AUBREY VINCENT BEARDSLEY
Aubrey Beardsley was a black and white illustrator whose art encapsulates all the preoccupations of the decadent movement of the 1890s. His work is so startlingly innovative and influential that is comes as a shock to realize that it was all produced in the few years before his death from tuberculosis at the age of twenty five.
Beardsley had little formal art training, although he attended an evening school while still employed as a clerk in a life insurance company. Even at this date he was already producing original work, eclectically combining influences from Japanese prints, Edward Burne-Jones's paintings and Whistler's Peacock Room. When a friend showed the drawing 'Hail Mary!' to Dent the publisher, the twenty year old Beardsley received the commission for a lavishly illustrated Morte d'Arthur (published in monthly parts 1893-1894). This was a commercial counterpart to illustrated private press books such as those from William Morris's Kelmscott Press. All the blocks for the illustrations in the Morte d'Arthur were produced by newly developed photomechanical processes rather than being cut by hand. Beardsley's qualities as an illustrator are clearly revealed in this early work. He had a perfect understanding of the potential and the technical limitations of the new process. He also had a unique ability to create an image that was an elegant balance of solid blacks, densely patterned areas and plain whites often crossed by thread-like lines. These qualities were further developed in his illustrations to Wilde's 'Salome' (1894). Meanwhile Beardsley had become famous. In April 1893 he designed the wrapper of the new art magazine The Studio, the first number of which contained Joseph Pennell's essay A New Illustrator, Aubrey Beardsley. In April 1894 he became art editor and illustrator to John Lane's Yellow Book. This became so notorious that Beardsley was abruptly removed from his position during the Wilde trail in an attempt to salvage the publication. He later worked for Leonard Smithers on the magazine The Savoy and illustrated Pope's Rape of the Lock (1896). His later illustrations show more evidence of eighteenth century influence than that of the middle ages. His health was failing dramatically. In April 1897 he left England for the last time and died the following spring at Menton with most of his late projects unfinished. The most comprehensive study of his work is by Brian Reade (Studio Vista, London 1967).