it a character almost of importance. It will not be out of place, seeing that our memoir writers of the day have included it, or rather have not left it unnoticed in their recollections, if I say a few words here as to what it really was…” “The Crabbet Club was in its origin a purely convivial gathering, unambitious of any literary aim…”

That Atlantic Magazine article, Recollections of a Respectable Mediocrity, was so titled after the way Esme Howard introduced himself to what he saw as a dazzling assembly at the Crabbet Club - he felt clearly outclassed and humble humor won him a place at the table, “There was also an institution of the early nineties called the Crabbet Club, to which I had the honor to belong. A certain number of young men, I forget how many, and one or two old ones, used to meet for a week-end in June under Wilfrid’s hospitable roof, and he gave a prize for the champion lawn-tennis player and for the best poem.

On the Saturday evening the business of the Club was first transacted; new members were elected, and speeches were made, generally in a vein of pleasantry and satire, proposing and seconding the candidates. As president of the Club, Wilfrid Blunt sat a t the head of the table dressed in gorgeous silks, like an Arab sheik, with an enormous turban.” 

  Blunt recollected in his diary, “The young men thus got together, most of them fresh from the Universities, though also bent on amusement, had tastes more intellectual than their predecessors, and besides our lawn tennis handicaps, we had much after-dinner speaking, and a verse competition with the election of a poet laureate for the year. The Club was in this condition when in 1889 George Wyndham, becoming a member, took it in hand, and seeing its intellectual capabilities brought new blood into it by introducing friends of his own, already holding a certain position in the political world, and who have since no few of them climbed to fame. Among these were George Curzon, Harry Cust, Houghton (now Lord Crewe), Frederick Locker, Umphreville Swinburne, cousin of the poet, St. George Lane Fox, Eddy Tennant, Laurence Currie, George Leveson Gower, Esme Howard, Elcho, Dick Grosvenor, Alfred Douglas, Charles Gatty, Morpeth, and his brother Hubert Howard, and on a single occasion Oscar Wilde, and it was in the company of these that our meetings of the early nineties were held. They were really brilliant meetings, with post-prandial oratory of the most amusing kind, and were productive of verse of a quite high order. The number of the members was limited to twenty, and there was much competition when a vacancy occurred. The poetry of the Crabbet Club has been preserved in print, and is one of the curiosities of literature, deserving a place, I venture to think, in company with the best verse of a not serious kind, including even perhaps that of the Mermaid Tavern. My own part in these meetings, which were essentially convivial, was that of Chairman.

" 1st July, — Crabbet. Annual meeting of the Crabbet Club. We sat down over twenty to dinner, and did not leave the table till half-past one.

" George Curzon was, as usual, the most brilliant, he never flags for an instant either in speech or repartee; after him George Wyndham, Mark Napier, and Webber. The next day, Sunday, Harry Cust won the Tennis Cup, and the Laureateship was adjudged to Curzon.”

Blunt with Pound and Yeats at the Peacock Dinner 1914

“The Club as the " Crabbet Club " was still continued, but reconstructed in later years on different lines with a number of young men.” Oxford undergraduates replaced older members. I think Blunt enjoyed being the elder statesmen and representative of the last century with younger men. He even hosted a famous dinner at New Buildings with a peacock and a marble box of poems the younger poets gave to Blunt. At the dinner were the young poets of the day with Yeats and Pound – who regarded Blunt as “the grandest of old men” and ‘the last of the great Victorians”. The dinner was a bit of a legend.

New Buildings. house

So what to eat?? Blunt lived in a world of incessant house parties, many of them at his own country houses Crabbet and New Buildings.

What better food to share with you than the stuff of weekend hunts and silver chafing dishes on ten foot sideboards? I say game birds sauced with Scotch – warming, filling and decadently delicious. Both of these sauces are heavenly variations on a theme. The squab dish was based on something I’ve made for years based on Catharine Brown’s Scottish Cookery.  It’s divine using the original pheasant or squab as I used thanks to my friends at D’Artagnan but easy to use simple chicken thighs -- which are excellent with the sauce. I also throw in peach scone recipe to have on the next morning's breakfast table after the evening's festivities.

