Drawing the Line

Because one figure was undressed
This little drawing was suppressed.
It was unkind, but never mind,
Perhaps it was all for the best. *

Ms Jennifer Rock was shocked when I answered the phone, especially on a Monday morning. I knew that because she said so. Well, well, well, so I’d finally got rid of the answering machine. She praised my new found approach to public relations. In fact, I couldn’t afford the damn thing, and anyway why should I pay through the nose for a device which annoyed most callers and usually told me I was needed yesterday.

The case was tricky; I had to move fast. The four flights down are easier in three-stair strides, and anyway I like to think it saves the carpet. I hit the Strand at a run and the rain and the traffic drove hard across Waterloo Bridge. No vacant cabs, of course. As I walked to the tube I considered the facts. Aubrey Beesley I really knew from rock and roll, but he’d become quite well known as a punk/new wave illustrator; at twenty-five he was Jenny’s youngest and most successful artist, and she’d swung him a deal with a one-horse publisher in Bloomsbury who’d wanted Beesley to illustrate a new edition of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. Jenny had checked out the artwork, but only this morning had she been sent an advance copy of the new edition. Not the most appetising of breakfasts. Pornography wasn’t my style, but I could live with it: she didn’t want to.

I like Camden Town, even in rainstorms. But not when I’m trudging the streets like a drowned rat looking for a basement bolthole. Aubrey’s place was like that. I even like Brian Eno’s music. But not when l’m trying to speed read a book and anticipate the reactions of an Old Bailey judge and jury. Oscar did his fair share of shocking with the original, but the version I was reading would have surely turned the tables on him. The publisher had hired some new wave roué to make Wilde wilder: the pictures were clean enough to eat your dinner off, but the text needed rubber gloves and a gas mask.

I knew the thrash was scheduled for Tuesday night because I’d already arranged to borrow back my best and only suit: The Lucky Strike Gallery and Mecca Ballrooms have similar pretensions about dress. Jenny had told me the publisher regarded booking Aubrey’s originals for the book into The Lucky as something of a coup, and now I understood why he needed the veneer of respectability. How embarrassing if the Princess innocently acquired the originals from this year’s top porno pulp shocker for her drawing-room wall. I figured the time had come to start asking Aubrey some questions. Like, how could he have been so dumb as to have got himself into this hole in the first place? He looked injured and asked me why he should have turned down a seemingly straight offer to illustrate Salome, let alone the accompanying generous fee.

‘You mean you’ve never read this trash?’ ‘Do me a favour, you know me well enough by now. I’m just not in that line of business. I thought it was on the level: Salome, Oscar Wilde; no problem. I’d never even heard of Vernon Finkley until this little masterpiece arrived this morning, and I’ve been feeling pretty sick ever since’.

A swift phone-call confirmed that Jenny and The Lucky had joined the line of suckers. But what had Joe Michaels been playing at, publishing this rubbish? It wasn’t his style at all.

Against the rush-hour traffic, I was soon speeding towards Bloomsbury in search of the answer. He was easy to find: same pub, same table, same time: only the drinks get replaced. Joe Michaels had seen better days when he’d published the kind of books people leave around on coffee tables. This little offering was wildly out of place. He agreed – and promptly changed the subject, asking me what I thought about his recent article in Art Occasionally spilling the beans about the Arts Circle. I admitted it had raised even my eyebrows, and Joe countered by saying that it had just cost him ten grand to have the Chairman’s eyebrows glued back on. His Beesley/Finkley Salome had been set up to foot the Bill.

I broke it to him that although he’d avoided the libel court, he was well on his way to the Bailey on an obscenity rap. And, leaving that aside, what the hell did he think he was doing to Aubrey, Jenny and The Lucky? Despite my reviving brandy, he regretted that such considerations were now way beyond his budget: he’d paid the printer, and five thousand copies of Salome were even now filling up the greater part of his office. He was committed; the show must go on. I knew what I had to do, and he didn’t say good night.

‘I’ve brought you a little bed-time reading’. Detectives don’t surprise easily, but with Salome even Scotland Yard was a pushover. They listened to my story, then said ‘Search Warrant, section three?’.

‘If you can’. They could.

Tuesday morning nowadays in Covent Garden gives me the creeps: I feel like a tourist in my own backyard. But Jenny’s office felt more like home, and by the time I’d renewed my acquaintance with Aubrey’s publishing contract with Joe, I was feeling pretty good. Then the phone rang: more good news. The search warrant was now executed and endorsed with the following words: ‘Seized. 5000 articles sus. obscene for publication for gain. “Salome”.’ They were currently providing compulsory reading for the rest of the Obscenity Squad, and the DPP. Joe was not pleased when I rang, and even less so when I told him that his deal with Aubrey was simply a commission to produce artwork for publication – and in fact gave him no rights at all to ownership of the illustrations themselves. What did I mean by that?

‘Well, Joe, it’s quite simple: you bought and paid for the illustrations to be created by Aubrey, and for the right to reproduce them in your publication of Salome. The artwork itself belongs to Aubrey: you can’t show it and you certainly can’t sell it’. Silence.

‘What are you trying to tell me?’

‘I’m afraid your show’s off, Joe’. The long purring noise of the dead phone at the other end of the line was a comforting sound.

The final act was fun. Cork Street on a Tuesday night was its usual manicured self, and Frank Harrison was no exception. I threw him the old line about justice for those with clean hands, which he actually quite liked, and we tried to work it out. Then Aubrey and Jenny arrived, early as planned, and when Frank catalogued the coterie of collectors he’d lined up to buy the works, we all saw the sense of trying to salvage the show.

Even as Jenny and Frank signed Aubrey’s new exhibition deal I’d slapped down on one side of A4, the guests started to arrive.

*© Aubrey Beardsley 1894. (A quatrain scrawled in the upper left corner of a proof copy of Enter Herodias, the block for which was destroyed because it was indecent, which the artist gave to Frank Harris in 1894.)

© Henry Lydiate 1982

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This article is from the Artlaw Archive of Henry Lydiate's columns published in Art Monthly since 1976, and may contain out of date material. The article is for information only, and not for the purpose of providing legal advice. Readers should consult a solicitor for legal advice on specific matters. Artists can get free online legal information from Artquest.