Aubrey Beardsley
Messalina and her Companion 1895

Artwork details

Aubrey Beardsley 1872–1898
Messalina and her Companion
Date 1895
Medium Graphite, ink and watercolour on paper
Dimensions Support: 279 x 178 mm
Acquisition Presented by A.L. Assheton 1928
Not on display


Beardsley produced this image as an illustration for an edition of the satirist Juvenal's (AD60?-140) lewd and salacious text, the Sixth Satire, privately printed by Leonard Smithers. It was first published as an independent image in 1897, in Aymer Vallance's The Second Book of Fifty Drawings, erroneously titled Messalina Returning Home. Messalina (d.AD48) was the wife of the Roman emperor Claudius (10BC-AD54). She was notorious for her sexual appetite and Juvenal describes her nightly excursions from the Imperial Palace to work as a whore in a local brothel. She

called for her hooded
Night-cloak and hastened forth, alone or with a single
Maid to attend her. Then, with her black hair hidden
Under an ash-blonde wig, she would make straight for her brothel,
With its odour of stale, warm bedclothes, its empty reserved cell.
Here she would strip off, showing her gilded nipples and
The belly that once housed a prince of the blood.
(Juvenal, Sixth Satire)

Beardsley was an important contributer to the Decadent movement, which included a number of writers and artists profoundly disillusioned by the materialism of the world at the end of the nineteenth century. Many turned their back on the real world and took solace in alchemy, spiritualism and hallucinatory drugs. Others attempted to reflect the decline of society in their work and saw parallels in the Latin poetry of the so-called Silver Age, a period of decline in Roman literature. Drawing on Juvenal's text Beardsley illustrates a civilization - that of late Imperial Rome - sinking into moral and physical decline. The Juvenal drawings are close in style to Beardsley's drawings for The Yellow Book, an avant-garde journal of which Beardsley was art editor. Much of this work is abstracted, the overall effect achieved by picking out broad areas of white against a black background. The silhouette of Messalina's evil companion is merely indicated by a rough outline in white. Her tiny skull-like face beneath the black bonnet, her hand emerging from a flowing white cuff, a dainty leg and the floral pattern of her dress bring the figure to life with a brilliant economy of expression.

This is the earliest of Beardsley's illustrations of Juvenal. Two years later he produced a second image of Messalina in Messalina Returning from the Bath (1897, Victoria and Albert Museum, London). The colour was not part of the original drawing, but was added, apparently by Beardsley, before 1898.

Further reading:
Kenneth Clark, The Best of Aubrey Beardsley, London 1979, pp.134-5, reproduced p.135.
Brian Reade, Aubrey Beardsley, London 1967, revised edition, 1987, p.351, no.393, reproduced pl.392.
Simon Wilson, Aubrey Beardsley: A Centenary Tribute, exhibition catalogue, Kawasaki City Museum, Kanagawa 1998, p.249, no.170, reproduced p.211.

Frances Fowle
December 2000