It turns out that Brighton has been the breeding ground for people in history with incredible, little-known life stories. My collection to date includes Princess Omoba Aina, Brighton’s black celebrity royal, Sophia Singh, the little-known Indian Princess Suffragette and this fascinating gent said to have made Salvador Dali famous.
Today, I want to add Aubrey Beardsley to the mix. He was the most adventurous illustrator of the Victorian age, born at 12 Buckingham Road, and went to Brighton Grammar School! His work mixed art nouveau flamboyance with sexually charged imagery inspired by ancient Japanese erotica. Even as late as the 1960s, a gallery owner was charged under obscenity laws for exhibiting the artist’s work!
He rebelled against the artistic styles of the time, to create dangerously salacious illustrations for none other than Oscar Wilde. What’s also incredible is that he had no formal art training, in fact he was working as a clerk in London when he was ‘discovered’ by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Confession: I had to Google Edward Burne-Jones who I now know is one of the most famous Pre-Raphaelite artists of the day, who revived the art of stained glass windows and worked closely with William Morris.
So this is Aubrey Beardsley, a chisled dapper gent in his suit, with a neat short signature hairstyle, carrying an undeniable intelligence of a thoroughly well-read Englishman. Apparently, he’s also said to have dabbled in cross-dressing on occasion.
As a child he was a musical prodigy, as an adolescent he buried himself in intelligent books, and as he grew older, he became an exquisite draftsman. Sadly, though he was plagued by illness throughout his life. At age nine, he was too sick to go to school for a whole two years, and died young just before his 26th birthday of a haemorrhage caused by tuberculosis. Yet, despite his short life, Beardsley produced work influential enough to shake up the Victorian society he grew up in.
Edward Burne-Jones was so impressed with Beardsley’s work that when they met, he said, “Nature has given you every gift which is necessary to become a great artist. I seldom or never advise anyone to take up art as a profession, but in your case I can do nothing else.” With that advice, Beardsley enrolled in evening art classes at the Westminster School of Art and got his first job as an illustrator for a book in 1892.
That same year, he went to Paris, where he found inspiration in the works of Toulouse-Lautrec, and the fashion for Japanese woodblock prints popular with the avant-guard. I need to do some research on the above picture!
Aubrey Beardsley’s works were distinctively monochromatic. This was probably because publishers wanted him to use the cheapest method of reproduction available. “Line block” was a type of woodblock printing, which didn’t allow for the use of a variety of colours, so the skill was all in the lines. The colour scheme, sinuous strokes, and use of otherworldly themes make you imagine the microscopic world of a music score, or the text of an old book. In fact, many of his works even look like the magical, ornate lettering and illustrations in medieval books.The works that made him popular were his illustrations for Oscar Wilde’s tragic one-act play, Salomé. It was originally written and published in French in 1893 and then in English with Beardsley’s drawings in 1893. Performances of the play were banned in England until 1931 because the portrayal of religious figures on stage was deemed to be blasphemous.
Nevertheless, the work spread through Europe, and Beardsley was praised by the likes of Sergei Diaghilev, director of the Ballets Russes. At the end of the project with Wilde, Beardsley left with a bad taste in his mouth however, as he described him and his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, to be “dreadful people” – probably because when Douglas translated the play into English, there were many arguments and dramatic outbursts due to disagreements stemming from Wilde’s imperfect French. But this was not going to be the last time Aubrey Beardsley would cross paths with Oscar Wilde.
John Lane, who had commissioned Beardsley to illustrate Wilde’s work, also made him art director of the most avant-garde periodical in town at the time, The Yellow Book. Once it was published in 1894, the artist and writer, Max Beerbohm said that “London turned yellow in the night”.
The Yellow Book was a quarterly publication which included literary works by names such as HG Wells, Henry James, Yeats, and even Beardsley himself. As artistic director, it was Beardsley’s decision to make the cover of the periodical yellow, which might seem ironic for an artist whose whole output was almost entirely black and white. He chose the yellow cover because at the time, illicit French books were distinguished by their yellow covers to warn readers of the scandalous stories that awaited inside.
This creative decision came back to haunt Beardsley. When Oscar Wilde was arrested at the Cadogan Hotel in London in 1895 for crimes relating to homosexuality, he was carrying a book with a yellow sleeve. It was a racy book by Pierre Louys called Aphrodite, but was mistaken for The Yellow Book which meant Beardsley got caught up in a public scandal and kicked off the publication!
As a result, fewer people wanted to work with him, except an old friend of Wilde’s called Leonard Smithers, a pornographer of the day and a book dealer, said to have collected copies of books bound in human skin.
Smithers teamed up with Beardsley and the Symbolist writer, Arthur Symons, to create a periodical to rival The Yellow Book. The magazine was named The Savoy, after the high end London hotel where Wilde often met his lovers. It was successful and gave Beardsley a new project to work on. At the launch party in 1896, however, Beardsley suffered a haemorrhage. Even though he carried on drawing and writing, this attack was the start of many to come, and the acceleration of a steep decline in his health.
Smithers commissioned another project called Lysistrata, an erotic book about women in ancient Athens who abstained from sex in protest against war. This endeavour seemed fitting, because Beardsley was obsessed with sexual themes throughout his life, and they often appeared in his work. He would often include erotic symbols, using shapes evocative of breasts and phalluses, and at other times, his themes were pretty obviously erotic and scandalous for the era – boobs, bums and all. His own sexuality was ambiguous, and some claimed that he never had any sexual relations at all. Some academics speculate that perhaps he was too fearful to engage in any sexual acts because of his fragile state of health, and this is what led to the obsession in his art.
As Aubrey Beardsley’s health continued to fail him, he looked to the church for hope. In 1898, with the help of his sister, he converted to Roman Catholicism and spent the last months of his life on the French Riviera with his mother and nurse. While he was there, he sent an urgent plea to Smithers asking him to destroy all the erotic works he produced. Yet Smithers never destroyed the work, and even made replicas in order to sell the works. Not even two weeks after Beardsley wrote the letter, on 16 March, he passed away. A century after his death, his work was still ruffling feathers.
Today, you can still find Beardsley’s illustrations accompanying Oscar Wilde’s writing in Salomé in bookshops, and his works are plentiful in the public domain should you be interested in surrounding yourself with his work. A major retrospective of his work is headed to the Tate Britain and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris next year. The world was not ready for Aubrey Beardsley then, but let’s sure as heck hope we’re ready for him now.