The second recipe was based on The Scotch Cookbook from the 20s (those juniper berries were a great addition), it used game birds which tend to be leaner and chewier. I used a plump
poussin and changed the cooking style – do go back to the original (pictured below) if you are
using grouse or other game birds. It’s all about about the savory oatmeal and that Scotch cream.

                   Squab with Scotch Cream for 2

2 boned squab 

2 oz single malt Scotch (I like a peaty Lagavulin best or Laphroaig)

2 Tablespoons unsalted butter

2-3 diced shallots

½ c demiglace 

pinch cayenne

½ t nutmeg

1 t marjoram chopped

bay leaf

salt and pepper

a splash of whisky

½ cup heavy cream

1 t lemon juice

Put the birds in the scotch for an hour or overnight.  Pour off the scotch and reserve. Dry 

the birds and salt and pepper them.

Heat the butter until bubbling  over medium heat and turn the birds in it to brown all over.

Lift the birds from the pot, reduce the heat to medium low and cook the shallots until golden.
Add the reserved whisky.
Add the stock, cayenne, salt and pepper and reduce slightly.
Return the birds to the sauce and cover and cook until tender at low heat, usually in about 5-10 minutes or so.

Remove the birds, add the lemon juice, taste and add a splash more of whiskey if needed - pour sauce over birds and serve 


           Poussin Scotch Stew based on a recipe from  The Scots Cookbook 1929

1 Poussin  or cornish hens  - breasts removed, larger pieces of meat removed and reserved.

2 slices bacon, fried - reserve the fat

3 c stock

2 T demiglace

1 t pepper

1 t salt

6-8 juniper berries slightly crushed

2 sticks of celery - reserve some leaves

2 oz plus 1 T  butter 

2 oz irish oatmeal

1t sage

1T butter

1T redwine

2 T whiskey ( again - a peaty Lagavulin best or Laphroaig)

3 T cream

Cut the Poussin into pieces. Saute in bacon fat to brown slightly. Add the stock, demiglace,
pepper & salt, juniper and celery. Simmer for 2 hours and strain.

Sauté the oatmeal in the butter till slightly brown (if you toast it too much, it will not become creamy). Add triple the amount of stock and sage and cook slowly, covered. till soft and creamy -- about 30 minutes.  Then stir in the most of the rest of the stock - reserving half a cup.  In a separate pan fry the breasts and the rest of the meat in butter till browned and cooked through.  Add the red wine and whisky and cook a bit of the alcohol off.  Add the reserved stock and the cream and cook for a few moments to join the flavors.  You can either combine all of it together or serve the meat on top of the oatmeal.  Sprinkle the bacon over the top with the celery leaves.

Peach Scones (adapted from All Recipes)


6 tablespoons white sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground cardamom

¼ teaspoon baking soda

1 pinch ground nutmeg

1 stick unsalted butter, frozen

½ cup heavy cream

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup peeled and diced fresh peaches (if you can get it – tossed with a splash of Jasmine essence 

  2 tablespoons turbinado sugar


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). Line a baking sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper.

 Mix flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, salt, cardamom, baking soda, and nutmeg together in a large bowl.

Grate in 1/3 of the butter using the large holes of a box grater. Toss lightly with your fingertips until coated with flour. Repeat twice more with remaining butter.

 Whisk cream, egg, and vanilla extract together in a small bowl with a fork. Pour over the flour-butter mixture. Mix with a fork just until large clumps of dough form. Gently fold in peach.

Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Bring together and gently pat into a 9-inch-long rectangle about 1 inch thick. Sprinkle turbinado sugar on top; press gently to adhere. Cut into 8 triangles with a bench knife or sharp knife. Transfer to the prepared baking sheet.

 Bake in the preheated oven until golden, about 18 minutes. Place baking sheet on a wire rack and let cool.



Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Max Beerbohm, Legendary Caricatures. Poussin with Figs and Squab with Orange and Prunes

Max 1897

I have wanted to write about Max Beerbohm for years.  Zelig-like, he appears regularly in the English-speaking cultural timeline of the late 19th to mid 20th century and beyond - he knew and was known by everyone. Sometimes it felt as if Max was reminding me to write about him since his name popped up so often in things I was reading,  so I kept compiling books, drawings and articles as I came across them – collecting as if that would assure Max I was not going to welch on the deal. At long last, the promise is kept. It has been a great joy to dig into his remarkable life. 

Art critic Roger Fry in his Vision and Design sagely observed that “ordinary people have no idea of what things really look like, because they are so accustomed to observing only those objects which, for the practical purposes of life, it is necessary for them to observe.” Max absorbed all the details. In researching this, I got to explore and share his vision as a ‘profound critic of men” -- see my fellow humans with fresh eyes.

Max Beerbohm 1872-1956, Nicholson

Max Beerbohm. For those of you who don’t joyfully dwell in the past as I do, George Bernard Shaw called him “The Incomparable Max”. Edith Wharton announced that to have dinner with Max, "was like suddenly growing wings." When Rebecca West heard Max’s beautifully spoken words on his legendary WWII BBC broadcasts she announced, "I felt that I was listening to the voice of the last civilized man on earth. Max's broadcasts justify the entire invention of broadcasting."  The whole of the British Isles felt an enormous heartstring tug to the warm safety of the past that Max painted so beautifully with his talks during the terrible times of WWII (a tug to the past that's all the more visceral and relatable after the death of Queen Elizabeth last week). His voice is from another time and so very, very listenable (you can hear a sample HERE ). A whole generation thought of him as a safe port in a raging war storm.

Some Persons of the Nineties 1925

Who was he? Max was a master at distillation and that gave his caricatures and his writing an extraordinary quality (it is quite a creative exercise to examine a person's parts and put them back together again). 

Merton College, Oxford

Max was born in 1872 and while still at Merton College, Oxford, he joined the shimmering, creative firmament of Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley and their company at Café Royal -- the “haunt of intellect and daring” as an observer and chronicler (I wrote of Café Royal HERE 7 years ago– one of my favorite posts and what first got me thinking about Max). 

Aubrey Beardsley 1894

Max 1901

It probably didn’t hurt his social life that his much older half-brother was the famous actor/theater manager, Herbert Beerbohm Tree who produced the plays of Wilde and Shaw and the like (Shaw gifted young Max his job as drama critic at the Saturday Review in 1898 - he remained till 1910 when he moved to Italy).

Tree paid for the new His Majesty’s Theatre  with the fortune from his portrayal of the first Svengali in London in 1895 – (I wrote about the history of the book, play and film of Trilby HERE) and many of the classic plays of the period were first performed there. Accompanying his older brother to the theatre and in society made Max familiar with the artists and writers of the day from a very early age and Max absorbed that world like a sponge through those enormous, all-seeing Owl eyes of his.

Strand, 1892

He first published his caricatures in The Strand Magazine at  the age of 20 – this time capturing and satirizing to perfection the habitués of the famous clubs of the day (he had a reputation for his drawings already at Oxford but had been at it since childhood). 
Yellow Book 1894, cover by Aubrey Beardsley

It was Beardsley who told him that he should write on first acquaintance and then got him hired to write for the first edition of The Yellow Book in 1894.  A Defense of Cosmetics, (a cheeky defense of decadence), was a scandal. He relished the notoriety and was amused that the chattering class were either inspired or infuriated by his essays and stories. He knew how to ruffle feathers with artfully applied observations in prose and poetry, a skill that he attributed to his youthful mastery of Latin and Greek that made his writing stronger – like a classical drawing class for an artist – the old language skills provided structure for his word-work).

