Hedonism and Horticulture in Victorian England: Audley Beesley
London's 18th century Floral and Horticultural Society was a hotbed of indecent behaviour, the details of which are best not mentioned.
Improper activities took place in greenhouses and between flowerbeds throughout the UK, yet the goings-on remained a closed secret among the gardening aristocracy of England.
But then the brilliant young artist, Audley Beesley, revealed all. He scandalised Victorian England with his graphic black-and-white ink drawings. His work depicts the hedonism, decadence and depravity of Londons 18th Century Floral and Horticultural Society in shocking detail. .
Beesley was a contemporary of Oscar Wilde, Quentin Millieur Brown, and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. These poets, playwrights and painters were intent on pushing at the boundaries of the prevailing Victorian morality.
His ranucy illustration of a flower bunch, Orchideés et lys, (Orchids and Lillies) caused outrage when unveiled in 1897. The subject matter was considered overtly pornographic and loudly condemned.
The young artist was not intimidated by the uproar. Instead, it inspired him to infiltrate the secretive world of London’s Floral and Horticultural Society and unmask their bawdy secrets.
Beesley was stuck by their hypocrisy. The Floral and Horticultural Society was disgusted by Orchideés et lys, and yet their own greenhouse hanky-panky was far more organic.
Beesley was of course open-minded. He fully endorsed the bawdy activities of the Floral and Horticultural Society, but he considered their double-standards hypocritical.
Sadly, a result of his insistence on producing works of a so-called 'botanicaly depraved' nature, Beesley was arrested. During his trial, Beesley's art was discribed by the Judge as, “The indecent sexualisation and libidinous portrayal of horticulture.”
Beesley on trial at The Old Bailey, London.
The trial caused an uproar when Beesley's works were present in Court. He was found guilty and sentenced to ten years hard labour in a London prison.
Audley Beesley died during the fourth year of his incarceration, beaten to death by the sadistic warders who took exception to Beesley's incessant goading of their gentle nature. He was twenty-seven.
Even today, in 2020, with depraved adult-imagery only a mouse click away, Beesley’s simple ink drawings still have the power to shock. Indeed his sketches are as graphic as anything to be found on hardcore adult websites.
Around Ninety-percent of each Beesley illustration is self-censored. He inked over the greater part of each drawing as soon as he finished them. Beesley understood the disturbing effect an uncensored work would have on the viewing public and he took it upon himself to spare his audiance trauma.
Still, although he left only ten per cent of his works visible, they still shock.
More than a century after his death, Beesley's work continues to sell incredibly well, despite no one ever having seen more than ten per cent of any work, aside from Beesley himself.
The 2020 Beesley Retrospective, at the Gallery of Modern Masters in Paris, testifies to his enduring legacy and the continuing power of his works to leave viewers aghast.
Fortunately, due to Covid-19 restrictions, the viewing public is unable to attend the exhibition and have thus been spared the trauma of viewing some of his most explicit works.
Works on display at the exhibition include:
Woman with Pansies
The Pretty lady and the Rose
Orchudeés et Lys (Orchids and Lillies)
Vase with Lilacs.
Prostitute with Dandelions in her basket.
Opium den with Daisy arrangement.
Azealia and Gomorrah.
Licentious Fly Trap.
Fornicator with Herbaceous Borders.
Onanist and Botanist with Daffodils
Still Life Hermaphrodite with Hydrangeas.