“No language is rude that can boast polite writers.”
—Aubrey BeardsleyAubrey Vincent Beardsley was born on this day in Brighton, England in 1872. Today is the 140th anniversary of his birth.
Beardsley grew up in a middle class family. His paternal grandfather was in trade, but his father, Vincent, lived on the income from an inheritance from his maternal grandfather (Aubrey’s great-grandfather). As the money from that fund began to run out Vincent worked in London Breweries. Aubrey’s mother, Ellen, gave piano lessons. Both Aubrey and his sister, Mabel, showed a talent for music as children. The two were displayed as “infant musical phenomenons” in 1884.
He went to Bristol Grammar School and developed a talent for drawing caricatures of his teachers. He had drawing and cartoons published in the school newspaper. He set about illustrating all his favorite books. He illustrated “The Pay of the Pied Piper” for the school’s Christmas show in 1888.
At 17 he started entered the workforce as a clerk for Guardian Life and Fire Insurance Company, but he found the job unfulfilling. Beardsley wanted a full-time employment as an artist. With Mabel in tow he made an unannounced visit Edward Burne-Jones’ studio. Beardsley impressed the famous Pre-Raphaelite painter with his portfolio (which he just happened to have with him,) and Burne-Jones recommended that he attend Westminster School of Art at night. The older man also introduced him to Oscar Wilde, something he later regretted.
Beardsley was busy in 1893 and 94. He worked steadily on covers and book illustrations (for both books and periodicals) and worked on J.M. Dent’s version of Malory’s Morte Darthur — a 12 volume work that contained over 300 illustrations. Burne-Jones, his mentor, wasn’t pleased with the work he completed for ‘Arthur’, finding some of the borders filled with vulgar phallic flowers and some of the illustrations sloppily done. In truth, Beardsley had lost interest in the massive project and told Burne-Jones that he had come to hate King Arthur ‘and all mediaeval things’.
Wilde commissioned Beardsley to illustrate the English edition of his play Salome. Beardsley also translated it from the original French.
He worked with Henry Harland on the art and literature quarterly The Yellow Book (Beardsley was Art Editor) the same year.
It was Beardsley’s starling black-and-white drawings, title-pages, and covers which, combined with the writings of the so-called “decadents,” a unique format, and publisher John Lane’s remarkable marketing strategies, made the journal an overnight sensation. Although well received by much of the public, The Yellow Book was attacked by critics as indecent. [Victorianweb.org]
In 1895 the Oscar Wilde sodomy scandal errupted, and Beardsley (was one of the many friends) who officially severed ties with the writer. None the less, even though Wilde’s work never appeared in The Yellow Book, there was a ‘perceived link’ between the two men and the publication dismissed the illustrator lest it be similarly tainted.
Beardsley went to work for a rival publisher of Victorian erotica, Leonard Smithers. The two created a new magazine, The Savoy, for which Beardsley both illustrated and wrote. When the Savoy ran until December 1896. Beardsley and Smithers continued to work together with Beardsley illustrating books for other authors in the publisher’s stable, most famously Pope’s The Rape of the Lock and (very explicit) Jonson’s The Lysistrata of Aristophanes. He also saw the publication of his own book of illustrations A book of Fifty Drawings.
His black and white, highly stylized, Art Nouveau illustrations challenged the Victorian notions of what was proper.
Beardsley was only 25 was he died of tuberculosis in 1898.