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Aubrey Beardsley - Biography and Legacy

British Illustrator and Author

Born: August 21, 1872 - Brighton, Sussex, England
Died: March 16, 1898 - Menton, France

Biography of Aubrey Beardsley


Aubrey Vincent Beardsley was an artistic and musical prodigy from an early age. Born to a father who preferred to squander his inheritance rather than adopt a trade, Beardsley's creative prowess helped stave off complete destitution. At age 12 he and his older sister Mabel (who would later become an actress) performed musical duets in a public concert. A witty child with a wicked sense of humor, Beardsley drew caricatures of his grammar school teachers and by age 14 had published his first poem, "The Valiant," as well as a series of sketches titled "The Jubilee Cricket Analysis" in the school's magazine, Past and Present.

From childhood Beardsley's life expectancy was short and uncertain. At the age of seven he contracted tuberculosis, a disease then known as "consumption" because sufferers appeared to waste away. Beardsley's fragile health meant that he was somewhat frail as a boy and often found himself confined to his bed, unable to attend school or play with his peers. The impact of this disease on the artist's childhood was no doubt on his mind when as an adult he created Self-portrait in Bed (1894). The ink drawing depicts a small child nearly swallowed up by the enormous bed that he occupies. An inscription in French at the top left reads: "By the gods not all monsters are in Africa." The quote is as much a reference to his lifelong struggle with tuberculosis as it is indicative of his fascination with the grotesque and macabre.

Beardsley worked briefly as a clerk for an insurance agency after grammar school, all the while developing a portfolio of Pre-Raphaelites-inspired drawings. In 1891, at age 19, Beardsley accompanied his sister to the studio of painter and illustrator Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Although the siblings were initially denied admittance, Burne-Jones's interest was piqued when he noticed Mabel's striking red hair. Beardsley soon built up the courage to show the artist his portfolio. Deeply impressed by the youth's obvious talent and imagination, Burne-Jones recommended Beardsley to the Westminster School of Art. There, Beardsley received instruction from painter Frederick Brown. A consumptive relapse shortly thereafter meant that from then on Beardsley lived on a knife's edge, relishing in a lust for life even as he faced the prospect of an early death.

Early Training

Sir Edward Burne-Jones was not the only one to notice Beardsley. Within a year of enrolling in art school, the young artist received an offer from publisher Joseph Dent to illustrate Sir Thomas Malory's epic, Le Morte D'Arthur (1893). Impressed by the artist's ability, Dent also observed that Beardsley was "a strange boy" and probably "not long for this world." Despite his apparent frailty, Beardsley produced over 300 illustrations within a short time frame. The resulting work blends the classical poses and complex compositions found in Pre-Raphaelite art and the decorative patterning, flat two-dimensionality, and erotica of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints with a Decadent fixation on death and decay.

His illustrations for Le Morte D'Arthur made Beardsley famous and led to his introduction to Oscar Wilde, a provocative author and important figure in the Decadent and Aesthetic movements in England. Deeply influenced by the French Decadent theory of art outlined by Theophile Gautier and exemplified in Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal (1857), Wilde was an outspoken critic of repressive Victorian sensibilities and supported the Aesthetic notion of "art for art's sake." His philosophical novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891) plays on these ideas by telling a story about a man, Dorian, who sells his soul for eternal beauty and immortality, but falls into depravity. Wilde, who acknowledged the controversial novel had an autobiographical component, lived his art. His decadent lifestyle and homosexuality shocked prudish Victorian society.

Beardsley's own sexuality is uncertain, but nonetheless aroused feverish public speculation, including accusations of homosexuality, transvestitism, and incest with his sister. A meticulous dresser, Beardsley's neatly pressed morning jacket, fine gloves, and patent leather pumps only fueled rumors, as did his association with Wilde. Punch magazine dubbed Beardsley "Daubrey Wierdsley" and "Awfully Weirdly." The artist's relationship with Wilde, though it initially bolstered his career, quickly became tumultuous and, ultimately cost Beardsley his position as art editor for The Yellow Book, an important Decadent magazine, in 1895.

