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Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) English Illustrator and Author

Updated on September 9, 2011
Aubrey Vincent Beardsley
Aubrey Vincent Beardsley

Born in Brighton (UK), in 1872, Aubrey Vincent Beardsley inherited the artistic and musical gifts of the Beardsley family.

Aubrey and his sister Mable, were discovered early, however, the 9-year-old Aubrey suffered an attack of tuberculosis, the first sign of a long history of crises that would leave him paralyzed many times during his short life.

Aubrey attended the Bristol Grammar School, where he would make caricatures of his teachers and also illustrate the school’s journal, Past and Present. Beardsley’s first encounter with the world of art was a meeting with the famed painter Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

Aubrey and his sister had visited the painter’s studio uninvited. Luckily, Mable’s red hair caught the master’s eye and he decided to receive them. Enthralled by the drawings in Aubrey's portfolio, Burne-Jones encouraged the young artist to take evening classes at the Westminster School of Art.

Aubrey Beardsley: Peacock Skirt
Aubrey Beardsley: Peacock Skirt

Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde

In the 1890s, Beardsley produced over 300 important illustrations, ornaments and vignettes for Sir Thomas Malory’s epic work, Le Morte d’Arthur.

In 1893, he met Oscar Wilde, which turned out to be a decisive milestone in his life. Aubrey Beardsley drew the black & white illustrations for the English translation of Wilde’s scandalous play Salome, which was published in French in 1894.

Beardsley soon felt compelled to develop new modes of artistic expression. In pursuit of this, he assisted in the English translation of Wilde’s play. In return, Oscar Wilde dedicated a copy of the play to Beardsley.

However, when the illustrated edition was published, Wilde was no longer amused. He felt that Aubrey Beardsley’s Art Nouveau style illustrations were overly influenced by Japanese artists, which he deemed inappropriate for a Byzantine work. In fact, Wilde was concerned that the young Beardsley’s drawings were too strong on their own and independent from the text of the play. They might eclipse his work.

Aubrey Beardsley: Isolde, 1895
Aubrey Beardsley: Isolde, 1895

Aubrey Beardsley and The Yellow Book

The first volume of The Yellow Book was a real breakthrough for Aubrey Beardsley. The magazine was very successful with readers, but critics labeled it indecent.

Around the same time, Oscar Wilde was becoming less and less fond of the young artist's popularity with the project. Beardsley had no choice but to leave The Yellow Book in mid-1895.

Together with Leonard Smithers, known for his erotic publications, they founded a journal called The Savoy, which allowed Beardsley to both draw and write on its pages.

However, the publication closed in 1897, and Aubrey Beardsley moved on to illustrate other authors for Smithers. Later, they ended up publishing a collection of Beardsley’s works.

With his health failing, Beardsley decided to move to a more beneficial climate in the south of France. At the age of 25, in 16 March 1898, Beardsley died either of his illness, or by his own hand.

In spite of the shortness of his life, the experimental style of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations had a powerful impact on Art Nouveau, to which he proposed a vision in black & white that was both genuine and fascinating.


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    • prairieprincess profile image

      Sharilee Swaity 6 years ago from Canada

      Wow! Very cool. I had seen this illustrations but did not know the man behind the work. That is so interesting that his drawings were so strong that Wilde was actually threatened by him. Very neat!

    • leroy64 profile image

      Brian L. Powell 6 years ago from Dallas, Texas (Oak Cliff)

      Great hub. I knew of his work, but not much about his life.