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Aubrey Beardsley, Famous for his erotic pen and ink drawings, TB took this gifted aesthetic artist at only 25

Updated on December 19, 2015
Amanda Severn profile image

Amanda is a keen artist and art historian with a particular interest in 19th-century art, especially the work of the Pre-Raphaelites.

The erotic Art of Aubrey Beardsley

He died at 25, of TB. It was a brief life, yet, despite being dogged by ill-health, he had worked with some of the most famous literary figures of his day. Although his name may not be familiar to you, you will almost certainly have heard of some of his closest friends and clients. He produced illustrations for Oscar Wilde, Edgar Allan Poe and for Sir Thomas Mallory’s ‘Morte D’Arthur’. He was also famous, or rather infamous, for his erotica, which often featured male figures with disproportionately large genitalia. As I don't wish to breach HubPages guidelines, I can only suggest that you check these out on one of the many links to his work that can be found by Googling his name!

An immaculate dandy in his dress and manners, he was a known associate of the reputedly homosexual aesthete, yet art historians have found no evidence to suggest that he was anything other than heterosexual. The many rumours about his sexuality that surfaced after his death all revolve around women, including the suggestion that he was in an incestuous relationship with his sister. He was, of course, Aubrey Beardsley.

John and Salome meet in this highly stlized illustration.
John and Salome meet in this highly stlized illustration.

Oscar Wilde's play 'Salome'

Salome is a tragedy by Oscar Wilde. The original version of the play was written in French in 1891, but three years later Wilde published an English translation, illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley. The play tells the Biblical story of Salome, who is encouraged by her mother, Herodius, to dance the Dance of The Seven Veils in exchange for the head of John the Baptist. Beardsleys illustrations for this play are probably amongst his best known work, and the header picture for this hub is one of them.

La Toilette de Salome

The Eyes of Herod

The Stomach Dance

From Le Morte D'Arthur
From Le Morte D'Arthur

A child of Victorian Brighton

Born in Buckingham Road, Brighton, on the south-east coast of England on 21 August 1872,
Aubrey Vincent Beardsley was the son of Vincent Paul Beardsley, and his wife, Ellen Agnus Pitt.

Mrs Beardsley came from a well-to-do local family, and was widely thought to have 'married beneath her'. But no matter how shocking this ill-advised union might have been, the scandal must have paled into insignificance alongside Aubrey's exploits. By the early age of nineteen, he had already carved a unique niche in artistic society. His quirky, and frequently erotic pen and ink drawings were popular with his friends and patrons, and Oscar Wilde's play Salome was published in 1893 alongside several of Beardsley's stylized and often disturbing images. When challenged about the nature of his work, he is quoted as saying; "I have one aim — the grotesque. If I am not grotesque I am nothing."

By the age of ten, Aubrey Beardsley was already a promising artist and his housemaster at Brighton Grammar School, Arthur William King, gave him great encouragement. Despite this, Beardsley left school at the end of 1888, to become a clerk at the Guardian Life and Fire Insurance Company in London, but his career in Insurance was to be very short-lived. Already afflicted with the disease that would eventually end his life, he suffered regular attacks of haemorrhaging of the lungs and he was forced to abandon his job in less than a year.

A short story sold to the magazineTit Bits gave him hopes that he might be able to become a writer, but in the spring of 1890, his health saw some real improvement, and he returned both to his job and to drawing. The famous Victorian Pre-Raphaelite artist, Edward Burne-Jones lived in the Sussex village of Rottingdean near to Beardsley's family home in Brighton, and Beardsley decided to seek advice from the older man. Edward Burne-Jones was enthusiastic, 'I seldom or never advise anyone to take up art as a profession, but in your case I can do nothing else.' he said.

One of Aubrey Beardsley's earliest commissions was for line drawings to illustrate Sir Thomas Mallory's " Le Morte D'Arthur". Burne-Jones's guiding hand is evident in this commission. Tales of the Round Table and Camelot were a recurring theme for the Pre-Raphaelites. The work of this talented newcomer was very well received and Burne-Jones must have been delighted with his protegee's efforts. Following the publication of Le Morte D’Arthur, Joseph Pennell wrote an article on Beardsley (along with new drawings by the artist) in the journal The Studio (1893) and this served to introduce the general public to this new artist and demand for his work in various publications, increased dramatically

But it was another famous visitor to Beardsley's hometown of Brighton, Oscar Wilde, who was soon to become a far bigger influence on the direction that his work would take, and the commission for the illustrations for Wilde's English version of 'Salome' gave Beardsley an opportunity to express his true artistic self.

Following the success of his Salome illustrations, Beardsley became the art editor of a renowned Fin de Sciecle literary publication, "The Yellow Book". Unfortunately, moving so closely through the same social circles as Wilde, Beardsley found it difficult to disassociate himself when Oscar Wilde was arrested over matters relating to his alleged homosexuality, a criminal offence in Victorian Britain. Beardsley completed work on the first five issues of the Yellow Book, but was fired when his name became involved with the Wilde scandal.

In April of 1895, Oscar Wilde was arrested on a charge of committing indecent acts, whilst reportedly carrying a Yellow Book under his arm. Various law-abiding and morally up-standing citizens pressured the publishers to relieve Beardsley of his post as art editor. Beardsley was fired, only to be immediately snapped up as art editor for the Savoy, a rival publication. Always a hard-working and dedicated artist, Beardsley continued to fulfill as many commissions as he could manage, despite the terrible ravages of tuberculosis, but slowly the constant bouts of ill-health began to take their toll.