Max 1901

Max took his art seriously and worked at his caricature-craft.  He believed that, “the perfect caricature (be it of a handsome man or a hideous or an insipid) must be the exaggeration of the whole creature, from top to toe. Whatsoever is salient, must be magnified, whatsoever is subordinate must be proportionately diminished. The whole man must be melted down, as in a crucible, and then, as from the solution, be fashioned anew. He must emerge with not one particle of himself lost, yet with not a particle of himself as it was before. And he will stand there wholly transformed, the joy of his creator, the joy of those who are privy to the art of caricature... The perfect caricature is not a mere snapshot... it is the epitome of its subject's surface, the presentment (once and for all) of his most characteristic pose, gesture, expression.”

Lytton Strachey

He did have a strict theory as to how to best capture a subject, “A caricature done at sight was mere hit-or-miss — usually miss. At best it could only be superficial. True, one didn’t have to know a man well before one could do a good caricature of him. On the contrary, as soon as one knew a man really well, one ceased to have a clear vision of him -took him rather as a matter of course. But acquaintance... was a necessity". 

Rossetti as a Child
Rossetti in his Back Garden 
Rossetti and Fabrics

One thing he never ceased to enjoy was reanimating characters of the past – especially the recent past of his youth or just before. He once said, “It is the period that one didn’t quite know, the period just before oneself, the period of which in earliest days one knew the actual survivors, that lays a really strong hold on one’s heart.” A particular favorite from his youth was Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-92). Max devoted a whole book to the inhabitants and guests of 16 Cheyne Walk. Rossetti and his Circle (1922) conjures up the supernal creative nexus that swirled furiously for a time there – and which, I imagine, Max wished devoutly he hadn’t missed - so he made himself a portal (the book was re-issued 30 years ago by Max’s biographer, Mr. Hall, and is rich with notes- many of which I am sharing with you now to tease you to get the book). 

Max felt Rossetti “shone, for men and women who knew him, with the ambiguous light of a red torch somewhere in a dense fog.” When Rossetti and his Circle was published, the Times said each drawing “was worth a whole volume of sermons on ideals in art and life” and Rosetti’s niece felt nothing compared to Max’s book on the group - it was so “accurate a picture of its physical and spiritual composition.”

Max once said, “The past is a work of art, free of irrelevancies and loose ends." In his fond paean to the circle – I would say he nailed it.

Oscar Wilde first saying Rosetti’s name in USA

Caricature – the principal behind it animates so much in art, doesn't it? The idea of a few strokes capturing the soul and spirit of a person, place or thing is magic.  “A man’s gestures, the movements of his face, the very tone of his voice — to say nothing of the tone of his mind—all these things the caricaturist needed to know before he could make a proper synthesis.” Fascinating that Max took in all of the person – much more than lineaments of muscle and bone were absorbed to make the drawing… even sound!

I think of it in set design – when you are trying to show an audience a life or 'a tone of mind' in a few objects, colors and placement of a few sticks of furniture. The better the design, the more you get from that all important first 10 seconds the space is revealed on film.

Matthew Arnold 1904

I guess that’s why I have been drawn to Max who believed: “The beauty of a work of art lies not at all in the artist's vision of his subject, but in his presentment of the vision." " The most perfect caricature is that in which, on a small surface, with the simplest means most accurately exaggerates, to the highest point, the peculiarities of a human being.”

Quis Custodiat Ipsum Custodem? With Watts Caine and Shields original soft color

There was often another element in his work beyond the figure drawing. Max often drew props or a physical environment to help tell the story of his subject and he spoke of his relationship with favorite possessions in a revealing way in series of interviews with SN Behrman at Max's home at Villino Chiaro in Rapallo, Italy in the last years of this life  - I empathized with his meaningful attachments completely. It is certainly how I perceive my own special totemic objects, many of which have been with me forever and which hold keys that bring me closer to events and people of my past. They are the Lares and Penates that I carry through my life.  Max used that relationship in some of his caricatures - the setting revealing even more about the person in the picture - their tastes, history and even color choices as well as their physical being.

