News | November 4, 2023

New Exhibition Focuses on the Work of Max Beerbohm and Early Celebrity Culture

© The Estate of Sir Max Beerbohm. Courtesy Berlin Associates. The University of Tulsa, McFarlin Library, Department of Special Collections & University Archives

Max Beerbohm's "improved" copy of Zuleika Dobson

The work of Max Beerbohm, the English artist, writer, and dandy noted for his satirical celebrity caricatures, is now on display in a new exhibition at The New York Public Library’s 42nd Street building. 

Max Beerbohm: The Price of Celebrity maps Beerbohm’s illustrious career during the turn of the 20th century, addressing the concept of fame and tracing the trajectory from his early days mingling in the vibrant social and artistic circles of Oscar Wilde to his later years as a celebrated radio performer during World War II on BBC broadcasts.

The late 1800s witnessed the rise of the international celebrity industry with Max Beerbohm (1872–1956) occupying a prominent position at its epicenter. Throughout the period spanning the 1890s to the 1920s, being a celebrity implied the prospect - and apprehension - of being featured in one of Beerbohm's famous drawings or satirical parodies. Renowned for his brilliant skewering of notable personalities through visual caricatures and his sharp critique of their writing styles in his satirical works, Max Beerbohm transformed into a celebrity in his own right. 

"Beerbohm has a lot to teach us about how to live in a world dominated by celebrity culture," said the co-curators, Margaret D. Stetz, Mae and Robert Carter Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Delaware, and Mark Samuels Lasner, Senior Research Fellow, University of Delaware Library, Museums and Press. "The exhibition shows him using works of visual art and satirical writings to laugh at those longing for fame and also at those who achieved it. He turned even the most important figures of his day, from Oscar Wilde and Henry James to Virginia Woolf, into material for wicked caricatures and parodies, although many were also his friends. But his greatest and most endearing talent was for making fun of himself and his own celebrity status."

Max Beerbom's self-caricature Un Revers
© The Estate of Sir Max Beerbohm. Courtesy Berlin Associates. Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, University of Delaware Library, Museums and Press

Max Beerbom's self-caricature Un Revers

Beerbohm's walking stick

Beerbohm's walking stick

Caricature of Oscar Wilde by Max Beerbohm
© The Estate of Sir Max Beerbohm. Courtesy Berlin Associates. The New York Public Library

Caricature of Oscar Wilde by Max Beerbohm

Draft of "A recollection by Edm*nd G*sse" from A Christmas Garland
© The Estate of Sir Max Beerbohm. Courtesy Berlin Associates. The New York Public Library

Draft of A recollection by Edm*nd G*sse from A Christmas Garland 

Drawing upon an impressive array of artifacts sourced from the Library’s extensive collections, as well as rare loans from private and institutional collections, the exhibition offers visitors a unique opportunity to engage with never-before-seen original caricature drawings, manuscripts, photographs, personal items, and books from Beerbohm’s personal library. Highlights of the exhibition include: 

  • more than 30 original caricatures, including Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, and H.G. Wells, artists John Singer Sargent, James McNeill Whistler, and Aubrey Beardsley, as well as Queen Victoria
  • Beerbohm’s personal items, including his walking stick, drawing pad and pen, cigarettes and matches, the diary he kept with his wife Florence Kahn, and five books from his library
  • six books “improved” by Max Beerbohm with drawings and notes, including his personal copy of his only novel Zuleika Dobson

“In his own time Beerbohm was admired for his ‘velvet-pawed malice towards his contemporaries,’ and we think that visitors today will be equally enchanted by his caricatures of the famous on view in this exhibition,” said Declan Kiely, Director of Exhibitions and Special Collections. “Beerbohm’s visual legacy, more droll and irreverent than derisive or vindictive, remains clearly discernible today in the caricatures featured in The New York Review of Books and other major literary and political journals published on both sides of the Atlantic.”