Some time in the high summer of 1966, my parents took me to the Victoria and Albert Museum to see a show. I was 12 at the time, and it was my first exposure to the quiet space of an art gallery. I liked the cool feeling and the visual placement of the material; I felt at home. It was the first major retrospective afforded to Aubrey Beardsley, the fin-de-siècle artist and designer whose black and white, high-contrast aesthetic was just then being plundered by pop culture – and was about to go mass with Klaus Voormann’s drawing for the Beatles’ latest LP, Revolver.
I don’t know exactly how conscious I was of this at the time, but Beardsley must have been in the air, otherwise I wouldn’t have gone. My parents didn’t go to galleries – they had other priorities – but something snagged my interest: a mention in a music paper or the Sunday Times Magazine. It was certainly seen as something provocative and pop. The plates in the catalogue edited out all the gargantuan phalluses that dominated Beardsley’s illustrations for Aristophanes’s Lysistrata. Seventy years after his heyday, the artist was still censored.
Exposed to all the exquisite ink of Beardsley’s drawings – lines cruel in their exactitude – I lost myself in their intricate detail. Becoming obsessed with Beardsley took me down several pathways: into the idea of a youthful aesthetic, if not the idea of youthful promise cut short (he died in 1898 at the age of 25); into Wilde, the symbolists and the 1890s decadents; into the idea of art galleries themselves – within a couple of years I was down at the Tate looking at the first large Magritte exhibition to be held since the 1930s.
It all seemed to fit the pop culture that I was immersed in. Nearly five decades on, I was working at the V&A on a show about the very period when I’d first entered its doors: “You Say You Want A Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970”. I didn’t even think about it until I started writing this sliver of memory, but now I wonder: just how much are we moulded by our adolescent inspirations, how much are we the product of apparently random choices that we make more than half a century before?
The night that changed my life: read more from our series in which writers share the cultural encounters that shaped them
This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special