Though Aubrey Beardsley was initially influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, he soon outgrew them, and developed his own unique style, at once sophisticated and provocative. During his brief flowering in the fin de siècle, the elegant restraint of his art emulated Japanese prints and Rococo painting, while the elegant restraint of his life surpassed those of his friends and rivals, James McNeill Whistler and Oscar Wilde. Aubrey Beardsley was born at 12 Buckingham Road, Brighton, Sussex, on 21 August 1872, the son of Vincent Beardsley and his wife, Ellen Agnus (née Pitt). He grew up in an atmosphere of genteel poverty, in which his ambitious mother ensured that he became a precocious student of literature and music. At the age of seven, he contracted the then incurable disease of tuberculosis and was sent off to improve his health, first at nearby Hurstpierpoint, and then at Epsom. In 1884, he returned to Brighton and soon became a boarder at Brighton Grammar School, where it was recognised that he had a talent for drawing.
In 1888, at the age of 16, Beardsley moved with his family to London, where financial circumstances forced him to work as a clerk in an Islington surveyor’s office, and later at the Guardian Fire and Life Assurance Company in Lombard Street.
He made the most of his brief periods of good health, developing his artistic skills, and – particularly in 1891 – absorbing the visual delights of the capital, such as the Peacock Room that James McNeill Whistler had designed for Frederick Leyland’s house. He visited Edward Burne-Jones and, spurred on by the artist’s encouragement, took his advice, attending evening classes under Fred Brown at the Westminster School of Art. From early in his career, he was absorbing many disparate influences, from Mantegna to Japanese printmakers, and boasting of working in several styles.
In 1892, Beardsley was introduced by the bookseller, Frederick Evans, to the publisher, J M Dent, and asked by him to illustrate a new edition of Malory’s Le Morte Darthur. This major commission enabled Beardsley to resign from his clerical position and establish himself as a major modern artist; this he achieved by refining a style that challenged and parodied the historicist approach of the Kelmscott Press, and was at the same time appropriate to reproduction by the new photo-mechanical line-block process. However, Beardsley soon became tired of the demands of this large-scale project, so that Dent had to rekindle his interest by issuing another commission, that for the three-volume series of Bon-Mots. The grotesque, even sinister, vignettes with which he decorated the series comprised perhaps his first truly mature work.
The importance of Beardsley was confirmed in April 1893 by the first number of the immediately influential periodical The Studio, in which he appeared as the subject of an illustrated article by Joseph Pennell. Among the illustrations was a drawing based on an episode from Oscar Wilde’s Salome, and its presence prepared the way for Beardsley to meet its author, and then to illustrate the first translation of the symbolist play from French to English, in an edition by John Lane. The result, published in February 1894, attracted wide attention, even controversy, and permanently linked author and illustrator in the mind of the public. The provocative character of Beardsley’s work was then further emphasised, in April 1894, with the issue of the first number of The Yellow Book, also published by John Lane, which Beardsley helped edit and illustrate. Words and images of sophisticated economy, bound in yellow, summed up the decadence of the decade.
Exactly a year later, in 1895, Wilde was arrested on a charge of committing indecent acts, placed on trial and imprisoned. Beardsley was considered guilty by association, and more sanctimonious contributors forced his dismissal from The Yellow Book. Yet by the end of the year, he had defiantly developed The Savoy as a rival periodical, with help from the decadent poet, Arthur Symons, and the pornographic publisher, Leonard Smithers. The presence of Smithers also facilitated the publication of his great late illustrated volumes, especially The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope and Lysistrata by Aristophanes (both 1896). Becoming increasingly plagued by tuberculosis, he attempted to aid his physical health by spending time on the Continent, and his spiritual health by converting to Roman Catholicism. He died in Menton, on the French-Italian border on the 16 March 1898, at the age of twenty-five.
His work is represented in numerous public collections, including the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, Tate and the V&A; the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford) and The Fitzwilliam Museum (Cambridge); and the Museum of Fine Arts (Boston, MA) and Harvard University Art Museums (Cambridge, MA).
Further reading: Stephen Calloway, Aubrey Beardsley, London: V&A Publications, 1998; Alan Crawford, ‘Beardsley, Aubrey Vincent (1872-1898)’, H C G Matthew and Brian Harrison (eds), Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, vol 4, pages 541-545; Haldane MacFall, Aubrey Beardsley. The Man and His Work, London: John Lane The Bodley Head, 1928; Brian Reade, Aubrey Beardsley, London: Studio Vista, 1967; Robert Ross, Aubrey Beardsley, London: John Lane, 1909; Matthew Sturgis, Aubrey Beardsley: A Biography, London: Harper Collins, 1998; Simon Wilson, ‘Beardsley, Aubrey (Vincent) (b Brighton, 21 Aug 1872; d Menton, 16 March 1898)’, Jane Turner (ed), The Dictionary of Art, London: Macmillan, 1996, vol 3, pages 444-446; Simon Wilson and Linda Zatlin, Aubrey Beardsley: A Centenary Tribute, Japan: Art Life, 1998; Linda Zatlin, Aubrey Beardsley and Victorian Sexual Politics, Oxford: Clarendon, 1990; Linda Zatlin, Beardsley, Japonisme and the Peversion of the Victorian Ideal, Cambridge University Press, 1997