Henry Maximilian Beerbohm, the essayist, caricaturist, critic, and short story writer who endures as one of Edwardian England's leading satirists, was born in London on August 24, 1872, into a large and prosperous family of Baltic German descent. Among his many diversely talented siblings were the author and explorer Julius Beerbohm, and his half brother the flamboyant actor and theatrical manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree. A sophisticated child who read Punch magazine and celebrated his tenth birthday with a glass of champagne, Max Beerbohm exhibited an adroit wit from an early age. While a student at Charterhouse school in Surrey, he amused masters and classmates with irreverent caricatures and prose parodies. Beerbohm entered Merton College, Oxford, at the age of eighteen and quickly gained a reputation as an aesthete and dandy. 'I was a modest, good-humored boy,' he recalled. 'It was Oxford that has made me insufferable.' Beerbohm's renown soon extended to London, where he was swept into Oscar Wilde's literary circle. In 1894 he contributed the satiric essay 'A Defense of Cosmetics' to the first issue of the Yellow Book, the controversial quarterly associated with the English decadents of the 1890s.
Beerbohm won a large audience with the publication of The Works of Max Beerbohm (1896), his first volume of essays. The ultimate statement of his Yellow Book period, it includes a famous meditation on dandyism, along with a wry reminiscence of Oxford. Thereafter Beerbohm devoted himself to writing charming pieces about whatever topic struck his fancy. The essays collected in More (1899), Yet Again (1909), And Even Now (1920), and Variety of Things (1928) reflect his lifelong belief that good sense about trivialities is preferable to nonsense about important matters. 'What Mr. Beerbohm gave [to the essay] was, of course, himself,' noted Virginia Woolf in pinpointing his talent. 'He was affected by private joys and sorrows, and had no gospel to preach and no learning to impart. He was himself, simply and directly, and himself he has remained. Once again we have an essayist capable of using the essayist's most proper but most dangerous and delicate tool. He has brought personality into literature, not unconsciously and impurely, but so consciously and purely that we do not know whether there is any relation between Max the essayist and Mr. Beerbohm the man. We only know that the spirit of personality permeates every word that he writes. . . . He is without doubt the prince of his profession.'
Beerbohm was also famous for his comic sketches of literary figures, politicians, and celebrities. Impudently he lampooned everyone from Oscar Wilde and Henry James to Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales. Explaining his recipe for caricature, Beerbohm stated: 'The whole man must be melted down in a crucible and then, from the solution, fashioned anew. Nothing will be lost but no particle will be as it was before.' He concluded: 'The most perfect caricature is that which, on a small surface, with the simplest means, most accurately exaggerates, to the highest point, the peculiarities of a human being, at his most characteristic moment, in the most beautiful manner.' Over the years he exhibited in London galleries and published several acclaimed volumes of drawings, including Caricatures of Twenty-five Gentlemen (1896), The Poets' Corner (1904), Fifty Caricatures (1913), A Survey (1921), Rossetti and His Circle (1922), Things New and Old (1923), and Observations (1925). 'There is wit and barbed insight but no malice in [his] caricatures,' noted the Spectator. 'Beerbohm mocked only what he loved.