Aubrey Vincent Beardsley

The English illustrator Aubrey Vincent Beardsley (1872-1898) was the most influential draftsman of his era in England. He was closely connected with the fin-de-siècle period.

Aubrey Beardsley was born in Brighton on Aug. 21, 1872. His father, the son of a local jeweler, lost the money he had inherited, so his mother supported the family by giving music lessons and working as a governess. Because of his mother's absence from home, Aubrey was sent to a nearby boarding school at the age of 6; his schooling was interrupted by attacks of tuberculosis. He began to draw in school, and by the age of 10 he was selling his drawings, which were imitations of Kate Greenaway's.

At the age of 15 Beardsley went to work in London, first for a surveyor and then in an insurance office. On the spur of the moment, he called on the painter Edward Burne-Jones, who prophesied that Beardsley would become a great artist. His first important commission, an enormous, highly paid one, to illustrate Malory's Morte d'Arthur, came at the age of 20; this work is a masterpiece. Beardsley's drawings in the first issue of the Studio magazine were a tremendous success; he said, quite rightly, that he had "already far outdistanced the old men" and that he "had fortune at his feet." His illustrations for Oscar Wilde's play Salome were a great success, but Wilde did not like the drawings, for he feared that they overshadowed the play.

Beardsley was a bit of a dandy, with "a face like a silver hatchet, and grass green hair, " according to Wilde. Beardsley was a public character as well as a private eccentric before his twenty-first birthday. He said, "I have one aim— the grotesque. If I am not grotesque I am nothing." Anxious to make the most of his life, which he knew would be short, he took on all kinds of commissions.

From its first issue, Beardsley was art editor of the Yellow Book, a magazine whose format and title were taken from the cheap French novel of the day. When Wilde was arrested, Beardsley's association with him in the public mind was so close that the publishers of the Yellow Book felt they had to get rid of him. Suddenly no respectable publisher would employ him.

Beardsley eventually made a connection with a new magazine, the Savoy. Many of the writers were former contributors to the Yellow Book. As with the Yellow Book, Beardsley was the outstanding attraction of the Savoy, and it was a great blow to the magazine when he had to suspend his contributions because of his health. He died in Menton, France, on March 16, 1898, at the age of 25, working right up to the end.

Beardsley was a designer of genius and a draftsman of a high order of talent. His illustrations are distinguished by a rhythmic, curving line that has many of the characteristics of engraving, and his whole conception of the art of illustration was profoundly personal and original. His style, overblown in manner and "decadent" in subject matter, was dominant in England and the United States during part of the "great age of illustration." Through Sergei Diaghilev it had a strong effect on the Russian ballet. Beardsley's influence on Art Nouveau was profound, and the painters Wassily Kandinsky and Pablo Picasso were early admirers of his work.


Further Reading on Aubrey Vincent Beardsley

The best book on Beardsley is Stanley Weintraub, Beardsley: A Biography (1967). Two earlier studies are Robert Ross, Aubrey Beardsley (1909), and Haldane Macfall, Aubrey Beardsley: The Man and His Work (1927).

Additional Biography Sources

Benkovitz, Miriam J., Aubrey Beardsley, an account of his life, New York: Putnam, 1981.

Ross, Robert Baldwin, Aubrey Beardsley, Norwood, Pa.: Norwood Editions, 1977.