- Tempera on canvas
- Support: 762 x 311 mm
frame: 1010 x 553 x 61 mm
- Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund 1932
Aubrey Vincent Beardsley was born in Brighton, Sussex, on 21 August 1872. He became one of the most distinctive and innovative artists of the 1890s, developing a highly original style of pen and ink illustration. Beardsley relished subjects that played with grotesque or erotic material, and his drawings acquired a reputation for their decadence and sensuality. His work gained widespread prominence in April 1893 when a number were reproduced in the first issue of Studio, a new progressive art journal, for which he also designed the first cover. In 1894 he was appointed as the art editor of the Yellow Book, a publication that showcased aesthetic writing and art; also that year his shocking illustrations to Oscar Wilde’s Salome appeared. In the wake of Wilde’s trial in 1895, Beardsley was sacked from Yellow Book. In partnership with the publisher Leonard Smithers, many of Beardsley’s drawings became increasingly outrageous, typified by the playfully pornographic Lysistrata series and his fetishistic designs for The Sixth Satire of Juvenal, which both appeared in 1896. But at the same time Beardsley also evolved a refined and inventive reworking of French rococo style in such series as The Rape of the Lock (1896) and Volpone (1898). Beardsley suffered from tuberculosis throughout his life, and in 1898 it finally killed him at the age of twenty-five.1
When Sickert made this painting, Beardsley was extremely well known. The first volume of the Yellow Book had appeared in April 1894 and Beardsley was at work on the Salome illustrations, which secured him both fame and notoriety. It has long been thought that the inspiration for Sickert’s picture was the sight of Beardsley walking away from the unveiling of the monument to the poet John Keats in Hampstead Church in July 1894.2 In purple prose, Haldane Macfall recalled in his 1928 book on Beardsley:
There had foregathered in the church on the hill for the occasion the literary and artistic world of the ‘nineties. As the congregation came pouring out of the church doors, a slender, gaunt young man broke away from the throng, and, hurrying across the graveyard stumbled and lurched awkwardly over green mounds of the sleeping dead. This stooping, dandified being was evidently intent on taking a short-cut out of God’s acre. There was something strangely fantastic in the ungainly efforts at a dignified wayfaring over the mound-encumbered ground by the loose-limbed, lank figure so immaculately dressed in black cut-away coat and silk hat, who carried his lemon-yellow kid gloves in his long white hands ... He took off his hat to some lady who called to him, showing his ‘tortoiseshell’ coloured hair, smoothed down ... He stooped and stumbled so much and so awkwardly amongst the sleeping dead that I judged him short-sighted; but was mistaken – he was fighting for breath.3
For details of Beardsley’s life, see Matthew Sturgis, Aubrey Beardsley: A Biography, London 1998.
See, for instance, Mary Chamot, Dennis Farr and Martin Butlin, Tate Gallery Catalogues: The Modern British Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture, vol.2, London 1964, pp.625–6.
Haldane Macfall, Aubrey Beardsley: The Man and his Work, London 1928, p.xiii.
Times, 20 July 1894, p.4. I am grateful to Beardsley’s biographer, Matthew Sturgis, for the information which establishes the precise chronology of the two events.
Wendy Baron and Richard Shone (eds.), Sickert: Paintings, exhibition catalogue, Royal Academy, London 1992 (15).
Reproduced in Brian Reade, Beardsley, Woodbridge 1987, pl.257.
Sturgis 1998, p.132.
‘Table Talk’, in Aubrey Beardsley, Under the Hill and other Essays in Prose and Verse, London 1904; information given to the author by Matthew Sturgis.
Aymer Vallance, ‘Revised Iconography’, in Robert Ross, Aubrey Beardsley, London 1909.
Matthew Sturgis, letter to the author, 21 December 2004.
R.A. Walker, Some Unknown Drawings of Aubrey Beardsley Collected and Annotated by R.A. Walker, London 1923, no.1.
Reproduced in Wendy Baron, Sickert, London 1973, pl.42, no.67.
Matthew Sturgis, letter to the author, 21 December 2004.
Aubrey Beardsley, letter to Leonard Smithers, postmarked 18 August 1896, in Henry Maas, J.L. Duncan and W.G. Wood (eds.), The Letters of Aubrey Beardsley, London 1970, p.152. In the event, Sickert’s portrait of Beardsley was not included in A Book of Fifty Drawings.
Sturgis 1998, p.167.
Reproduced in Reade 1987, pl.333.
Joseph Pennell, The Adventures of an Illustrator, Mostly in Following his Authors in America and Europe, London 1925; I am grateful to Linda Zatlin for drawing my attention to this information.
Aubrey Beardsley, letter to André Rafflovich, December 1896, in Maas, Duncan and Wood (eds.) 1970, p.230.
Ross 1909, p.87.
Linda Zatlin, letter to the author, 16 January 2005; the drawing is reproduced in Reade 1987, pl.250.
Wendy Baron, Sickert: Paintings and Drawings, New Haven and London 2006, no.69.2; reproduced in Royal Academy 1992, fig.92.
The house Beardsley shared with his mother at 114 Cambridge Street, Pimlico.
Walter Sickert, ‘L’Affaire Greaves’, New Age, 15 June 1911, in Anna Gruetzner Robins (ed.), Walter Sickert: The Complete Writings on Art, Oxford 2000, p.284.
Reproduced in Baron 2006, no.722.
Reproduced in Andrew McLaren Young et al, The Paintings of James McNeill Whistler, New Haven and London 1980, no.252.
Quoted in Royal Academy 1992, p.35.
Walter Sickert, ‘Abjuro’, Art News, 3 February 1910, in Robins (ed.) 2000, p.193.
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