Beardsley, Aubrey

views updated Jun 11 2018


BEARDSLEY, AUBREY (1872–1898), British literary visual artist of the 1890s avant-garde.

Born in Brighton, England, Aubrey Vincent Beardsley attended Brighton Grammar School, where he won popularity with amusing sketches for friends and teachers. By the conclusion of his formal education in 1888, three of his poems had been published in the Brighton newspaper and some drawings had appeared in school publications. Moving to London with his family, he developed his passionate love of the theater by attending plays starring the great actors and expanded his already considerable musical knowledge to encompass the operas of Richard Wagner (1813–1883). That he became a critical viewer and auditor is apparent in his drawings.

In 1891 Beardsley met Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones (1833–1898), the Pre-Raphaelite painter who became his mentor and recommended that he attend art school, which Beardsley did for about eighteen months. During this time, Beardsley began evolving his personal style. He studied the work of his contemporaries, particularly James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903), Burne-Jones, Walter Richard Sickert (1860–1942), Walter Crane (1845–1915), and Pierre Puvis de Chavannes (1824–1898), as well as prints by Japanese woodblock artists, whose layouts and techniques he would adapt. Frederick H. Evans (1853–1943), a bookshop owner and noted photographer, introduced Beardsley to the publisher J. M. Dent (1849–1926) who commissioned Beardsley to illustrate Le Morte Darthur, permitting him to draw full time and polish his style. His best work, such as for the 1894 play Salome by Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), invokes a rich vocabulary of style. Strong curvilinear compositions, they feature an economical and elegant use of line that shapes massed blacks and whites. The drawings comment on the texts for which he made them. Consequently, Beardsley's chiseled designs, with their links to symbolist art, were starkly different from the horror vacui (fear of empty space) and literal illustrations pervading contemporary art. His drawings anticipate, among others, Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), who saw the English artist's work in 1900, before he left Barcelona; Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944), who knew Beardsley's work before he left Russia in 1896; Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959), whose spare architectural planes were enhanced by Beardsley's designs no less than by his collection of Japanese prints; and Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868–1928), who acknowledged Beardsley's influence by autumn 1893.

Unfortunately, Beardsley had tuberculosis and knew he would die young; getting his work published and disseminated consumed him. In order to ensure the spread of his reputation, he calculatedly shocked middle-class London viewers by including in drawings erotic elements that were witty rather than pornographic, but critics were scandalized that he refused to follow formulaic presentation. From the first, therefore, Beardsley's work was praised for his handling of line but deplored for his treatment of content. Cementing that reputation was the jealousy of some less creative artists, and a scandal. After Salome was published, Beardsley and Wilde were irretrievably linked in the public mind; shortly after Wilde's arrest in 1895, Beardsley was unceremoniously sacked from The Yellow Book, the avant-garde periodical he cofounded and served as art editor.

Beardsley's importance as an artist did not, however, arise from scandal. In the 1890s, his drawings—in books he illustrated, posters he designed, and periodicals he planned and art-edited (the second was The Savoy)—compelled immediate international attention because he exploited the line block, a new method of photomechanical reproduction which permitted his drawings to be accurately, economically, and speedily disseminated. His posthumous reputation rests on his revolution in both style and composition of book illustration and his assistance in transforming the field of graphic art into a major medium of visual expression. His contribution to the developing field of commercial art paved the way for the public acceptance of advertising. His 1894 essay on the poster, a fledgling field in 1890s England, articulates his conviction that commercial design should be at once practical and beautiful—one reason his 1894 Avenue Theatre poster had a revolutionary effect on both sides of the Atlantic. His drawings reflect a coherent philosophy built on the dual ambitions of his work, literary and visual. He examined gender relations and the motifs of the grotesque and the voyeur, which comment on two visual preoccupations of western culture. He undercut each (potential) interpretation with its opposite; therefore, the meanings of many drawings cannot ultimately be "read."

A force in the creation of art nouveau, Beardsley is recognized as one of the few British artists in the forefront of the modernist movement that swept Europe, America, and Russia. Beardsley influenced, as the painter and graphic artist George Grosz (1893–1959) noted in 1946, "practically every modern designer after 1900," leaving few media in Europe and North America untouched: In addition to painting and architecture, his book illustrations and posters influenced the stage sets of Léon Bakst (1866–1924) for the Ballets Russes, the decorative art of Erté (Romain de Tirtoff; 1892–1990), Jean Cocteau's (1889–1963) designs for Rosenthal porcelain, the costumes of Sir Cecil Walter Hardy Beaton (1904–1980), Peter Max's (b. 1937) graphics for The Yellow Submarine, and the early work of the American contemporary artist Masami Teraoka (b. 1936). Through this varied and profound influence, Beardsley altered "perception" in visual art.

See alsoArt Nouveau; Avant-Garde; Wilde, Oscar.


Kooistra, Lorraine. "Beardsley's Reading of Malory's Morte Darthur: Images of a Decadent World." Mosaic 23, no. 1 (1990): 55–72. First article to interpret the content of his drawings for Malory.

