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Aubrey Beardsley: A Long-Awaited Portrait

Aubrey Beardsley, How A Devil In A Woman's Likeness Would Have Tempted Sir Bors. Illustration from "Le Morte d'Arthur", 1893, private collection.

Artists' Stories

Aubrey Beardsley: A Long-Awaited Portrait

On the 21st of August I saw on Tate’s Instagram note about Beardsley’s birthday and I thought (as many other times) that I should have written about him already a long, long, time ago. Time to pay the tribute to this extremely talented draughtsman.

A Child Prodigy

Aubrey Beardsley
Aubrey Beardsley, Self-portrait in Bed, 1894, Victoria and Albert Museum, London, UK.

Little Aubrey’s talents showed quickly and equally quickly were they put to use to make the living for his family. Together with his sister Mabel, he performed singing. At school he enjoyed literature and drawing: he drew caricatures of his teachers, aged 14 he published in school magazine his first poem (called The Valiant) as well as a series of sketches titled The Jubilee Cricket Analysis. However, he often didn’t attend school as he suffered from tuberculosis from the age of 7 and needed to stay in bed to rest, as depicted in this self-portrait, accompanied by a note in French “By the gods not all monsters are in Africa.” (Very dark humour, don’t you think? A thing typical of Aubrey, as you will see.)

A Pre-Raphaelite Portfolio

Aubrey Beardsley, Lady Gold’s Escort, 1894, private collection.

Having finished school, Aubrey, fascinated by the Pre-Raphaelites, began a portfolio. In 1891, he accompanied his sister to the studio of Sir Edward Burne-Jones who became interested in Mabel’s red hair. Aubrey instead showed Burne-Jones his drawings and the painter didn’t have any doubts: the boy was extremely talented. He recommended Beardsley to the Westminster School of Art, but the boy suffered a relapse of his disease. Yet this time, instead of staying in bed he decided to live his life to the fullest.

Japanese Woodblock Print

Aubrey Beardsley
Aubrey Beardsley, A Stomach Dance, 1892, private collection.

At Westminster School he quickly became noticed and received his first commission to illustrate. In no time he produced over 300 illustrations which blended the classicizing Pre-Raphaelite art with the decorativeness and two-dimensionality of Japanese Ukiyo-e prints. Yet, all his prints had a twist to this as they carried a Decadent fixation on eroticism and death.

Oscar Wilde’s Troubles

Aubrey Beardsley, Death of Salome, 1893, private collection.

Soon after having met Oscar Wilde, who helped him to launch the career, Beardsley began illustrating the English translation of Wilde’s provocative play Salomé (1894). Both the public criticized his work, since it displayed overt eroticism, phallic imagery, nudity, and general obscenity, and the author, who considered the illustrations too Japanese-like for the ‘Byzantine character’ of Salomé (or was Wilde just envious of Beardsley’s brilliance?). What first began as a successful relationship, in the end it cost Beardsley the position of art editor for The Yellow Book, the Decadent magazine.

Unavoidable Ads

Aubrey Beardsley
Aubrey Beardsley, An Advertisement for Children’s Books, 1894, private collection.

Beardsley didn’t limit his activity to illustration only. He realized that the nascent poster genre offered a new potential outlet for artists and inspired by the modern developments of theatre, he wrote an essay The Art of the Hoarding (1894) that the advertisements should be beautiful since they seem unavoidable in modern life: “London… resplendent with advertisements, and, against a leaden sky, sky-signs will trace their formal arabesque. Beauty has laid siege to the city, and telegraph wires shall no longer be the sole joy of our aesthetic perceptions.”

Such Splendid Things Planned

Aubrey Beardsley, The Peacock Skirt, 1893, Fogg Museum (Harvard Art Museums), Cambridge, MA, US.

Beardsley worked very hard, health permitting. He also tried to enjoy life, and he travelled with his friends to Paris, where they frequented dancehalls and smoked hashish. Yet, tuberculosis was advancing and in order to change the environment, Beardsley took up residence on the French Riviera in 1896. In one of his last letters he expressed how much he wished to live since “such splendid things I had planned.” He died at the young age of 25 in Menton, France.


Magda, art historian and Italianist, she writes about art because she cannot make it herself. She loves committed and political artists like Ai Weiwei or the Futurists; like Joseph Beuys she believes that art can change us and we can change the world.

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