Aubrey Beardsley

Last updated

Aubrey Beardsley
Aubrey Beardsley by Frederick Hollyer, 1893.jpg
Portrait of Beardsley by Frederick Hollyer, 1893
Aubrey Vincent Beardsley

(1872-08-21)21 August 1872
Brighton, England
Died16 March 1898(1898-03-16) (aged 25)
Menton, France
Resting placeCimetiere du Vieux-Chateau, Menton, France [1]
Education Westminster School of Art
Known for Illustration, graphics/graphic arts
Movement Art Nouveau, aestheticism

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, emphasized the grotesque, the decadent, and the erotic. 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.


Early life, education, and early career

Aubrey Beardsley by Jacques-Emile Blanche, oil on canvas, 1895 (National Portrait Gallery, London) Blanche Beardsley.jpg
Aubrey Beardsley by Jacques-Émile Blanche, oil on canvas, 1895 (National Portrait Gallery, London)

Beardsley was born in Brighton, England on 21 August 1872 and christened on 24 October 1872. [2] His father, Vincent Paul Beardsley (1839–1909), was the son of a Clerkenwell jeweler; [3] [4] Vincent had no trade himself (partly owing to inherited tuberculosis, from which his own father had died aged only 40), [5] [6] and relied on a private income from an inheritance that he received from his maternal grandfather, a property developer, when he was 21. [7] Vincent's wife, 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 lesser social status than might have been expected. Soon after their wedding, Vincent was obliged to sell some of his property in order to settle a claim for his breach of promise of marriage from another woman, the widow of a clergyman, [8] who claimed that he had promised to marry her. [9] At the time of his birth, Beardsley's family, which included his sister Mabel who was one year older, were living in Ellen's familial home at 12 Buckingham Road. The number of the house in Buckingham Road was 12, but the numbers were changed, and it is now 31. [8]

With the loss of Vincent Beardsley's fortune soon after his son's birth, the family settled in London in 1883, where Vincent would work first for the West India & Panama Telegraph Company, then irregularly as a clerk at breweries; [10] [4] they would spend the next 20 years in rented accommodation, battling poverty. Ellen took to presenting herself as the "victim of a mésalliance". [11] [12] In 1884, Aubrey appeared in public as an "infant musical phenomenon", playing at several concerts with his sister. [13] 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 afterward 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. [14] [13]


Aubrey Beardsley, c. 1894-5 Aubrey Beardsley ca. 1895.jpg
Aubrey Beardsley, c. 1894-5

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 were major influences on his 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. [15]

The Peacock Skirt, 1893 Beardsley-peacockskirt.PNG
The Peacock Skirt , 1893

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 that became progressively more graceful, sometimes accompanied by A.B. in block capitals. [16]

The Black Cat, 1894-5 Aubrey Beardsley - Edgar Poe 2.jpg
The Black Cat , 1894–5

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 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 as well as areas of fine detail contrasted with areas with none at all.

The Dancers Reward, from Salome: a tragedy in one act (London 1904) Salome- a tragedy in one act pg 79.jpg
The Dancers Reward, from Salomé: a tragedy in one act (London 1904)
The Barge, illustration to The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope, 1896 The Barge - Aubrey Beardsley.jpg
The Barge, illustration to The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope, 1896

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. [15]

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 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. [17]

Beardsley was 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 such as Papé and Clarke. Some alleged works of Beardsley's were published in a book titled Fifty Drawings by Aubrey Beardsley, Selected from the Collection of Mr. H.S. Nicols. These later were discovered to be forgeries, distinguishable by their almost pornographic erotic elements rather than Beardsley's subtler use of sexuality. [18]

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. [19]

Masquerade, cover design for The Yellow Book, vol. 1, 1894 Aubrey Beardsley - Masquerade.jpg
Masquerade, cover design for The Yellow Book, vol. 1, 1894

Private life

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 Beardsley had "a face like a silver hatchet, and grass green hair." [20] Beardsley was meticulous about his attire: dove-grey suits, hats, ties, yellow gloves. He appeared at his publisher's in a morning coat and court shoes.[ citation needed ]

Although Beardsley was associated with the homosexual clique that included Oscar Wilde and other English aesthetes, the details of his sexuality remain in question. Speculation about his sexuality includes rumours of an incestuous relationship with his elder sister, Mabel, who may have become pregnant by her brother and miscarried. [21] [22]

During his entire career, Beardsley had recurrent attacks of tuberculosis. He suffered frequent lung hemorrhages and often was unable to work or leave his home.

