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Aubrey Beardsley (British, 1872–1898)

About this artist

Source: Oxford University Press

English draughtsman and writer. He was brought up in Brighton, in genteel poverty, by his mother. She gave her children an intensive education in music and books, and by the time he was sent to boarding-school at the age of seven Beardsley was exceptionally literate and something of a musical prodigy. He was also already infected with the tuberculosis that eventually killed him. There is evidence that his talent for drawing was highly developed by the age of ten, and he was subsequently encouraged by his housemaster at Brighton Grammar School, Arthur William King. Beardsley left school at the end of 1888, and in January 1889 became a clerk at the Guardian Life and Fire Insurance Company in the City of London. Attacks of haemorrhaging of the lungs forced him to abandon his job at the end of 1889. On the strength of a short story sold to Tit Bits he tried to pursue a literary career, but when his health improved in the spring of 1890, he returned both to his job and to drawing. Final affirmation of the direction of his art came in July 1891, when he showed his work to Edward Burne-Jones, who told Beardsley: ‘I seldom or never advise anyone to take up art as a profession, but in your case I can do nothing else.’ Burne-Jones’s enthusiasm is not perhaps surprising since there was much of his own style in Beardsley’s work at the time, together with other influences, notably Mantegna; both can be seen in his pen-and-ink drawing Hamlet patris manem sequiiur [sic] (‘Hamlet following the ghost of his father’; 1891; London, BM).

In the spring of 1892 Beardsley began a series of drawings in which the influence of Whistler and Japanese woodcuts is also apparent and by the summer of 1892 was producing such pen-and-ink drawings as Le Débris d’un poète [sic] (‘The remains of a poet’; London, V&A), which mark the emergence of his mature style. The most remarkable feature of this is Beardsley’s ability to create extremely austere, beautifully organized compositions in which, with often minimal means, he nevertheless achieves vivid evocations of both physical and psychological facts. It is this tension between the picture as an autonomous visual structure and as a representation of some aspect of reality that makes him appear so modern. Le Débris d’un poète is probably a self-portrait referring to his hated clerking job, his literary ambitions and his health. Beardsley developed other styles, but that of this drawing is the key one and finds its fullest and most extraordinary expression in the 17 drawings he made for Oscar Wilde’s play Salome (London and New York, 1894). At this time Beardsley was already working on an enormous commission given to him in late 1892 by the publisher J. M. Dent, which enabled him to leave his job: the illustrations for Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte Darthur [sic], which was published in monthly parts and was completed in November 1894.

Beardsley’s drawings for Salome and Le Morte Darthur were reproduced by the photo-mechanical line-block process, and his binding designs were stamped on to cloth covers by a single metal matrix. This was in deliberate competition with the elaborate, expensive and rare handmade books of William Morris’s Kelmscott Press. Thus Beardsley’s books reached a much wider public, and his art also became widely known through new art magazines, notably The Studio, the first issue of which (April 1893) had a cover designed by Beardsley and carried a long laudatory article about him by Joseph Pennell, with eight illustrations. Because Beardsley drew in pure black and white for a pure black-and-white reproduction process, his work has exceptional impact in reproduction.

Early in 1894 Beardsley was appointed art editor of what he described as ‘a new literary and artistic quarterly’, the Yellow Book, which aimed to publish artists and writers who ‘cannot get their best stuff accepted in the conventional magazine’. The first issue appeared in April 1894 and, as had Salome, drew howls of rage from the press. This was a response to the sexual and social provocativeness of Beardsley’s work and, as the illustrator of Salome, he was in this respect linked with Wilde, that other great provocateur of the time. When, on 5 April 1895, Wilde was arrested on a criminal charge of committing indecent acts, the subsequent scandal also brought down Beardsley. He was sacked from the Yellow Book on 19 April 1895 by its publisher John Lane, who had also published Salome, and he temporarily fled to France.

On his return to London Beardsley found a new publisher, Leonard Smithers, who supported the unconventional and avant-garde with the profits from erotica and pornography. With Smithers and the poet Arthur Symons, Beardsley launched a new magazine, The Savoy. The first issue appeared in July 1896 and, in addition to contributions from George Bernard Shaw, W. B. Yeats, Max Beerbohm and Havelock Ellis, it contained the first part of Beardsley’s ‘romantic novel’ Under the Hill, which, although never finished, remains a minor masterpiece of its period. At this time Beardsley’s style changed to reflect his enthusiasm for French Rococo engravers, and his new manner proved particularly appropriate to his next major book illustrations, for Alexander Pope’s poem The Rape of the Lock, drawn in early 1896 and published by Smithers in a sumptuous edition in the summer of that year . Later in 1896 Beardsley completed very quickly eight large drawings illustrating Aristophanes’s bawdy Greek comedy Lysistrata (London, V&A). He used a development of the style of the Salome drawings, purified and refined and possibly influenced by Greek vase painting. Lysistrata was the last of his four major works of illustration, which are all the more astonishing for being so different from each other. Some of his other work has probably not yet been given the study it deserves, in particular that produced in 1896 and early 1897 for The Savoy and other projects. There was certainly no decline in his power, although in the last phase of his illness (from about March 1897) he was more often than not unable to work. He was received into the Roman Catholic Church on 31 March 1897.

It may be argued that Beardsley was the most significant figure to emerge in English art in the last decade of the 19th century. In his first maturity from 1892 to 1894 he created a modern style that was wholly personal and, as he himself put it, ‘fresh and original’. The content of Beardsley’s art was as startling as its style. His ostensible subjects were drawn from Classical literature and history, the Bible and the social world of his own time; but his pictures express eternal human truths, given a grotesque force by the power of Beardsley’s own fevered psyche. In his lifetime and immediately after, his work became widely known and admired abroad, and formed an influential part of the current of Art Nouveau and international Symbolism.

Simon Wilson
From Grove Art Online

© 2009 Oxford University Press

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