Aubrey Vincent Beardsley (1872-1898)

From Le Morte d'Arthur

'In his work we have the most complete expression of what is typical of the decadent movement - disdain of classical traditions in art, and of clean traditions in ethics; the fin de siecle outlook on the husk of life, and brilliant dexterity in portraying it' - a contemporary critic

The illustrator Aubrey Beardsley was born in Brighton. He had an early interest in art, for example hand painting christmas cards copied from Kate Greenaway as a child, and drawing for his school magazine. However, he went not to art school, but to an architect's office, and then as a clerk to the Guardian Fire Insurance Company. While working there he took a few lessons in the studio of Fred Brown, in Westminster to study the human figure. Though he took some early drawings to show William Morris, he failed to impress the great man, and his first major work was the illustration of Malory's Morte d'Arthur for the publisher Dent & Co.

This was a huge undertaking for the already sickly Beardsley, and his contributions were large in number early in the project, then fell off in quantity and in quality. The final volume is comparable in size to Morris's Kelmscott Chaucer, with illustrations by Burne-Jones, but while the Burne-Jones illustrations match to Chaucer's text, Beardsley's illustrations to Le Morte d'Arthur are a mix of knights and fauns, swans, fantasy figures, with only some few larger illustrations directly fitting the stories. There is much of Beardsley's style owing to Burne-Jones though, in the draperies, the armour, and the arts and crafts borders and vegetation. But there are also the more sinuous art nouveau forms, the Japanese-style compositions with massed black and white, the cruel faces and gestures that were to feature more prominently thereafter.

While the Morte d'Arthur project was progressing, Beadsley was achieving greater recognition for his drawings, and reached a wider audience in April 1893, when the first volume of the Studio magazine had an illustrated article about his work by Joseph Pennell.

His further work for Dent and Co was unremarkable, and his next major illustrated work was Oscar Wilde's Salome, in 1894. He was art editor of the Yellow Book in 1894-95, his work appearing in 4 volumes, and he illustrated for the Savoy magazine in 1896, with drawings for the Rape of the Lock etc. He died of tuberculosis in 1898.

From The Yellow Book

In many of his later works, Beardsley's tendencies to the grotesque, the erotic in a corrupt way, and the amoral are more pronounced. Yet throughout there is a power to his work that could not be ignored. To quote from Walter Crane:

'His work shows a delicate sense of line, and a bold, decorative use of solid blacks, as well as an extraordinarily weird fancy and grotesque imagination, which seems occasionally inclined to run in a morbid direction. Although, as in the case of most artists, one can trace certain influences which have helped in the formation of their style, there can be no doubt of his individuality and power... there appears to be a strong mediaeval decorative feeling, mixed with a curious weird Japanese-like spirit of diablerie and grotesque, as of the opium-dream, about his work...'

Beardsley had a large number of followers and fellow travellers in the last decade of the 19th century. Among the latter we may mention Charles Ricketts and John Duncan.

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