Quis Custodiat Ipsum Custodem? With Watts Caine and Shields saturated

Max’s possessions, even the color of his study, followed him from youth to old age, “The study was a square room of modest size, with blue-painted walls. Max's nursery had had blue-painted walls, as did his rooms in Merton, and he had brought his color scheme to his final home in Italy.

T.H. Huxley by Pelligrino

 On the walls hung a series of caricatures done by Max in imitation of the style of the great Italian caricaturist Carlo Pellegrini—"Ape," as he signed himself—whom Max revered as a master of the craft. The caricatures were imitations, but the legends were Max's own. Original Pellegrini drawings cut out of "Vanity Fair" had hung in Max's rooms in Merton, and later in those he occupied in his mother's house in London.” He continued to copy Pellegrini throughout his life to inspire  -  and remember.

1830 Convex mirror  I feel like max’s mirror would be like the one in the drawing of
 Watts Caine and Shield above

Max also had a favorite mirror that was invested with meaning for him and followed him through his long life, “"Well, you see, it is convex," Max said. "There is no poetry in a straight mirror—just a reproduction of life. But what one sees in a convex mirror is a complete picture, a composition, an intérieur. By miniaturizing, it concentrates and essentializes. It hung in my nursery, this mirror. Then, when, as a young man, I occupied rooms on the top floor of my mother's house, I had it moved up there. It has been with me ever since. My father bought it at the Paris International Exhibition of 1867. It seems to me that during my childhood I was half asleep, but as I grew a bit older, this mirror began to fascinate me. I began to think of all that it had seen since my father bought it; he used to have it in his rooms. And then, when I reached the age of twenty-one—the age of reminiscence, of seasoned reminiscence—I began to see this mirror as a collaborator, with memories of its own, a temps perdu of its own. I began to write a novel about it, an autobiographical novel called 'The Mirror of the Past.' I wanted to corporealize all the backs the mirror had seen leaving my room." I am devastated that he never finished it - the idea is magnificent. The mirror view kept moving back in time, displaying events performed by the people in the room. 

Max thought the idea was too complicated to work but always kept the magic mirror notion in his imagination. Eavesdropping on the past held a great fascination for Max - he was always holding a hearing horn to the wall of the past and reported time's echoes so eloquently. Toward the end of his life he did write a radio script based on that idea of looking back -  “Hethway Speaking" -  sans mirror.

Max 1905

And then there's Max's Citizen Kane, girl-in-the-white-dress moment. During one session at Villino Chiaro – Behrman said he “… took from the mantelshelf … two photographs, a little larger than ordinary postcards. I gave them to Max, and he sat looking at them as if he had never seen them before. "I always keep them by me," he said. "Look. . . ." One showed two lovely girls in white, standing on a lawn beside a low wall on which there are huge urns. It is night. Above them are great beech trees, part of their slender trunks and their foliage white in the moonlight. "Gordon Craig bought this in London in 1929 and gave it to me," Max said. "It had been in the library of Augustus Hare. It is a country house, Buttles, which Hare used to visit before the wars came, when the world was civilized. Now, I am told, in the drawing room of that house they play billiards!" Max looked up at me from the photograph—a commiserating look, to ease the shock, to show me that he felt as bad about it as he imagined I did. "But aren't they lovely? It is after dinner, probably, and the house is full of people, and perhaps they were bored and wanted to get off by themselves to gossip or to exchange romantic confidences. Aren't they lovely? Isn't it lovely? Vanished. That life and that era—vanished."

He paused a moment longer over the two girls and then gave me the other photograph. This was a study in pure joy: a little girl of three or four is standing beside a priest in full canonicals. The priest has just told her a funny story and the little girl's freckled, pug-nosed, homely face is crinkled with laughter; she is giving herself up to laughter without a let. You feel that she will go on laughing and laughing, and will laugh again whenever she remembers what the priest has said to her; the priest himself is smiling, revelling in the success of his joke. I asked where this photograph had come from.

