Today is the birthday (1872) of Aubrey Vincent Beardsley, an English illustrator and poet, best known for his drawings in black ink, influenced by the style of Japanese woodcuts, which emphasized the grotesque, the decadent, and the erotic. He was a leading figure in the Aesthetic Movement which also included Oscar Wilde and James A. McNeill Whistler. Beardsley’s life was short (25 years) but his contribution to the development of Art Nouveau was immense.
During his lifetime, and ever since, Beardsley’s life and work have been the subject of intense discussion ranging from passionate endorsement to furious condemnation, with not much room in between. I know from experience that undergraduate rooms in the late 1960s and early 1970s were wallpapered with his posters, mostly, I think, in a trite way. His work no longer shocks as it did in Victorian England, so it had become a rather mild nod in the direction of decadence. The seemingly enduring mystery among scholars is the question of what he was attempting to achieve by his work. I’m not an art historian but it all seems rather simple to me. He lived in Victorian England in the “gay 90s” and knew the Paris of la belle époque. This heady world fascinated him and he wanted to make a mark. He did. What more is there to know?
Beardsley was born in Brighton on the south coast of England. Beardsley’s mother, Ellen Agnus Pitt (1846–1932), was the daughter of Surgeon-Major William Pitt of the Indian Army. The Pitts were a well-established and respected family in Brighton, and Beardsley’s mother married a man of lower social status than might have been expected. 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 January 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 1888 he obtained a post in an architect’s office, and afterwards one in the Guardian Life and Fire Insurance Company. 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 under Professor Fred Brown.
Also in 1892, Beardsley traveled 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.
His six years of major creative output can be divided into several periods, identified by the form of his signature. In the early period his work is mostly unsigned. During 1891 and 1892 he progressed to using his initials, A.V.B. In mid-1892, the period of Le Morte d’Arthur and The Bon Mots he used a Japanese-influenced mark which became progressively more graceful, sometimes accompanied by A.B. in block capitals. He co-founded The Yellow Book with US 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 legend, including 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, and the collection A Book of Fifty Drawings by Aubrey Beardsley (1897).
He also produced extensive illustrations for books and magazines and worked for magazines such as The Studio and The Savoy, of which he was a co-founder. As a co-founder of The Savoy, Beardsley was able to pursue his writing as well as illustration, and a number of his writings, including “Under the Hill” (a story based on the Tannhäuser legend) and “The Ballad of a Barber” appeared in the magazine.
Beardsley’s 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 was a public as well as a private eccentric. He said, “I have one aim—the grotesque. If I am not grotesque I am nothing.” Like Wilde and other aesthetes, Beardsley was meticulous about his attire: dove-grey suits, hats, and ties, and yellow gloves. He would appear at his publisher’s in a morning coat and patent leather pumps.
Although Beardsley’s sexuality has been discussed numerous times no data outside of his art exist. Numerous fanciful tales exist – for example, that he got his sister pregnant and they she either miscarried or had an abortion – but this stuff all comes from the gossip mill. Apparently he was generally regarded as asexual. During his entire career, Beardsley had recurrent attacks of tuberculosis, which he was diagnosed with at age 7. He suffered frequent lung hemorrhages and was often unable to work or leave his home. It was either Beardsley himself or Wilde who quipped that both he and his lungs were affected.
Beardsley converted to Roman Catholicism in March 1897, and subsequently begged his publisher, Leonard Smithers, to “destroy all copies of Lysistrata and bad drawings… by all that is holy all obscene drawings.” Smithers ignored Beardsley’s wishes, and actually continued to sell reproductions as well as forgeries of Beardsley’s work.
In 1897 deteriorating health prompted his move to the French Riviera, where he died a year later on 16 March 1898 at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Menton, attended by his mother and sister. Following a Requiem Mass in Menton Cathedral the following day, his remains were interred in the adjacent cemetery.
I assume that Beardsley’s art is well known, so I’ll give a small gallery which I’ll intersperse with some quotes.
All humanity inspires me. Every passer-by is my unconscious sitter; and as strange as it may seem, I really draw folk as I see them. Surely it is not my fault that they fall into certain lines and angles.
I see everything in a grotesque way. When I go to the theatre, for example, things shape themselves before my eyes just as a I draw them — the people on the stage, the footlights, the queer faces and garb of the audience in the boxes and stalls. They all seem weird and strange to me. Things have always impressed me in this way.
What is a portrait good for, unless it shows just how the subject was seen by the painter? In the old days before photography came in a sitter had a perfect right to say to the artist: “Paint me just as I am.” Now if he wishes absolute fidelity he can go to the photographer and get it.
I think the title page I drew for Salomé was after all “impossible”. You see booksellers couldn’t stick it up in their windows.
I have always done my sketches, as people would say, for the fun of it… I have worked to amuse myself, and if it has amused the public as well, so much the better for me.
Beardsley’s era was dominated in English cuisine by Isabella Beeton and in French by Auguste Escoffier, both of whom I have mentioned many times already. Anything decadent would be suitable as a recipe. I found this picture online and thought it captured the spirit perfectly.
It is an individual serving of beef, topped with foie gras (both of which have been seared), and encased in puff pastry – served with a little spinach and demi-glace.