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Max factor: Hampstead’s ‘incomparable’ dandy

In the latest in his series on eminent Camden Victorians, Neil Titley turns his attention to the critic and cartoonist Max Beerbohm

06 August, 2020 — By Neil Titley

How Vanity Fair saw Max Beerbohm in 1897

IN an early episode of Netflix’s The Crown, Winston Churchill is shown as so horror-stricken at the artist Graham Sutherland’s portrait of him that he orders his wife Clementine to burn it.

When Sutherland proposed a similar picture of Sir Henry Maximilian “Max” Beerbohm (1872-1956), Max turned down the offer. He told a friend that he had seen Sutherland’s depiction of the author Somerset Maugham. “Maugham looked as if he had died under torture,” he said.

With his large rounded head, protuberant eyes, and prim dandyish aura, Beerbohm was an interesting figure. Most artists would have enjoyed capturing his air of world-weary irony that he honed even as a schoolboy. Oscar Wilde said of him: “The gods have bestowed on Max Beerbohm the gift of perpetual old age. When you are alone with him, he takes off his face and reveals his mask.”

Although Max left Merton College, Oxford, in 1893 without taking a degree, the experience did provide him with the material for his 1911 novel Zuleika Dobson, a satire on undergraduate life. He became the secretary of his famous half-brother the actor Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree who adored Max’s droll sense of humour. Tree spent days roaring with laughter over Max’s suggestion that in a historical play they were considering, the hero’s last line should be: “Farewell, my love! I’m off to the Thirty Years War!”

Throughout the 1890s Max developed his reputation as a superb comic caricaturist and essayist. In 1898 he became the drama critic for the Saturday Review in succession to Bernard Shaw who hailed him as “the incomparable Max!”

Although too demure and aloof to involve himself in many sexual forays, he was engaged twice before his marriage. His first fiancée was a young actress from Tree’s company officially called Grace Conover but unofficially known as “Kilseen” from her ability to “kill any scene she appeared in”.

When this half-hearted arrangement ended, Max became engaged to another actress, Constance Collier. This ended after Max learnt that the carefree and promiscuous Constance had indulged in an affair while on tour. Robert Ross said of this second engagement: “Max has jilted Scylla in order to get engaged to Charybdis.”

After a brief fling with Kathleen Bruce (who later married Captain Robert Scott, destined to die in the Antarctic), in 1910 Max finally married a young American actress named Florence Kahn. The marriage, although lifelong, was probably never consummated. It is thought that he was just naturally celibate and the pair seemed to settle quite amicably into this arrangement.

Soon after their wedding Max and Florence lodged in Well Walk, Hampstead. Max commented: “Hampstead hasn’t been spoilt yet. It is like a piece of 18th-century Bath that had escaped into London. I stayed recently at Jack Straw’s Castle. My wife mentioned that she was recovering from a second bout of influenza. And the barmaid, looking over her shoulder, said ‘Twice? Quite the greedy one, aren’t you?’ Now that’s immortal. There’s all the race of barmaids in that.”

He had little time for his countrymen’s obsession with sport. When he was asked to send a donation to a fund for the famous cricketer WG Grace, Max obliged but added a note: “I send you this shilling not because I am a great admirer of cricket but as an earnest protest against golf.”

Although now famous as an artist and critic, Max always preferred idleness as a way of life. “I never had any ambitions – only modest wishes – to make good use of such little talent as I had, to lead a pleasant life, to pass muster. The ant sets an example to us all – but not a good one.”

Wearying of London and its pressures, Max and Florence moved to Rapallo in Italy where they remained for almost all the rest of their lives, returning only occasionally for a new exhibition.

Max mellowed in his Italian retreat: “I lost my zest for cartooning. It is a young man’s hobby – you get kinder as you get older.”

The only interruption to Max’s life in Italy came with the Second World War. He had long ignored Mussolini and indeed had been friends with the pro-Fascist Ezra Pound, but as Florence was Jewish he viewed the rise of the Nazis with concern. They spent the war years staying with friends in England but returned to Rapallo in 1945.

He received a knighthood in 1939 partly because his new career as an occasional but popular radio broadcaster talking on various topics (notably music halls) for the BBC.

He never quite lost his sense of mischief (“only the insane take themselves quite seriously”). When he attended a funeral in 1909, a young woman in the crowd mistook Max for the very Scottish Peter Pan author James Barrie and begged him to write something in her autograph book.

Max: “I know it is in poor taste. I said nothing but when I took her volume my pen ran away with me and I wrote: ‘Och, ay, Lassie! It’s a sad day the noo. JM Barrie’.”

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