"Oh," said Max, "it is a photograph from a book about Huysmans; it is the Abbé Mugnier with the little daughter of the Countess de Castries. I never look at it without its cheering me up. How happy she is! How happy they both are!"

Even the reason he became a writer begins with an object and the story of that object. 

The essay is called "A Relic." Max describes how, rummaging about in an old trunk, he came upon the fragments of a fan. The moment he came upon these fragments, he heard himself murmuring a sentence: "Down below, the sea rustled to and fro over the shingle." He goes on to recall an incident of his youth. Max was nineteen. He was sitting at a table of the café on the terrace of the casino in Dieppe, drinking a glass of bock, when he beheld a startling scene.” It was a woman chased by a man and the fan she had abandoned that he picked up. “He decided to call it "The Fan"—very Maupassantish. Maupassant would have needed no more; why should he need more? He felt very cynical and worldly, and, after all, Maupassant was so simple; Maupassant was just an observer, like him.” Try as he might, “the plum did not ripen,” and the story was never finished.

Max 1937 Beaton photograph

Bohan Lynch in his book, Max Beerbohm in Perspective  (1921), explained why Max's writing and his art come from the same vine,  “There are a number of proverbs, which may or may not be generally true, about shoemakers sticking to their lasts and Jacks-of-all-trades being masters of none. But these do not apply to Max Beerbohm who has but one trade. He is a satirist: so that it is less odd than at first glance it might appear that he should have succeeded equally well both as author and as artist. Boil a man down to essentials – come up with a proper synthesis."He didn't just write brilliant captions for his caricatures, he wrote beautiful stories with all the best qualities of his drawings. 

Henry James 1904

This is best illustrated in his 1912 collection of stories, A Christmas Garland. Here he deftly copies yet gently skewers the styles of the favorite authors of the day - essentially word caricatures. The stories are just long enough to paint the delicious word caricature of the authors (many are around 10 small pages long). Regretably, many of the authors like Moore and Meredith are forgotten – you will have to read them first to understand the art of Beerbohm’s literary likenesses. Here’s a sample from “A Mote in the Middle Distance” by H*NRY J*M*S – close your eyes and dream of James' more familiar Washington Square or Portrait of a Lady:

“It occurred to him as befitting Eva's remoteness, which was a part of Eva's magnificence, that her voice emerged somewhat muffled by the bedclothes. She was ever, indeed, the most telephonic of her sex. In talking to Eva you always had, as it were, your lips to the receiver. If you didn't try to meet her fine eyes, it was that you simply couldn't hope to: there were too many dark, too many buzzing and bewildering and all frankly not negotiable leagues in between.”

Whistlerized Max 1915

Behrman made a penetrating observation about his subject.  He shrewdly discerned that Max,  “had a severely topiary intelligence; he knew where he could go and where he couldn't go, what he could do and what he couldn't do."  Max admitted as much, "I am not creative in a big way ... I haven't any powerful invention; I used up all I had. What I really am is an essayist."  When Max wrote about JM Whistler's prose style, he might as well have been assessing his own work, "An exquisite talent like Whistler's, whether in painting or in writing, is always at its best on a small scale. On a large scale it strays and is distressed. . . . For no man who can finely grasp a big theme can play exquisitely round a little one."  Play exquisitely -- yes -- that is the best way to work.  

I finish with one of my favorite Max lines from the end of his story, "The Golden Drugget.”  Here he tells a tale of the enchanted light in the darkness in his Italian town of Rapallo during WWI. A drugget is a rough rug – the golden drugget image would be the rough street  illuminated by the Inn's light – such a beautiful image and resonant message then and now: 

“Stranger, come in!' is the clear message of "The Golden Drugget". "'This is but a humble and earthly hostel, yet you will find here a radiant company of angels and archangels.' And always I cherish the belief that if I obeyed the summons I should receive fulfilment of the promise. Well, the beliefs that one most cherishes one is least willing to test. I do not go in at that open door. But lingering, but reluctant, is my tread as I pass by it; 

"and I pause to bathe in the light that is as the span of our human life, granted between one great darkness and another.”