With failing health, and a recognition that he would not live to a great age, Beardsley converted to Catholicism about a year before his death. It was with a new-found sense of his own mortality, and in acknowledgement of the sexually explicit nature of much of his work, that Beardsley was to plead with his publisher, Leonard Smithers, to "destroy all copies of Lysistrata and bad all that is holy all obscene drawings." The illustrations for Lysistrata were completed for a privately printed edition, and represented some of his most expicitly erotic work. Leonard Smithers chose to ignore the wishes of a dying man, and continued to sell reproductions of Beardsley's work

Beardsley died of tuberculosis in Menton, France at the age of 25 on March 16, 1898.

The Climax 1894

Pierrot 1896

The Platonic Lament

The Masque of the Red Death (1894) illustration for a book of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe
The Masque of the Red Death (1894) illustration for a book of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe
'The Fall of the House of Usher' (1894) an illustration for a book of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe
'The Fall of the House of Usher' (1894) an illustration for a book of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe
Kara Kedi (1894) an illustration for a book of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe
Kara Kedi (1894) an illustration for a book of short stories by Edgar Allan Poe

Sketch of Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde, 1882

Aubrey Beardsley 1894



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Submit a Comment
  • leroy64 profile image

    Brian L. Powell 

    19 months ago from Dallas, Texas (Oak Cliff)

    Interesting article. I am curious about the drafting techniques he used. Do you have any recommendations for researching this?

  • Amanda Severn profile imageAUTHOR

    Amanda Severn 

    9 years ago from UK

    Hi Rachel, although the allusion to the Beardsley/Wilde friendship is never elaborated on in the main body of the text, it is definitely contentious, and I have now altered the sub-heading accordingly. Thanks for alerting me to this over-sight.

  • profile image


    9 years ago


    There's some great information and sensitive discussion of Aubrey's art in this article, but I thought that I should add that Aubrey Beardsley was widely know to hate and avoid Oscar Wilde, so 'Close Friend of Oscar Wilde' is probably not the best opening sentence. Oscar was jealous of this young upstarts popularity and often publically derided Aubrey's work, even that which he did in for Wilde's own play, Salome. Wilde was also bitter because Bearsley and Beerbohm refused to publish him in The Yellow Book, seeing him as a bit out of touch. This all of course would make it the more frustrating for Beardsley at the time of the Wilde trial... for not only was he not in the least bit involved with Wilde's "fun with rent boys", he also spent little or no time with him, and throughout his career named his as an omen of bad luck.

  • Amanda Severn profile imageAUTHOR

    Amanda Severn 

    9 years ago from UK

    Hi TruthAwake, Beardsley was a fabulous artist. I'm glad you enjoyed reading about him.

  • TruthAwake profile image


    9 years ago from The Dirty South

    Great read, great info, love his work. Thanks for this. =)

  • Amanda Severn profile imageAUTHOR

    Amanda Severn 

    11 years ago from UK

    Twenty-five is tragically young. TB was such a big killer in the 19th century, and so many writers and artists seem to have succumbed to it. We're really lucky these days, though I'm not sure we always appreciate it!

  • knell63 profile image


    11 years ago from Umbria, Italy

    Great, informative piece, whilst aware of his works for a long time and always having loved his stark monochromatic style I never realised he died so young. Again, another tragic sad loss at an early age.

  • Amanda Severn profile imageAUTHOR

    Amanda Severn 

    11 years ago from UK

    Hi Dolores, I think that many people are familiar with Beardsley's work as it is widely published, but somehow his name and his story are not so well-known. I'm sure that he would have gone on to great things if he had lived longer.

  • Dolores Monet profile image

    Dolores Monet 

    11 years ago from East Coast, United States

    Amanda, I had no idea that he died so young, what a loss. His drawing were so unique, so stylish, to have left a mark in such a short time is amazing. Thank you for sharing the story.

  • Amanda Severn profile imageAUTHOR

    Amanda Severn 

    11 years ago from UK

    Me too, Tom. Some of his drawings might be deemed shocking, but there is a great deal of humour used, and I must admit to finding the Lysistrata illustrations more amusing than salacious. But maybe that's just me!

  • Tom Rubenoff profile image

    Tom rubenoff 

    11 years ago from United States

    Wow this is wild stuff. He was part of a wild group in those times. I am glad Smithers chose not to destroy his work.

  • Amanda Severn profile imageAUTHOR

    Amanda Severn 

    11 years ago from UK

    Glad you liked them! The guy had a vivid imagination. He also wrote some very flowery literature that made Lady Chatterley's Lover sound like Enid Blyton. But he repented it all in the end. I found a profile of him on a Catholic web-site, and he was described in glowing terms.

  • Mrvoodoo profile image


    11 years ago from ?

    Couldn't find them in Wiki Commons but found some in Google images, lol, now that's what I call art!

  • Amanda Severn profile imageAUTHOR

    Amanda Severn 

    11 years ago from UK

    Wiki Commons has a good selection of his pics including a few that I wouldn't risk posting here!

  • Mrvoodoo profile image


    11 years ago from ?

    Wow!  Amazing pics and a really well written hub.  I recognised the name but had no idea where from, sounds like he had an interesting (if somewhat short) life.

    I have to pop down the post office now, but when I come back I shall be Googlin away to check out some of his more erotic pieces. :)

  • Amanda Severn profile imageAUTHOR

    Amanda Severn 

    11 years ago from UK

    Brian, I do wonder whether a fit and healthy Beardsley might just have gone from artistic excess to artistic excess untroubled by any moral scruples! Some of his drawings were very rude indeed! Having said that, his skill as a draughtsman certainly takes some beating.

  • BrianS profile image

    Brian Stephens 

    11 years ago from Castelnaudary, France

    I always learn something when I read your hubs and this has been no exception. A fascinating story which left me wondering what he might have achieved had he lived to a more respectable age.


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