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A sickly flower of Decadent London: on the work of Aubrey Beardsley

The complete works of the illustrator, presented in all their “corrupting” glory

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During his short career, the English illustrator Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98) gained a formidable reputation as an unwholesome genius – a brilliantly original draughtsman intent on corrupting and scandalising. He should be a peripheral figure working in a minor medium (illustration) on the fringes of art movements that were stronger in applied art than in fine art, yet Beardsley’s art is not only unforgettable, it is the defining graphic manifestation of Aestheticism, Decadent art and Art Nouveau, and constitutes some of the world’s most remarkable illustrations.

While a schoolboy in Brighton, Beardsley had a passion for theatre and designed puppet theatres, which foreshadows his later choices of subjects. Diagnosed with chronic tuberculosis as a youth, Beardsley spent much of his adult life in seclusion. Often bedbound and convalescent, Beardsley drew prodigiously and read voraciously. We know less about his ideas on art and life than we should like. Much of his correspondence was on business matters and, though he appears in memoirs and diaries of the era, he has left a hazy biographical trace. Rumours of homosexuality and incest circulated in his lifetime. Beardsley’s diaries may have been destroyed by his actress sister Mabel, who modelled nude for him. An air of morbidity seems to pervade both his art and life.

When the publisher J.M. Dent commissioned the ambitious 19-year-old Beardsley (who had only just finished a stint at private art school in London) to illustrate Thomas Malory’s romantic epic Le Morte Darthur (Dent edition 1893-94), he aimed to cash in on the vogue for William Morris’s wood-engraved illustrations. Dent would employ the new line-block process, which mechanically reproduced ink drawings, making publication cheaper and faster than was allowed by laborious hand-cutting of traditional wooden blocks. Over two years Beardsley made 353 drawings, including full- and double-page illustrations, borders, initial letters, covers, spines and incidental motifs. His Pre-Raphaelite-inspired designs captured the public’s imagination and led to an avalanche of praise, parody and commissions for future projects.

In his next suite, for the book of Oscar Wilde’s play Salome (1894), Beardsley synthesised his mature style. He used black and white with extravagant arabesque lines (which were more ornamental than naturalistic), sections of dense patterning and large areas of unmodulated black or white. In his youth he displayed an admiration for (and later a satirical exaggeration of) Pre-Raphaelite ideals of female beauty, male gallantry and romantic medievalism. Later he expressed a preference for unbalanced compositions, strong diagonals and extreme vertical formats derived from Japanese woodcuts and scrolls. He studied Greek vase painting in depth. He was deeply knowledgeable about contemporary French art (having spent periods in Paris and Dieppe), and referenced Degas and French posters in his drawings. The fact that Beardsley knew his life would be short contributes to his drawings a wistful air and (rarely) real bitterness, though we should be cautious about over-biographising the art.

In the 1890s there was a boom in illustrated periodicals and newspapers that exploited line-block printing technology, which led to an insatiable demand for diverse, illustrated reading matter. The Yellow Book was a periodical founded in 1894 to publish progressive literature and capitalise on Beardsley’s notoriety by featuring his drawings, not least on its eye-catching yellow covers. The Yellow Book would disseminate ideas of Decadent art to a sophisticated readership in search of evermore aesthetically refined experiences. The Decadent movement is characterised by artificiality, affectation in style, and an attachment to erotic, perverse and morbid subject matter. In literature, Wilde’s aesthetic snobbery and honed wit was used to propagate the cult of “art for art’s sake” (though Wilde’s writing never appeared in The Yellow Book); in art, Beardsley’s drawings exemplified the Decadent spirit. Sales of The Yellow Book were impressive and its cultural influence huge, reaching Europe and America.  

In May 1895 there was a wave of moral panic following the trial and conviction of Wilde for indecent acts. Beardsley – creator of the salacious Salome illustrations – was sacked from The Yellow Book by publisher The Bodley Head (or, as a disgruntled colleague quipped, “the Beardsley body was severed from The Bodley Head”).

