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Aubrey Beardsley
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Menton, France
An English draftsman and writer, Aubrey Beardsley’s book illustrations and other drawings created scandals during the 1890s but also were executed in an original, modern style that was an important part of Art Nouveau. Born in Brighton in 1872, Beardsley’s father lost his inherited wealth soon after his son was born, and the family faced poverty for decades. By the age of seven he was infected with tuberculosis, which eventually caused his early death. As a child he was educated at home by his mother, and became a music prodigy and high literate. Early in his development he showed an enthusiasm for Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Sandro Botticelli (1444/5-1510) and Michelangelo (1475-1564), and was influenced considerably by the music of Richard Wagner (1813-1883). He began drafting at the age of eleven, and at fifteen was composing illustrations for his favorite books. Beardsley attended the Brighton grammar school from age twelve until he was sixteen. In 1888 he worked as a clerk in a surveyor’s office, and the next year took a job as a clerk for an insurance company. His health forced him to quit at the end of the year, but he improved and resumed work the following year. He had started to pursue art, and spent time in galleries and exhibitions. In 1891 Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) saw Beardsley’s drawings and urged him to attend art school. Beardsley took evening classes at the Westminster School of Art for a year. During a trip to Paris, he showed his work to Pierre Purvis de Chavannes (1824-1898), who also encouraged him to pursue art. His style at this time followed the tendencies of the Pre-Raphaelite school, but by 1892 he drew in a linear style, all black and white with no shading. The publisher J. M. Dent & Sons asked him to illustrate Sir Thomas Malory’s (ca. 1415/18-1471) “Le Morte Darthur,” which Beardsley did in a pseudo-medieval style. Before the illustrations for that work were completed, in early 1893 Beardsley drew an illustration regarding Oscar Wilde’s (1854-1900) new play “Salome,” which had recently been published. Wilde liked the macabre drawing of Salome with the head of John the Baptist, which appeared in the new art periodical “The Studio.” That led to a contract for Beardsley to illustrate a new English edition of “Salome,” which was published in 1894. The seventeen sexually charged drawings created as much of a scandal as the text. That year he was appointed the art editor for a new literary and art periodical, “The Yellow Book.” Beardsley’s drawings in its first issue in April 1894 were as provocative as his “Salome” drawings. After Wilde’s arrest for “gross indecency” in 1895, Beardsley was associated with Wilde and was fired from his Yellow Book position. He soon found a new publisher in Leonard Smithers (1861-1907), a seller of erotica, who helped Beardsley start a new periodical, “The Savoy,” in which parts of Beardsley’s novel “Under the Hill,” appeared in an edited version. In 1896 Beardsley illustrated an edition of Alexander Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock,” using a different drawing style influenced by the French Rococo. Greek vases inspired his fourth illustrated book, bawdy drawings accompanying Aristophanes’s play Lysistrata, about Athenian women withholding sex from their husbands. His health deteriorated, and Beardsley and his mother moved from place to place looking for a salubrious climate. He continued to draw for “The Savoy,” but after March 1897 had trouble working. The two of them ended up on the French Riviera, in Menton on the Italian border. His last drawing was an illustration for a projected edition of Ben Jonson’s (ca. 1573-1637) “Volpone,” which Smithers wished to publish. Beardsley died in Menton in March 1898. (TNB 8/2015) Selected bibliography: Weintraub, Sidney. Aubrey Beardsley: Imp of the Perverse. University Park, Pa. and London: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.