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Aubrey Vincent Beardsley: 1872 - 1898

Aubrey Vincent Beardsley was born in Brighton on the English Channel, on August 21, 1872. He grew up a consumptive, full of an intense nervous energy and aware that he would not live long. Like many delicate children, he was precocious; he became a talented pianist, an avid reader, a witty, elaborate speaker, and a devotee of the theater and Wagnerian opera.

When he was 11 his family moved to London. At the age of 16 he became a draftsman in a surveyor's office, then joined an insurance company near the well-known bookshop Jones and Evans. It was Frederick Evans who got him his first commission, for five hundred illustrations to a new edition of Malory's "Morte d'Authur." At the age of 20 Beardsley gave up his job, to devote his days to the museums and galleries and the pursuit of social contacts, and his nights to drawing. The mock-medieval, late Pre-Raphaelite style of his work in the "Morte d'Authur" gave way to his admiration for French painting of the 18th century and for James McNeill Whistler's Peacock Room, which he had seen in 1891. He abandoned all interest in realistic representation to concentrate on design in two dimensions. From Greek vases he learned to mass black against white.

Attracted by his drawings, the financier of a new magazine, "The Studio", made it a condition of his supporting the publication that Beardsley should be asked to contribute to it. In 1893 Beardsley was admitted as a member of the New English Art Club and appointed theatrical cartoonist to "The Pall Mall Budget." In 1894 his work was shown with Les XX in Brussels. But it was his drawings for "The Studio" that most quickly and effectively spread his name across Europe, and with it the flat, decorative idiom that became part of the European phenomenon of Art Nouveau.


The first issue of "The Studio" appeared in April, 1893, with an article on Beardsley and his drawing Fai baise ta bouche, Iokanaan. Both provoked the public and brought Beardsley and invitation from the London publisher John Lane to illustrate the English translation of Oscar Wilde's "Salome". The resulting designs were extremely accomplished and blatantly erotic; some were rejected as unsuitable for publication.

Lane was planning a periodical intended to challenge vested interests in art and literature and invited Beardsley to contribute. The first yellow volume appeared in April 1894. Its color and title, "The Yellow Book," were a deliberate allusion to the more sensational type of French novel bound in yellow covers. Beardsley's cover designs, frontispieces, title pages, endpapers, and posters for it were described as "neurotic delusions," "Diseased, weird, macabre, and sinister." He was dropped from the "Yellow Book" in 1895, when the trail of Oscar Wilde, with whom he was associated in the public mind, became headline news.

Ill and in financial difficulties, Beardsley was saved from his predicament by Leonard Smithers, a London dealer in "curious" and erotic books who made him a salaried draftsman on his new quarterly "The Savoy." In this were published Beardsley's intricate illustrations to Alexander Pope's poem "The Rape of the Lock" and to his own burlesque tale "Under the Hill." Although "The Savoy" ceased in 1896 and Beardsley was seriously ill, he continued to work and Smithers to support him. He produced six illustrations to Theophile Gautier's novel "Mademoiselle de Maupin" and a set of initials for Ben Johnson's "Volpone." His designs, in the nature of commentaries rather than direct illustrations to any text, reflect the foibles of his own time, the fin de siecle (turn of the century). Rich, delicate, over-all patterns were by this stage substituted for the bold black and white masses employed in his earlier work.

In search of a milder climate than that of London, Beardsley traveled to Paris and the south of France. There, converted at the last to Roman Catholicism, he died in Mentone, at the ripe young age of 25, on March 16, 1898.

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