Isolde, illustration in Pan magazine, 1899 Aubrey Beardsley Beardsley - Isolde.jpg
Isolde, illustration in Pan magazine, 1899

Beardsley converted to 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. [23]

Both men ignored Beardsley's wishes, [24] [25] and Smithers actually continued to sell reproductions as well as forgeries of Beardsley's work. [16]


In December 1896, Beardsley suffered a violent hemorrhage, leaving him in precarious health. By April 1897, a month after his conversion to Catholicism, his deteriorating health prompted a move to the French Riviera. There he died a year later, on 16 March 1898, of tuberculosis at the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Menton, France, attended by his mother and sister. He was 25 years old. Following a requiem mass in Menton Cathedral the following day, his remains were interred in the Cimetiere du Trabuquet. [26] [27]

Media portrayals

In the 1982 Playhouse drama Aubrey, written by John Selwyn Gilbert, Beardsley was portrayed by actor John Dicks. The drama concerned Beardsley's life from the time of Oscar Wilde's arrest in April 1895, which resulted in Beardsley losing his position at The Yellow Book, to his death from tuberculosis in 1898. [28] The BBC documentary Beardsley and His Work was made in 1982. [29] Beardsley is featured on the cover of The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band .

In March 2020, BBC Four broadcast the 58-minute documentary Scandal & Beauty: Mark Gatiss on Aubrey Beardsely presented by Mark Gatiss. The program coincided with the Beardsley exhibition at Tate Britain. [30]

See also


Related Research Articles

<i>The Yellow Book</i> literary magazine

The Yellow Book was a British quarterly literary periodical that was published in London from 1894 to 1897. It was published at The Bodley Head Publishing House by Elkin Mathews and John Lane, and later by John Lane alone, and edited by the American Henry Harland. The periodical was priced at 5 shillings and lent its name to the "Yellow Nineties", referring to the decade of its operation.

F. Holland Day American photographer

Fred Holland Day was an American photographer and publisher. He was the first in the United States to advocate that photography should be considered a fine art.

<i>Salome</i> (play) Tragedy by Oscar Wilde

Salome is a tragedy by Oscar Wilde. The original 1891 version of the play was in French. Three years later an English translation was published. The play tells in one act the Biblical story of Salome, stepdaughter of the tetrarch Herod Antipas, who, to her stepfather's dismay but to the delight of her mother Herodias, requests the head of Jokanaan on a silver platter as a reward for dancing the dance of the seven veils.

Charles Ricketts British artist and publisher (1866-1931)

Charles de Sousy Ricketts was a British artist, illustrator, author and printer, known for his work as a book designer and typographer and for his costume and scenery designs for plays and operas.

Dance of the Seven Veils

The Dance of the Seven Veils is Salome's dance performed before Herod II. It is an elaboration on the biblical story of the execution of John the Baptist, which refers to Salome dancing before the king, but does not give the dance a name.

E. J. Sullivan British artist

Edmund Joseph Sullivan (1869–1933), usually known as E. J. Sullivan, was a British book illustrator who worked in a style which merged the British tradition of illustration from the 1860s with aspects of Art Nouveau.

<i>The Savoy</i> (periodical)

The Savoy was a magazine of literature, art, and criticism published in eight numbers from January to December 1896 in London. It featured work by authors such as W. B. Yeats, Max Beerbohm, Joseph Conrad, Aubrey Beardsley and William Thomas Horton. Only eight issues of the magazine were published. The publisher was Leonard Smithers, a controversial friend of Oscar Wilde who was also known as a pornographer. Among other publications by Smithers were rare erotic works and unique items such as books bound in human skin.

Leonard Charles Smithers was a London publisher associated with the Decadent movement.

Karel de Nerée tot Babberich Dutch artist

Christophe Karel Henri (Karel) de Nerée tot Babberich was a Dutch symbolist artist who worked in the decadent and symbolist style of Aubrey Beardsley and Jan Toorop.

Alastair (Baron Hans Henning Voigt) German artist and singer

Hans Henning Otto Harry Baron von Voigt, best known by his nickname Alastair, was a German artist, composer, dancer, mime, poet, singer and translator.

Mabel Beardsley stage actor

Mabel Beardsley was an English Victorian actress and elder sister of the famous illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, who according to her brother's biographer, "achieved mild notoriety for her exotic and flamboyant appearance".

William Brown Macdougall British painter and book illustrator

William Brown Macdougall was a Scottish artist, wood engraver, etcher and book illustrator.

<i>The Climax</i> (illustration) Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley

The Climax is an 1893 illustration by Aubrey Beardsley (1872–1898), a leading artist of the Decadent (1880-1900) and Aesthetic movements. It depicts a scene from Oscar Wilde's 1891 play Salome, in which the femme fatale Salome has just kissed the severed head of John the Baptist, which she grasps in her hands. Elements of eroticism, symbolism, and Orientalism are present in the piece. This illustration is one of sixteen Wilde commissioned Beardsley to create for the publication of the play. The series is considered to be Beardsley's most celebrated work, created at the age of 21.

Marcus Michael Douglas Behmer was a German writer and book illustrator, graphic designer and painter.

Alfred Gurney (1843–1898) was an English cleric and writer.

Herbert Charles Pollitt

Herbert Charles Pollitt, also known as Jerome Pollitt, was a patron of the arts and on-stage female impersonator who performed as Diane de Rougy. He became notorious as an Cambridge undergraduate due to his taste for Decadent art and literature, and was immortalised as the eponymous hero of an E.F. Benson novel in 1896. He became a very close friend of the artist Aubrey Beardsley, and had a brief but significant relationship with the occultist Aleister Crowley. Following his time at Cambridge, Pollitt moved to London and saw service in the First World War as a lance-corporal. He died in 1942.

