TT: A peep into the future

The famously Web-savvy Felix Salmon wanted to see what my new Max Beerbohm caricature looked like, so he figured out the name of the Dallas auction house from which I bought it, made a few magic passes in cyberspace, and came up with a URL that led him straight to an on-line photograph. If you’re curious, go here and gaze enviously. (Bear in mind, though, that I ended up paying well under the listed hammer price–I don’t have that kind of money to throw around on art, thank you very much!)

Over the weekend I treated myself to a used copy of Rupert Hart Davis’ Catalogue of the Caricatures of Max Beerbohm, a book I’ve always wanted to own but never got around to buying. Now that I own a Beerbohm, it struck me that the time had also come to add Max’s catalogue raisonné to my art library—and to find out what, if anything, it had to say about the latest addition to the Teachout Museum. I wasn’t disappointed. Sure enough, my Max is duly listed on page 69:

1882-1961 Australian pianist and folk-song expert
631 [Mr Percy Grainger]
‘The group of ladies listening to Mr Percy Grainger…is a wonderful ensemble,’ Edward Marsh in ‘The Blue Review’, May 1913.
EXHIB L.G. 1913

So there it was in black and white: my Max is officially known in the world of Beerbohmiana as “Hart-Davis 631.” It was publicly exhibited at the Leicester Galleries, Max’s London dealer, in 1913, and mentioned in a review of the show by Eddie Marsh, one of those semi-eminent Edwardian litterateurs who is constantly popping up in books, diaries, memoirs, and letters of the period. Presumably some even less eminent Edwardian bought it from the Leicester Galleries, for “Mr. Percy Grainger” has never been reproduced, nor was Hart-Davis able to establish its ownership as of 1972, the year he published his catalogue; it was invisible to Beerbohm scholars between 1913 and last week, when it came into my possession.

I felt a little shiver of excitement as I looked at the entry for Hart-Davis 631. My Max may not be famous, but it nonetheless has an official existence, of which I am now a part. If a younger scholar should someday take it upon himself to update the catalogue, he will add “OWNER Terry Teachout” to the entry for Hart-Davis 631. I find that a pleasant prospect. Even if The Skeptic and the Teachout Reader should crumble irrevocably into dust, I will live forever as a footnote to the lives of two men far greater than myself: not only did I rediscover the manuscript of A Second Mencken Chrestomathy among H.L. Mencken’s private papers and edit it for publication, but I was the first recorded owner of Hart-Davis 631.

Having become a historical figure, albeit of the most minor sort, I thought it would be fitting to pay tribute to a few of the other owners of the 2,093 Beerbohm caricatures catalogued by Rupert Hart-Davis, all of whose names are listed alphabetically in an index. Who were these shadowy figures? Aside from the various institutional owners, a few, I discovered, were men and women of repute: John Betjeman, Winston Churchill, Alastair Cooke, Anthony Powell, Rebecca West, Thornton Wilder. Most, though, failed to leave their footprints on the sands of time. Where are you, Douglass Debevoise, owner of Hart-Davis 1632, an untitled, unsigned three-quarter-length profile of G.S. Street, a now-forgotten English journalist and writer whose personality and features inspired Max to draw him two dozen times? Google is silent about you. Are you alive? If so, did you dispose of your Max, or is it still hanging on your wall? If not, who owns it now? And who were you, Mr. Debevoise? An art lover? A journalist? A politician? What inspired you to purchase a Max? Did you suspect at the time that your ownership of Hart-Davis 1632 would prove to be your only claim on posterity? (Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:/Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.)

Max himself was fascinated by the unpredictable workings of posterity. He wrote a short story called “Enoch Soames” (it’s in Seven Men) whose title character, an ungifted author of the Naughty Nineties, longed desperately to know whether and how he would be remembered a hundred years hence. Accordingly, poor Enoch sold his soul to the Devil in return for a day trip to the British Museum in 1997, where he could satisfy his curiosity. Alas, he found only one reference to “Soames, Enoch,” in a book that described him as—horror of horrors—an imaginary character in a story by Max Beerbohm! Despairing, he returned to the present and promptly vanished, presumably to fulfill his end of the bargain.

I pulled Seven Men off my shelf the other day and reread “Enoch Soames,” asking myself as I did whether Douglass Debevoise, Lysandros Caftanzoglu, Lewis P. Renateau, or any of the other forgotten folk whose names figure in A Catalogue of the Caricatures of Max Beerbohm had also read it. Perhaps they did. Perhaps they chuckled at Enoch’s pitiful presumption and the completeness with which he received his demonic comeuppance, little knowing that posterity would treat them with similar callousness.

I chuckled, too, not least because I know that posterity almost certainly has the same fate in store for me. Few biographers and fewer critics long outlive their own time, and I doubt I’ll be one of them. More likely I will go down in history as the first known owner of Hart-Davis 631, and in 2104 some art historian specializing in the Edwardian era will click on that entry in a computerized catalogue raisonné, scratch his head, and say, “Who was that fellow with the odd name? Did it ever occur to him that the only thing he’d be remembered for was having owned a Max Beerbohm caricature and edited an H.L. Mencken anthology?” Indeed it did—and let it be said, if not necessarily remembered, that the prospect made me smile.

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