In 1894, Beardsley, having just met the notorious author, commenced illustrating the English translation of Wilde's Salomé (1894). The resulting work reached new heights of public offence with its erotic, ghoulish, deformed figures, phallic candles, femme fatales, and blood-drinking flowers. Many images were condemned as obscene, or bore no relation to the text. And yet they had such a diabolic beauty that the egotist Wilde began to worry that they might outshine his work. In particular Wilde criticized the Japanese aesthetic in Beardsley's work, which he considered contrary to the Byzantine character of Salomé. The decorative embroidery on Salomé's gown in The Peacock Skirt as well as intricate interlacing floral patterns throughout the book were largely inspired by Whistler's Peacock Room, which Beardsley so greatly admired. Offended by Wilde's critique, Beardsley mocked Wilde in playful caricatures such as Oscar Wilde at Work (1895), which shows the author plagiarizing the Bible, Swinburne, and French Verbs. Wilde retaliated by publicly declaring that he had "invented Aubrey Beardsley" - a preposterous claim noted by journalists.

Victorian society was (not surprisingly) appalled by Salomé. The Art Journal described Beardsley's work as, "terrible in its weirdness and suggestions of horror and wickedness." Seemingly untroubled by his critics and perhaps playing on their anxiety, Beardsley described his imaginative, theatrical, and macabre work as populated by "subjects [which] were quite mad and a little indecent. Strange hermaphroditic figures wandering about in period costumes, quite a new world of my own creation."

Beardsley's talent extended beyond book illustrations to poster designs and magazine editing. In keeping with his interest in theatre, the artist created a poster for the Avenue Theatre that featured the play A Comedy of Sighs (1894). At the time, the world was on the cusp of an advertising revolution. Recognizing this, Beardsley observed in his essay, "The Art of the Hoarding" (1894) that if advertisements were to be unavoidable in modern life, they should be beautiful. The artist foresaw "London... resplendent with advertisements, and, against a leaden sky, sky-signs will trace their formal arabesque. Beauty has laid siege to the city, and telegraph wires shall no longer be the sole joy of our aesthetic perceptions."

Other examples of the beautifully rendered advertisements Beardsley produced could be found in magazines, including The Yellow Book, for which he briefly served as art editor. The quarterly publication featured essays by such giants as H. G. Wells, William Butler Yeats, and Henry James. It mocked Victorian society for censoring sex in art and literature. This sexually repressive Victorian attitude came from both rational (syphilis was rampant) and irrational reasons (they thought masturbation caused physical disorders). In his work for The Yellow Book, Beardsley revealed his adherence to Pre-Raphaelite notions of repressed desire and directly challenged Victorian morals by obscuring the line between art and obscenity.

Mature Period

The Yellow Book was a sell-out, despite being damned by the press as "repulsive" and "insolent." Its name intentionally called to mind yellow paper bound French decadent novels deplored by conservative Victorians. If this blatant association was not enough, within a year of its initial publication, Beardsley, then its art editor, became engulfed in the explosive public scandal of the Oscar Wilde rent boy/libel trials of 1895. The press reported that Wilde, upon being arrested for indecency and sodomy, was led away with a "yellow book" under his arm - a reference to his notorious character Dorian Gray. The public, however, believed the text to be Beardsley's journal of the same name. Public outrage convinced The Yellow Book publisher John Lane to fire Beardsley. Thus, by age 22, the young artist had lost his income and, it seemed, his career and reputation. Perversely, perhaps enjoying his newfound notoriety, Beardsley promptly moved into the very suite in Geneux's Private Hotel that had been named in Wilde's trial.

