Aubrey Beardsley, Isolde, 1895 illustration for The Studio magazine of
the tragic opera heroine drinking the fateful love-potion she believes
to be poison.
Aubrey Vincent Beardsley (August 21, 1872 – March 16, 1898) was an
influential English illustrator, and author, today best known for his erotic
Beardsley was born in Brighton. 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. He attended Brighton, Hove and
Sussex Grammar School in 1884, and 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, then under Professor Fred Brown.
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 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 was aligned with the Yellow Book coterie of artists and writers. He was an
art editor for the first four editions and produced 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.
Aubrey Beardsley was the most controversial artist of the Art Nouveau era,
renowned for his dark and perverse images and the grotesque erotica, which
were the main themes of his later work. Some of his drawings, inspired by
Japanese shunga, featured enormous genitalia. His most famous erotic
illustrations were on themes of history and mythology, including his
illustrations for Aristophanes' Lysistrata and Wilde's Salomé.
Beardsley illustrated Oscar Wilde's play Salomé - the play eventually
premiered in Paris in 1896. He also produced extensive illustrations for books
and magazines (e.g. for a deluxe edition of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte
d'Arthur) and worked for magazines like The Savoy and The Studio. Beardsley
also wrote Under the Hill, an unfinished erotic tale based loosely on the
legend of Tannhäuser.
Beardsley was also a caricaturist and did some political cartoons, mirroring
Wilde's irreverent wit in art. 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 like Pape and Clarke.
Beardsley was a public character as well as a 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 patent leather pumps.
Although Beardsley was aligned with the homosexual clique that included Oscar
Wilde and other English aesthetes, the details of his sexuality remain in
question. He was generally regarded as asexual—which is hardly surprising,
considering his chronic illness and his devotion to his work. Speculation
about his sexuality include rumors of an incestuous relationship with his
elder sister, Mabel, who may have become pregnant by her brother and
Through his entire career, Beardsley had recurrent attacks of the disease that
would end it. He suffered frequent lung hemorrhages and was often unable to
work or leave his home.
Beardsley's emphasis of the erotic element is present in many of his drawings,
but nowhere as boldly as in his illustrations for Lysistrata which were done
for a privately printed edition at a time when he was totally out of favor
with polite society. One of his last acts after converting to Catholicism was
to plead with his publisher to "destroy all copies to Lysistrata and bad
drawings...by all that is holy all obscene drawings." His publisher, Leonard
Smithers, not only ignored Beardsley wishes, but continued to sell
reproductions and outright forgeries of Beardsley's work.
Beardsley was active till his death in Menton, France, at the age of 25 on
March 16, 1898 , of tuberculosis. He had been received into the Roman
Catholic church in 1895.
"Aubrey Beardsley was so extravagantly foppish, so precious in his speech
and so languid in his posturings that Oscar Wilde claimed him for his own
On page 63, Weintraub quotes Wilde: "I invented Aubrey Beardsley."
Weintraub disagrees: in his opinion, Beardsley invented himself.
Some of Beardsley's illustrations for Wilde's Salomé appear in the
1968 Kinji Fukasaku film Black Lizard (Kurotokage).
- Aubrey Beardsley, Selected Drawings: (Grove, 1967) ISBN
- David Wallechinsky, The People's Almanac III: (Bantam, 1981) ISBN
- Weintraub, Stanley. Beardsley: a Biography. New York: Braziller,
1967. No ISBN.
- This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica
Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.