<i>The Peacock Skirt</i>

The Peacock Skirt is an 1893 illustration by Aubrey Beardsley. His original pen and ink drawing was reproduced as a woodblock print in the first English edition of Oscar Wilde's one-act play Salome in 1894. The original drawing was bequeathed by Grenville Lindall Winthrop to the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University in 1943.

Matthew Sturgis British historian and biographer

Matthew Sturgis is a British historian and biographer.

Art Nouveau posters and graphic arts

Art Nouveau posters and graphic arts flourished and became an important vehicle of the style, thanks to the new technologies of color lithography and color printing, which allowed the creation of and distribution of the style to a vast audience in Europe, the United States and beyond. Art was no longer confined to art galleries, but could be seen on walls and illustrated magazines.

Whiplash (decorative art)

The whiplash or whiplash line is a motif of decorative art and design that was particularly popular in Art Nouveau. It is an assymetrical, sinuous line, often in an ornamental S curve, usually inspired by natural forms such as plants and flowers, which suggests dynamism and movement.. It took its name from a woven fabric panel called "Coup de Fouet" ("Whiplash") by the German artist Hermann Obrist (1895) which depicted the stems and roots of the cyclamen flower. The panel was later reproduced by the textile workshop of the Darmstadt Artists Colony.


  1. Bertrand Beyern. Guide des tombes d'hommes célèbres. Paris: Le Cherche Midi, 2008. ISBN   978-2-7491-2169-7
  2. "England, Births and Christenings, 1538–1975," index, FamilySearch, accessed 4 April 2012), Aubrey Vincent Beardsley (1872).
  3. Brophy 1968 , p. 85
  4. 1 2 "Beardsley, Aubrey, Artist, Part 1 – The Formative Years". Epsom & Ewell History Explorer.
  5. Brophy, Brigid (1976). Beardsley and His World, Harmony Books, p. 12.
  6. Aubrey Beardsley: Exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1966 [May 20 – September 18] Catalogue of the Original Drawings, Letters, Manuscripts, Paintings, and of Books, Posters, Photographs, Documents, Etc, H.M. Stationery Office, 1966
  7. Sturgis 1998 , p. 8
  8. 1 2 Sturgis 1998 , p. 3
  9. Sturgis 1998 , p. 10
  10. Sturgis 1998 , p. 11
  11. "Beardsley, Aubrey Vincent (1872–1898)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
  12. Sturgis 1998 , p. 15
  13. 1 2 Wikisource-logo.svg One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain : Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Beardsley, Aubrey Vincent". Encyclopædia Britannica . 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 577–578.
  14. Armstrong 1901.
  15. 1 2 Souter, Nick; Souter, Tessa (2012). The Illustration Handbook: A Guide to the World's Greatest Illustrators. Oceana. p. 41. ISBN   978-1-84573-473-2.
  16. 1 2 Harris, Bruce S., ed. (1967). The Collected Drawings of Aubrey Beardsley. Crown Publishers, Inc.
  17. "The Life of Aubrey Beardsley" (PDF). Victorian Web. Retrieved 8 May 2012.
  18. Symons, Aurthus (1967). The Collected Drawings of Aubrey Beardsley. New York: Crescent Books Inc. pp. v.
  19. Elizabeth Guffey, Retro: The Culture of Revival (London: Reaktion Books, 2006) p.7
  20. Kingston, Angela. Oscar Wilde as a Character in Victorian Fiction. Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. ISBN   9780230600232
  21. "Beardsley and the art of decadence by Matthew Sturgis", reviewed by Richard Edmonds in The Birmingham Post (England), 21 March 1998. At, retrieved 5 Apr 2012.
  22. Latham, David, ed. (2003). Haunted texts: studies in Pre-Raphaelitism in honour of William E. Fredeman. University of Toronto Press. p. 194. ISBN   978-0-8020-3662-9.
  23. Beardsley, Aubrey (1970). The Letters of Aubrey Beardsley. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press. ISBN   978-0-8386-6884-9.
  24. Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen (2003). "Sartorial Obsessions: Beardsley and Masquerade". In Fredeman, William Evan; Latham, David (eds.). Haunted Texts: Studies in Pre-Raphaelitism in Honour of William E. Fredeman. University of Toronto Press. pp.  178–183. ISBN   978-0-8020-3662-9.
  25. Kaczynski, Richard (2012). Perdurabo, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Life of Aleister Crowley. North Atlantic Books. pp. 37–45. ISBN   978-1-58394-576-6.
  26. Sturgis 1998 [ page needed ]
  27. Crawford, Alan (2004). "Beardsley, Aubrey Vincent (1872–1898), illustrator". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi: 10.1093/ref:odnb/1821 .
  28. Gilbert, John Selwyn (22 June 2008), Aubrey
  29. "BBC – Beardsley and his Work". BBC. Retrieved 28 November 2018.
  30. Scandal & Beauty: Mark Gatiss on Aubrey Beardsely - BBC Four website