Aubrey Beardsley

Aubrey Beardsley, photographed by Frederick Hollyer, around 1890
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The English illustrator, graphic artist, and poet Aubrey Beardsley designed numerous books, journals, and literary works and edited the magazines The Yellow Book and The Savoy. He became primarily known for his erotic-satirical works in black and white, the linear style of which also paved the way for European Art Nouveau.

Aubrey Vincent Beardsley was born in Brighton on 21 August 1872. He contracted tuberculosis when still a child and was considered highly talented artistically and musically. He lived in Epsom, London, and then, from 1884 on, together with his sister Mabel, at their great-aunt’s in Brighton. Beardsley already began to draw at the age of five and briefly attended a life drawing class at the Westminster Art School in London, yet mostly taught himself. He studied the caricatures and sketches for such literary works as Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser, as well as the old masters in London’s museums and collections. He was first and foremost inspired by the famous Peacock Room,” designed by James Abbott McNeill Whistler for a London townhouse, the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts and Crafts movement, Japanese woodcuts, Greek vase painting, and 19th-century French literature

Starting in 1888, he briefly studied architecture, temporarily working in an architectural office and, from 1889 on, for an insurance company. In 1892 he additionally began working for the magazine Pall Mall Budget, among others, and upon the advice of Edward Burne-Jones and Pierre Cécile Puvis de Chavannes eventually became a full-time artist. That same year he received his first big commission from the publisher Joseph Malaby Dent: the illustrations and complete book design for Thomas Malory’s version of the legend of King Arthur, Morte d’Arthur.

In 1893, in the first issue of The Studio, an article about Beardsley appeared in which Joseph Pennell enthusiastically described the young artist and his illustrations: “[A]n artist whose work is quite as remarkable in its execution as in its invention: a very rare combination.” This article facilitated his international breakthrough and earned him further commissions. He illustrated Oscar Wilde’s tragedy Salomé, stories by Edgar Allan Poe, texts by the antique satirist Lucian, and collections of fairy-tales. His style, which was initially informed by such contemporary features as the Neo-Gothic forms of Victorianism, Japonism, and early Art Nouveau, gradually changed. Beardsley’s illustrations became more and more dynamic: he opted for fluid transitions between figures and ornaments and arrived at a curvilinear idiom that partly exhibited arabesque tendencies while nevertheless holding on to the minimalistic contrast of black and white.

From 1894 on, Beardsley edited the magazine The Yellow Book together with Henry Harland and John Lane and moved in the circle of artists of the Café Royal, amongst whose members was Oscar Wilde. Because of a scandal surrounding Wilde, Beardsley lost his post as editor of The Yellow Book, yet in 1896 founded The Savoy, where he published not only his illustrations, but also his texts. Besides, he produced commercial art, posters, portraits, and caricatures of famous personalities, as well as self-portraits. Moreover, he designed title pages, illustrations, and book decorations for numerous publications. His combination of framing, image area, and typography exercised a groundbreaking influence. Sexual symbolism and ambiguity ran through Beardsley’s subjects: erotic motifs coupled with socio-critical parody, persiflage, caricature, satire, or grotesque were considered scandalous in Victorian England. Especially a series of illustrations for erotic literature – including Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock, with which he had been entrusted by the publisher Leonard Smithers in 1896 – attracted a great deal of attention.

Due to his progressing tuberculosis, the artist sojourned in the South of England, Belgium, and France more and more often. In 1897 he converted to Catholicism, distancing himself from his “obscene” erotic works and working on Volpone until shortly before his death on 16 March 1898.

Despite his brief career, Aubrey Beardsley left behind a comprehensive oeuvre, which, thanks to new reproduction techniques, became widely spread via magazines like The Studio or Pan and thus influenced graphic artists and painters of European modern art, including the graphic arts of Viennese Jugendstil around the turn of the century.