Beardsley was not unemployed for long. A leading distributor of erotica, Leonard Smithers collaborated with Beardsley to found a rival magazine, The Savoy, in 1896. Smithers also hired the artist to illustrate Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock (1896). Unfortunately, that year Beardsley's tuberculosis returned with violent haemorrhaging, so that he was often too ill to create. The work he could achieve was beautifully elegant and intricate. Gone were the jet-black swaths and blank spaces. Now grey tonal variations and delicately rendered details characterized his work. Beardsley's new style was also more explicitly pornographic. He portrayed female sexuality, phalluses, and female masturbation, for example, in Aristophanes' Lysistrata (1896) at a time when women were not believed to experience sexual desire.

Pope's The Rape of the Lock was beautifully bound in turquoise cloth and gold. On seeing it James McNeill Whistler, who had rejected earlier attempts by Beardsley to cultivate a friendship, reduced Beardsley to tears by telling him, "Aubrey, I have made a very great mistake - you are a very great artist." Despite Whistler's accolades, Beardsley's work for Smithers, particularly Lysistrata, was deemed offensive. The publisher was accused of ruining Beardsley's morals and sacrificing his health. But Beardsley would not succumb to his ailment that quickly. Health permitting, Beardsley very much enjoyed the social scene and traveling. During their 1896 trip to Paris, for example, he, Smithers, and the poet Ernest Dowson visited Gabriel de Lautrec in Montmartre and there indulged in a night of hashish and dance halls. When the wine and revelry subsided, the sober Beardsley experienced a change of heart and converted to Roman Catholicism. He promptly wrote to Smithers begging him to destroy all copies of Lysistrata and other obscene works "by all that is holy." Smithers, however, did not comply with his wishes and went on to publish Beardsley's collected work in A Book of Fifty Drawings (1897).

Late Period

The last years of Beardsley's life was spent trying to complete illustrations for Theophile Gautier's Madame Maupin and Ben Jonson's Volpone. Facing death, the artist wanted to leave behind a beautiful and worthy legacy. In a final collaboration with Smithers, the artist managed to create his own book, Under the Hill, for which he wrote the text as well as designed its illustrations. Early portions of this erotic story about Venus and Tannhauser appeared in issues of The Savoy (1896) in a slightly watered-down form. It was not until 1907 that Smithers published the entire manuscript which had been left unfinished at the time of Beardsley's death nearly a decade earlier.

His health deteriorating, Beardsley took up residence on the French Riviera in 1896. Letters to friends show his decline to an inevitable and terrible death. Sometimes he wrote despairingly, "I am literally crying with vexation," and other times in vain hope, "that the end is less near than it seems." In one of his last letters he expressed his regret to die when "such splendid things I had planned." Aubrey Beardsley died at the age of 25 in Menton, France. Like Dorian Gray, he would remain young forever.

The Legacy of Aubrey Beardsley

The Decadent movement, and the Aesthetic movement from which it emerged, paved the way for modern art. Beardsley's work possesses the decorative qualities of Aestheticism as well as the pessimistic hedonism and macabre humor of the Decadents. As such, Dada painter George Grosz noted in 1946 that Beardsley influenced "practically every modern designer after 1900." The artist's designs were particularly important to the development of Art Nouveau. Some other important artists who took note of Beardsley are Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso and artists of the Glasgow School, such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The theatrical beauty of Beardsley's designs were used in the Hollywood production of Salomé in 1921 and Leon Bakst's sets for the Ballets Russes.

Beardsley's work has been regularly re-appreciated in Art Nouveau revivals, particularly during the 1960s in Heinz Edelmann's cartoons for the Beatles' film Yellow Submarine. He was also included in the collage on the Beatles Sgt Pepper album, which suggests his significance as a major influence on the musical group. Beardsley's work continues to shock audiences today. Most recently, in 2007 Beardsley's Cinesias entreating Myrrhina to coition from Lysistrata was exhibited at London's Barbican with access limited to viewers 18 years and older.

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Content compiled and written by Jen Farren

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sandy McCain

"Aubrey Beardsley Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jen Farren
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Sandy McCain
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First published on 21 Jan 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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