Seen as dangerously decadent and potentially corrupting, Beardsley’s art seemed to have a moral toxicity that contaminated all who came in contact with it. Yet there was great demand for his illustrations; in fact, such was his popularity that during his career he rarely made any drawing that had not either been already commissioned and/or paid for in advance.  

Beardsley drew covers and illustrations for The Savoy, a short-lived rival to The Yellow Book. The most distinctive Savoy drawings were those of Wagnerian characters. He was commissioned to illustrate a number of books, notably Pope’s The Rape of the Lock and Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. Beardsley’s illustrations for The Rape of the Lock (1896) emphasised the elegant foppishness of 18th-century England, with costumes, coiffures and furnishings displaying ornate complexity. Lysistrata (1896) is Beardsley’s most explicitly sexual art: debauched women and priapic grotesques cavort across the page in bawdy comic fantasies. Considered obscene, the illustrations could not be published uncensored at the time.

Supported by money orders from his publisher, Beardsley moved to the warm climate of Menton in southern France in 1897 in an attempt to bolster his increasingly frail health. His output decreased dramatically as he spent weeks bedbound recovering from recurrent lung haemorrhages. Rapidly losing physical strength and mental energy, Beardsley lay on his deathbed dreaming of completing ambitious illustration projects, which by then he knew were far beyond his capacity. He died on 16 March 1898, aged 25.

Beardsley’s popularity and reputation rested on association with Aestheticism, Decadence and Art Nouveau, movements that were swept away by High Modernism and the popular craze for Art Deco in the 1920s. His reputation languished for decades, dismissed by some art historians as modish salaciousness. In the late 1960s, when popular taste favoured psychedelic ornamentation and frank eroticism, serious interest in him revived and since then art-historical snobbery has dissipated and scholarly scrutiny has been applied to Beardsley’s work, life and letters.

Now in Aubrey Beardsley: a Catalogue Raisonné, a handsome two-volume work, Linda Gertner Zatlin has compiled all of Beardsley’s known art. Wherever possible, reproductions are of original drawings, with facsimiles of illustrations standing in wherever originals were not accessible. The reproduction quality is excellent and allows us to appreciate the subtlety and care Beardsley invested in his drawings.

The complete cataloguing of all Beardsley’s surviving art (some 1,200 works) allows us to appreciate his considerable productivity in the face of ill health. Beardsley would draw compositions in pencil, then draw over them in ink – in effect, making each drawing twice. He would then erase the pencil. In his last year he experimented with pencil and grey ink washes in his last (incomplete) suite, Ben Jonson’s Volpone (1898, posthumously). Most of his drawings were owned by his publishers and later sold by them, with many examples now located in American museums.

The catalogue is arranged by book project and compilations of individual drawings of a certain period; these are ordered chronologically, though Beardsley’s projects sometimes overlapped. Few drawings are dated. Each drawing is illustrated with technical data followed by commentary, usually dealing with interpretation of the drawing or its function in the book. Catalogue entries include explanations of symbolic plants and flowers. Educated Victorian readers were aware of symbolism (poppy for consolation, daisy for innocence, elm for dignity, and so on), but could be easily overlooked by modern viewers. Juvenilia, letter illustrations and drawings in books the artist owned are given sections. Appendices discuss examples of fakes and pastiches, list missing drawings and provide biographical, exhibition and publication data. Zatlin, a specialist in Victorian literature, quotes extensively from primary and secondary literature on Beardsley, and mines unpublished letters.

The careful layout and generous size of the illustrations make the book a pleasure to browse, and the pictorial slipcase and dustjackets are attractive. This is a publication for fans as well as academics. Zatlin, Yale University Press and their collaborators should be congratulated on this comprehensive, erudite and elegant survey of one the world’s great graphic artists.

• Alexander Adams is an artist based in Bristol. His latest book, On Dead Mountain, is published by Golconda

Aubrey Beardsley: a Catalogue Raisonné

Linda Gertner Zatlin

Yale University Press, two volumes, 1,104pp, £175 (hb)

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