In 1899, his drawing Isolde (1895) was on display at the “V. Ausstellung der Vereinigung bildender Künstler Österreichs Secession” [“5th Exhibition of the Association of Austrian Artists Secession”], and in 1903, the 6th issue of Ver Sacrum was dedicated to Aubrey Beardsley. The biographic text by Arthur Symons had originally appeared in 1898 and was translated for Ver Sacrum by Anna Muthesius. In an obituary in Pan, Franz Blei, the editor of Klimt’s Dialogues of the Courtesans, described his artistic originality with the words: “He always imitates and is inimitable himself.”

Around the turn of the century, Fritz Waerndorfer owned one of the most important Beardsley collections worldwide, and Kolo Moser alluded to his patron’s affinity for the English illustrator in Waerndorfer’s bookplate in 1903.

In the winter of 1904/05, the Galerie Miethke in Vienna presented a monographic exhibition curated by Hugo Haberfeld, which was partly fed with the prints and drawings from Fritz Waerndorfer’s collection. In his catalog contribution, Haberfeld pointed out that Beardsley’s illness fired his erotically grotesque fantasies. The exhibition also attracted the attention of the press, and Seligmann wrote about the works as follows:

“[…] peculiarly provocative in character […], by which some will be attracted and others put off.”

There is no evidence whether Gustav Klimt was familiar with Waerndorfer’s Beardsley collection or whether he had studied the Englishman’s work in various magazines. Particularly Klimt’s personification of “Intemperance” within the Hostile Forces in the Beethoven Frieze (1901/02, Belvedere, Vienna, on permanent loan to the Secession, Vienna) resembles Beardsley’s drawing Ali Baba (1897). The snake-like creature in the painting Hope I (1903/04, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), which was acquired by Waerndorfer in 1905, might have been inspired by Beardsley’s Third Tableau from the Rhinegold cycle (1896).

Literature and sources

  • ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA. Aubrey Beardsley. (05/20/2020).
  • Tobias G. Natter (Hg.): Die Galerie Miethke. Eine Kunsthandlung im Zentrum der Moderne, Ausst.-Kat., Jewish Museum Vienna (Vienna), 19.11.2003–08.02.2004, Vienna 2003, S. 16, S. 196.
  • Adalbert Franz Seligmann: Aubrey Beardsley. Kunstsalon Miethke, in: Neue Freie Presse, 29.12.1904, S. 10.
  • Joseph Pennell: A New Illustrator. Aubrey Beardsley, in: The Studio. An Illustrated Magazine of Fine and Applied Art, Band 1 (1893), S. 14-18.
  • Anna Muthesius: Aubrey Beardsley, in: The Unicorn Quartos, 1898, in: Vereinigung bildender KünstlerInnen Wiener Secession (Hg.): Ver Sacrum. Mitteilungen der Vereinigung bildender Künstler Österreichs, 6. Jg., Heft 6 (1903), S. 117-138.
  • Franz Blei: Aubrey Beardsley, in: Pan-Genossenschaft (Hg.): Pan, 5. Jg., Nummer 4 (1899/1900), S. 256-260.
  • Armin Friedmann: Salon Miethke. Beardsley, in: Wiener Abendpost. Beilage zur Wiener Zeitung, 02.01.1905, S. 1-2.
  • Stefan Grossmann: Wiener Kunstbrief, in: Prager Tagblatt, 04.01.1905, S. 1-2.
  • Linda Gertner Zatlin: Aubrey Beardsley. A Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven 2016.
  • Nathan J. Timpano: »His Wretched Hand«. Aubrey Beardsley, the Grotesque Body, and Viennese Modern Art, in: Association for Art History (Hg.): Art History, Band 40, Oxford 2017, S. 554-581.
  • Peter Wiench: Aubrey Vincent Beardsley, in: Allgemeines Künstler-Lexikon. Die bildenden Künstler aller Zeiten und Völker, Band VIII, Berlin - New York 1994, S. 45.
  • Hugo Haberfeld (Hg.): Aubrey Beardsley. Ausstellung von Werken alter und moderner Kunst, Ausst.-Kat., Gallery H. O. Miethke (Vienna), 00.12.1904–00.01.1905, Vienna 1904.