Maas, Henry, J. L. Duncan, and W. G. Good, eds. The Letters of Aubrey Beardsley. London, 1970. Most of the artist's letters are included.

Reade, Brian. Aubrey Beardsley. London, 1966. First book to present almost half of Beardsley's drawings in the order they were made and to append scholarly notes.

Snodgrass, Chris. "Beardsley's Oscillating Spaces: Play, Paradox, and the Grotesque." In Reconsidering Aubrey Beardsley, edited by Robert Langenfeld, 19–52. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1989. Theory about interpreting Beardsley's drawings.

Sturgis, Matthew. Aubrey Beardsley: A Biography. London, 1998. Presents new information.

Wilson, Simon. Beardsley. Oxford, U.K., 1983. Thorough and convincing discussion of some of the major drawings.

Zatlin, Linda Gertner. Beardsley, Japonisme, and the Perversion of the Victorian Ideal. Cambridge, U.K., 1997. First thorough study of Beardsley's technical and conceptual adaptation of Japanese art.

——. Aubrey Beardsley: A Catalogue Raisonné. New Haven, Conn., 2007. First to trace the literary, ownership, and exhibition history and document the criticism of each of Beardsley's 1,097 drawings plus almost fifty others in books and letters.

Linda Gertner Zatlin

Aubrey Vincent Beardsley

views updated May 18 2018

Aubrey Vincent Beardsley

The English illustrator Aubrey Vincent Beardsley (1872-1898) was the most influential draftsman of his era in England. He was closely connected with the fin-de-siècle period.

Aubrey Beardsley was born in Brighton on Aug. 21, 1872. His father, the son of a local jeweler, lost the money he had inherited, so his mother supported the family by giving music lessons and working as a governess. Because of his mother's absence from home, Aubrey was sent to a nearby boarding school at the age of 6; his schooling was interrupted by attacks of tuberculosis. He began to draw in school, and by the age of 10 he was selling his drawings, which were imitations of Kate Greenaway's.

At the age of 15 Beardsley went to work in London, first for a surveyor and then in an insurance office. On the spur of the moment, he called on the painter Edward Burne-Jones, who prophesied that Beardsley would become a great artist. His first important commission, an enormous, highly paid one, to illustrate Malory's Morte d'Arthur, came at the age of 20; this work is a masterpiece. Beardsley's drawings in the first issue of the Studio magazine were a tremendous success; he said, quite rightly, that he had "already far outdistanced the old men" and that he "had fortune at his feet." His illustrations for Oscar Wilde's play Salome were a great success, but Wilde did not like the drawings, for he feared that they overshadowed the play.

Beardsley was a bit of a dandy, with "a face like a silver hatchet, and grass green hair, " according to Wilde. Beardsley was a public character as well as a private eccentric before his twenty-first birthday. He said, "I have one aim— the grotesque. If I am not grotesque I am nothing." Anxious to make the most of his life, which he knew would be short, he took on all kinds of commissions.

From its first issue, Beardsley was art editor of the Yellow Book, a magazine whose format and title were taken from the cheap French novel of the day. When Wilde was arrested, Beardsley's association with him in the public mind was so close that the publishers of the Yellow Book felt they had to get rid of him. Suddenly no respectable publisher would employ him.

Beardsley eventually made a connection with a new magazine, the Savoy. Many of the writers were former contributors to the Yellow Book. As with the Yellow Book, Beardsley was the outstanding attraction of the Savoy, and it was a great blow to the magazine when he had to suspend his contributions because of his health. He died in Menton, France, on March 16, 1898, at the age of 25, working right up to the end.

Beardsley was a designer of genius and a draftsman of a high order of talent. His illustrations are distinguished by a rhythmic, curving line that has many of the characteristics of engraving, and his whole conception of the art of illustration was profoundly personal and original. His style, overblown in manner and "decadent" in subject matter, was dominant in England and the United States during part of the "great age of illustration." Through Sergei Diaghilev it had a strong effect on the Russian ballet. Beardsley's influence on Art Nouveau was profound, and the painters Wassily Kandinsky and Pablo Picasso were early admirers of his work.

Further Reading

The best book on Beardsley is Stanley Weintraub, Beardsley: A Biography (1967). Two earlier studies are Robert Ross, Aubrey Beardsley (1909), and Haldane Macfall, Aubrey Beardsley: The Man and His Work (1927).

Additional Sources

Benkovitz, Miriam J., Aubrey Beardsley, an account of his life, New York: Putnam, 1981.

Ross, Robert Baldwin, Aubrey Beardsley, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1977. □

Beardsley, Aubrey

views updated May 11 2018

Beardsley, Aubrey (1872–98) English illustrator. His highly wrought, stylized, black-and-white drawings epitomize the English art nouveau style. Associated with the Decadent writers of the 1890s and the aesthetic movement, Beardsley illustrated the first four volumes of the Yellow Book (1894–95) and Oscar Wilde's play Salome. His mainstream work, such as Isolde (1895), enabled him to produce more outrageous, erotic ‘Japonesque’ illustrations.

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