by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Pleasure Principle

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 1 May 2020
V&A, London
Design for the prospectus of The Yellow Book by Aubrey Beardsley, 1894



'In one day he could be Baroque, Empire, Pre-Raphaelite or Japanese. Yet he was always Beardsley,' wrote the German art historian Julius Meier-Graefe, a decade after the English artist's untimely death in 1898.

Like John Keats he died at 25 and like the poet his artistic career had lasted only six years. Just as Keats had created a body of poetry that seemed scarcely possible in so brief a period, during the six years that fate allotted Beardsley he produced well over 1,000 drawings in an extraordinary variety of styles.

Aubrey Beardsley was born in Brighton in 1872 and was diagnosed with tuberculosis in the summer of 1879. This knowledge from childhood that he could not expect to live long was clearly a spur to his amazing productivity. As his friend, the poet and critic Arthur Symons wrote in the year of the artist's demise: 'He had that fatal speed of those who are to die young; that disquieting completeness and extent of knowledge, that absorption of a lifetime in an hour, which we find in those who hasten to have their work done before, knowing that they will not see the evening.'

The Beardsley family moved to Pimlico in London in 1880. He received his first paid commission for some menu and place cards at the age of 11. But at this stage, although his caricatures made him popular at school, he was more interested in writing (which also remained a passion) than art. At 16 he began work as a clerk, but two years later he managed to show his portfolio to Edward Burne-Jones, who declared: 'I seldom or never advise anyone to take up art as a profession, but in your case I can do nothing else.'

When Beardsley visited Puvis de Chavannes in Paris the following year, the celebrated French painter was no less impressed. In the same year Beardsley had become friends with the art critic Robert Ross, Oscar Wilde's first male lover, who began collecting the young prodigy's drawings.

That same year he was contracted by the publisher J.M. Dent to illustrate a new edition of Sir Thomas Malory's 15th-century chivalric romance, 'Le Morte Darthur', for which he eventually did over 400 illustrations, including many full-page and double-page spreads framed in intricate borders - a colossal commission for an untried young artist. Beardsley was paid £250 for the work, allowing him to leave his job as a clerk and devote himself to art.

Almost all of Beardsley's work was designed to be printed. By a happy coincidence, at the time of his debut a new technology for printing had recently become available: line-block printing, using zinc line blocks made photographically from original drawings. This technique was much faster and cheaper than wood-cuts or engraving on metal, allowing publishers to produce lavishly illustrated books at relatively low cost and expanding Beardsley's opportunities to publish his work and make a name for himself.

Indeed, during his lifetime, very few people outside his immediate circle saw his original drawings, his fame resting almost entirely on his printed illustrations. But a fascinating new book and exhibition curated by Stephen Calloway and Caroline Corbeau-Parsons at Tate Britain, now brings over 200 original works from multiple international and private collections. This is the first such show of the artist's works since those at the Tate in 1923 and the V&A in 1966. It will travel on to the Quay d'Orsay in Paris, where it will be the first-ever solo show devoted to the artist, a dedicated francophile who spent the last two years of his life in France.

Most of Beardsley's works were related to books in one way or another, but even in his first big commission for the illustrations for J.M. Dent's 'Morte Darthur' he began to manifest a tendency to use what Symons later identified as 'that disquieting completeness and extent of knowledge' - of English, French and Latin literature and visual sources ranging from ancient Greek vases, Renaissance prints and rococo paintings to Japanese woodcuts and paintings by the Pre-Raphaelites and Whistler - to develop a daringly eclectic personal style.

Beardsley was also determined to shock. While working on 'Morte Darthur'into which he was already inserting elements alien to the medieval text, such as images of the classical god Pan, satyrs and fauns - he took time off to experiment with other subjects, drawing, for example, 'The Birthday of Madame Cigalle', about which he wrote to a friend: 'The subjects were quite mad and a little indecent. Strange hermaphroditic creatures wandering around in Pierrot costumes or modern dress; quite a new world of my own creation.'