Ah Max- you have lived on in the hearts of so many --- here’s hoping this little tease will encourage new acolytes who walk with open eyes and hearts to see the world before them and follow Max’s favorite line of Henry James, “Be generous and delicate and pursue the prize”.  

The Royal Family has been much on my mind of late. Max did many drawings of Victoria and the Prince of Wales --  and felt great affection for them.  Too bad he missed nearly all of Queen Elizabeth's reign  -- I'm sure he would have made her smile with his drawings of her and her circle -- everyone said she had a great sense of humor. 

I dedicate this to Queen Elizabeth II whose passing tugged the whole world's heartstrings this past week - most certainly mine.

"Vanished. That life and that era—vanished."    Requiscat in pace.

VICTORIA and Prince of Wales 1900
Prince of Wales 1905
King George V  

Click to get the picture books and bio:


*Most of his fiction is available for free online - or buy the books and savor.

So, what to eat?? Since Max was a master of 2 crafts and I haven’t been writing for ages, I give you 2 recipes for little birds that I can imagine Max enjoying whilst sitting on the terrace at Villino Chiaro - enjoying the blue Mediterranean breeze and the warm laughter of friends.

Each recipe is sweet and savory and a delight.  The Sherried Orange sauce from Spain is delicious on its own and the Chicken Rapallo is based on the Famous Silver Palate Chicken Marbella but with figs and not prunes.

Squab with Sherried Orange Sauce with Prunes.

Sherried Orange Sauce with Prunes (enough for 4 Squab)

2c Earl Gray tea
Peel from 1 orange cut into strips
2-3” piece of cinnamon
4 cloves
1 star anise
5T sugar
2 oz Pedro Ximeniz or cream sherry (one oz for cooking and one oz added after cooking
2 oz orange juice

8 oz prunes

Put the first 8 ingredients in a pan and bring to a boil. Add the prunes and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove the prunes and simmer the sauce to reduce it a bit if needed. Add the second oz of sherry to the sauce and set aside.

Squab (serves 1-4 - 1 per person) 

1-4 boneless squab from D'Artagnan
1-4 slices of bacon (one slice per bird)
1/4- 1 c of demiglace
sage leaves

Heat the oven to 500º

Salt and pepper the squab inside and out.

Sauté the bacon in the pan for the squab until crisp and remove and reserve. Keep the fat. Place the squab (s) in the bacon fat and put in the oven for about 12 minutes.

Take from the oven. Put pan over low flame and add the demiglace — spooning over the squab. Add the prunes and the sauce and the sage and warm the sauce with the bird. Sprinkle with bacon. Serve it forth!

If you make fewer than 4 birds - the prunes are delicious with ice cream or yogurt without the demiglace 

Poussin Rapallo with Figs

Serves 1-2 (1 bird can serve 2 or 1 big eater)

1 poussin, semi-boneless (from D'Artagnan)
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
6-8 pitted olives (green or black Moroccan)
8 figs, dried, fresh, or combination (can replace with prunes)


1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup wine vinegar
3-4 bay leaves
1 tablespoon dry oregano
2 tablespoons capers with juice
Salt and pepper to taste


1/4 -1/3 cup white wine depending on how much sauce you want
2 - 3 tb. brown sugar
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Combine marinade ingredients. Mix the poussin and fruit, garlic, and olives in a bowl, then add the marinade. Put it in the refrigerator overnight.

Heat the oven to 350º degrees. Place the poussin in an oven-proof pan and pour the marinade over it. Then pour the wine over the chicken and sprinkle it with the brown sugar.

Cook for 25-30 min (or until internal temp is 165 degrees), basting a few times during the baking.

Cut poussin in half and serve with the fruit and juices. Great over rice or orzo. The juices are so good that you’ll want to spoon them up.