Aubrey Beardsley

Aubrey Vincent Beardsley (Aug 21, 1872 – Mar 16, 1898) was an English illustrator and author. His drawings in black ink, influenced by the style of Japanese woodcuts, emphasized the grotesque, the decadent, and the erotic. He was a leading figure in the Aesthetic movement which also included Oscar Wilde and James A. McNeill Whistler. Beardsley’s contribution to the development of the Art Nouveau and poster styles was significant, despite the brevity of his career before his early death from tuberculosis.

In 1892, Beardsley travelled to Paris, where he discovered the poster art of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and the Parisian fashion for Japanese prints, both of which would be major influences on his own style. Beardsley’s first commission was Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory (1893), which he illustrated for the publishing house J. M. Dent and Company.

His six years of major creative output can be divided into several periods, identified by the form of his signature. In the early period his work is mostly unsigned. During 1891 and 1892 he progressed to using his initials, A.V.B. In mid-1892, the period of Le Morte d’Arthur and The Bon Mots he used a Japanese-influenced mark which became progressively more graceful, sometimes accompanied by A.B. in block capitals. He co-founded The Yellow Book with American writer Henry Harland, and for the first four editions he served as Art Editor and produced the cover designs and many illustrations for the magazine. He was also closely aligned with Aestheticism, the British counterpart of Decadence and Symbolism. Most of his images are done in ink, and feature large dark areas contrasted with large blank ones, and areas of fine detail contrasted with areas with none at all.

Beardsley was the most controversial artist of the Art Nouveau era, renowned for his dark and perverse images and grotesque erotica, which were the main themes of his later work. His illustrations were in black and white, against a white background. Some of his drawings, inspired by Japanese shunga artwork, featured enormous genitalia. His most famous erotic illustrations concerned themes of history and mythology; these include his illustrations for a privately printed edition of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, and his drawings for Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, which eventually premiered in Paris in 1896. Other major illustration projects included an 1896 edition of The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope, and the collection A Book of Fifty Drawings by Aubrey Beardsley (1897).

He also produced extensive illustrations for books and magazines (e.g. for a deluxe edition of Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur) and worked for magazines such as The Studio and The Savoy, of which he was a co-founder. As a cofounder of The Savoy, Beardsley was able to pursue his writing as well as illustration, and a number of his writings, including Under the Hill (a story based on the Tannhäuser legend) and “The Ballad of a Barber” appeared in the magazine.

Beardsley was a caricaturist and did some political cartoons, mirroring Wilde’s irreverent wit in art. Beardsley’s work reflected the decadence of his era and his influence was enormous, clearly visible in the work of the French Symbolists, the Poster art Movement of the 1890s and the work of many later-period Art Nouveau artists such as Pape and Clarke. Some alleged works of Beardsley’s were published in a book titled Fifty Drawings by Aubery Beardsley, Selected From the Collection of Mr. H. S. Nicols. These were later discovered to be forgeries, distinguishable by their almost pornographic erotic elements, rather than Beardsley’s somewhat more subtle use of sexuality.