Nor was he content with tweaking the noses of the establishment and the bourgeoisie. He found needling his fellow decadent Oscar Wilde a particularly rewarding pastime. Wilde and his publisher John Lane were sufficiently struck by a Beardsley picture inspired by the first edition of Wilde's play 'Salomé' (written in French) to commission him to do the illustrations for the English version - guaranteed additional publicity when the play was banned from the London stage by the Lord Chamberlain.

Several of Beardsley's risqué images for the book turned out to depict scenes not in the play, to ignore the biblical setting and include gratuitous caricatures of the rather over-weight author. The Times critic judged the illustrations to be 'unintelligible for the most part and, in so far as they are intelligible, repulsive'. And Wilde was provoked into sounding positively old-maidish in his description of them as 'the naughty scribbles a precocious schoolboy makes in the margins of his copybooks'.

In the same year, 1894, Beardsley was made the art editor of a new avant-garde periodical 'The Yellow Book', which was also published in the US with the prospect of trans-Atlantic recognition for the artist, who was responsible for the covers and much of the content. However, in April the following year Wilde was convicted of 'gross indecency'. It was reported that at the time of his arrest at the Cadogan Hotel the writer was carrying 'a yellow book', not in fact the quarterly but a French novel in a yellow cover. Yet the windows of the Yellow Book's publisher were smashed and Beardsley, guilty by association, was peremptorily sacked.

The fallout from the Wilde scandal was to dog the rest of what remained of Beardsley short career. In the summer of 1895, he went to Dieppe, where he met the disreputable publisher and pornographer Leonard Smithers, who specialized in making available works that 'all the others are afraid to touch'. Wilde wrote that Smithers was 'the most learned erotomaniac in Europe. He is also a delightful companion, and a dear fellow.'

In the French port, Smithers, Beardsley and Arthur Symons launched a new periodical, 'The Savoy', which provided the artist with an outlet and sorely needed income, but the publication only lasted a year. During this period, in yet another of Beardsley's astonishing stylistic re-inventions, inspired by 18th-century French prints, he began to develop a dense and elaborate manner of drawing, which he came to describe as 'embroideries'. His illustrations for Alexander Pope's 'The Rape of the Lock', his masterpiece in this style, was published in 1896.

While 'The Rape of the Lock' was subtly and suggestively sexy, the last major project Beardsley was able to complete with Smithers, the illustrations for Aristophanes's bawdy comedy 'Lysistrata', in which the women of Athens stage a sex strike to persuade their husbands to cease their war with the Spartans, was so faithful to the original text as to make it unpublishable except in a clandestine edition for connoisseurs of erotica.

We can only be grateful to the unscrupulous Leonard Smithers that Beardsley's letter, sent from Menton in March 1898, a week before his death, imploring the publisher 'to destroy all the copies of Lysistrata and bad drawings…By all that is holy, all obscene drawings' and signed 'In my death agony', was ignored - although Smithers' noble gesture in saving these works for posterity was somewhat marred by the fact that he sold the letter to a collector.

The previous summer Sergei Diaghilev had sought out Beardsley in his exile in Dieppe and went on to write the first article about the British artist to be published in Russia, where he achieved cult status in modernist circles. At the same time Beardsley was acquiring a popularity in Japan that still lasts.

As the whiff of sulphur and wickedness that surrounded Beardsley's last years dissipated, public awareness of him in Europe began to fade. But he continued to influence artists as diverse as Picasso, Kandinsky, Munch and Vallotton. And his fashionability came back with a vengeance with the 1966 exhibition devoted to artist at the V&A, which pupped a plethora of Beardsley-esque record covers, posters and graphic art, and introduced a new generation to this most playful of fin-de-siècle artists.

Aubrey Beardsley; Tate Britain; 4 March - 20 September 2020 (with period of closure due to Covid); Aubrey Beardsley, edited by Stephen Calloway and Caroline Corbeau-Parsons ,Tate (£25)

First published: The Lady

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024