Aubrey Vincent Beardsley (21 August 1872 – 16 March 1898) was an English illustrator and author. His drawings in black ink, influenced by the style of Japanese woodcuts, emphasised the grotesque, the decadent, and the erotic. Elected to the New English Art Club in 1894, he was a leading figure in the aesthetic movement which also included Oscar Wilde and James McNeill Whistler. Beardsley's contribution to the development of the Art Nouveau and poster styles was significant, despite the brevity of his career before his early death from tuberculosis aged just 25.
Beardsley was born in Brighton in 1872. In 1883 his family settled in London, and in the following year, he appeared in public as an ‘infant musical phenomenon’, playing at several concerts with his sister. In 1885, he began to attend Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar School, where he spent the next four years. His first poems, drawings, and cartoons appeared in print in Past and Present, the school's magazine. In 1891, under the advice of Sir Edward Burne-Jones and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, he took up art as a profession. In 1892, he attended the classes at the Westminster School of Art, then under Professor Fred Brown.
In 1892, Beardsley travelled to Paris, where he discovered the poster art of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and the Parisian fashion for Japanese prints, both of which would be major influences on his own style. Beardsley's first commission was Le Morte d'Arthur by Thomas Malory (1893), which he illustrated for the publishing house J. M. Dent and Company.
He co-founded The Yellow Book with American writer Henry Harland, and for the first four editions, he served as Art Editor and produced the cover designs and many illustrations for the magazine. He was also closely aligned with Aestheticism, the British counterpart of Decadence and Symbolism. Most of his images are done in ink and feature large dark areas contrasted with large blank ones, and areas of fine detail contrasted with areas with none at all.
Beardsley was the most controversial artist of the Art Nouveau era, renowned for his dark and perverse images and grotesque erotica, which were the main themes of his later work. His illustrations were in black and white, against a white background. Some of his drawings, inspired by Japanese shunga artwork, featured enormous genitalia. His most famous erotic illustrations concerned themes of history and mythology; these include his illustrations for a privately printed edition of Aristophanes' Lysistrata, and his drawings for Oscar Wilde's play Salome, which eventually premiered in Paris in 1896. Other major illustration projects included an 1896 edition of The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope. He also produced extensive illustrations for books and magazines. As a co-founder of The Savoy magazine, Beardsley was able to pursue his writing as well as illustration, and a number of his writings appeared in the magazine.
Beardsley was a caricaturist and did some political cartoons, mirroring Wilde's irreverent wit in art. His work reflected the decadence of his era and his influence was enormous, clearly visible in the work of the French Symbolists, the Poster art Movement of the 1890s and the work of many later-period Art Nouveau artists such as Pape and Clarke.
Beardsley's work continued to cause controversy in Britain long after his death. During an exhibition of Beardsley's prints held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1966, a private gallery in London was raided by the police for exhibiting copies of the same prints on display at the museum, and the owner charged under obscenity laws.
Beardsley was a public as well as private eccentric. He said, "I have one aim—the grotesque. If I am not grotesque, I am nothing." Wilde said he had "a face like a silver hatchet, and grass green hair." Beardsley was meticulous about his attire: dove-grey suits, hats, ties, yellow gloves. He would appear at his publisher's in a morning coat and court shoes.
During his entire career, Beardsley had recurrent attacks of tuberculosis. He suffered frequent lung haemorrhages and was often unable to work or leave his home.
Beardsley converted to Roman Catholicism in March 1897. The next year, the last letter before his death was to his publisher, Leonard Smithers and close friend Herbert Charles Pollitt:
Postmark: March 7 1898 | Jesus is our Lord and Judge | Dear Friend, I implore you to destroy all copies of Lysistrata and bad drawings … By all that is holy, all obscene drawings. | Aubrey Beardsley | In my death agony.
Both men ignored Beardsley's wishes, and Smithers actually continued to sell reproductions as well as forgeries of Beardsley's work.
In December 1896, Beardsley suffered a violent haemorrhage leaving him in precarious health. By April 1897, a month after his conversion to Roman Catholicism, his deteriorating health prompted a move to the French Riviera. There he died of tuberculosis a year later, on 16 March 1898, attended by his mother and sister. He was 25 years old.
Spanning seven years, a major exhibition at Tate Britain will cover Beardsley’s intense and prolific career as a draughtsman and illustrator. Beardsley’s charismatic persona played a part in the phenomenon that he and his art generated, so much so that the 1890s were dubbed the ‘Beardsley Period’. This will be the first exhibition dedicated to Beardsley at Tate since 1923, and the largest display of his original drawings in Europe since the seminal 1966 exhibition at the V&A, which triggered a Beardsley revival. The over 200 works include his celebrated illustrations for Le Morte d’Arthur, Lysistrata and Oscar Wilde’s Salomé. It will also show artworks that were key inspirations for Beardsley, including Japanese scrolls and watercolours by Edward Burne-Jones and Gustave Moreau. Find out more.
Header image: “The Peacock Skirt” (detail) illustration by Aubrey Beardsley for Oscar Wilde's play Salomé (1892).
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