The Story of Aubrey Beardsley in Five Artworks

Explore the life and art of an influential and controversial young illustrator

Aubrey Beardsley's illustrated self-portrait

Aubrey Beardsley Self-Portrait 1892 British Museum (London, UK)

Aubrey Beardsley made a name for himself at a young age as a great illustrator. From his association with Oscar Wilde, to his erotic and satirical art style, Beardsley’s life was notorious. His innovative work is admired by many across the world. Learn the story of Aubrey Beardsley through five of his artworks.

Beardsley's inspirations

Black and white drawing depicting a dragon and a youth set within a fantastic forest landscape.

Aubrey Beardsley Siegfried, Act II 1892-93 Victoria and Albert Museum (London, UK)

This is an illustration of Richard Wagner’s opera Siegfried. It is finely detailed and demonstrates Beardsley’s ‘hairline’ style. Beardsley had many inspirations, such as Pre-Raphaelite artworks or Greek vases he saw at the British Museum. His imagination was also fuelled by Japanese and Renaissance art. One of Beardsley’s biggest points of reference was his early mentor Edward Burne-Jones, who drew elongated figures like those in Beardsley’s artworks. The combination of all these sources played a part in shaping Beardsley's unique style. At only 21, he was already admired as a new illustrator on the scene.

Salome, sex and satire

A black and white drawing of four figures on or around a stage. 2 of them are semi-nude

Aubrey Beardsley Enter Herodias 1893 (published 1907) Stephen Calloway

Enter Herodias is named after a stage direction in Oscar Wilde’s play Salome. Wilde originally wrote the play in French, and he chose Beardsley to illustrate the English translation of the play. Beardsley drew erotic and satirical images, some of which were entirely unrelated to the plot of play.

Enter Herodias shows the moment when Salome’s mother enters the stage. To the bottom right there is a caricature of Oscar Wilde holding a copy of Salome and gesturing up at his own play. It also includes two nude figures. Herodias’s breasts are exposed but she is covered by the large cloak. John Lane, who was Beardsley’s publisher, demanded that Beardsley cover the page on the right’s genitalia with a fig-leaf. But he failed to spot the penis-shaped candles the artist had drawn in the foreground, and the erection of the figure to the left.

Beardsley’s obsession with the erotic played upon Victorian taboos. Beardsley was often deliberately trying to be provocative. Many people at the time thought that Beardsley’s obsession with erotic art came from the fact that he was young and ‘consumptive’. Today we call ‘consumption’ Tuberculosis (or TB). A strange, but frequent 19th century perception of TB was that it went hand in hand with an obsession about sex.

The Yellow Book Scandal

Cover of The Yellow Book, illustrated by Beardsley. Shows a woman in a mask with a candle and another masked man lingering behind

Aubrey Beardsley The Yellow Book Volume I 1894 Stephen Calloway

In 1894 Aubrey Beardsley became the first Art Editor for The Yellow Book, a new literary periodical. There were hostile reactions to The Yellow Book from the wider press, who were alarmed by the shocking and ‘immoral’ illustrations and writing. The Westminster Gazette even commented that the publication should be made illegal. Things only got worse for Beardsley and The Yellow Book in 1895. The trial and conviction of Oscar Wilde for ‘gross indecency’ with men became linked to the publication. The press mistakenly reported seeing Wilde leaving the Cadogan Hotel with a copy of The Yellow Book under his arm. In fact, he was carrying a French erotic novel, which often had yellow covers.

Beardsley, who had collaborated with Wilde on Salome and whose art was strongly linked with The Yellow Book, was caught up in the scandal. He was dismissed as editor for The Yellow Book. Having lost his regular source of income, he was forced to sell his house and he temporarily moved to France.

Black Coffee

Illustration of two woman sitting next to each other in a restaurant booth

Aubrey Beardsley Black Coffee 1895 Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Bequest of Scofield Thayer

Beardsley’s letters reveal that he was attracted to female sex workers, but not much is known about his sexuality. However, the artist often represented same-sex attraction and gender fluidity in his artworks, which was rare for the Victorian period. In Black Coffee we see two women sitting next to each other. The woman in black is hiding her hands, perhaps covering her companion’s hand, which is also on her lap. The lady in black’s hairstyle resembles devil’s horns, a further hint to his contemporaries of their ‘sinful’ behaviour. Although many people seeing this illustration at the time would have been shocked by the display of same-sex relations, there is no sense of judgement from the artist. Black Coffee is just one of many of Beardsley’s illustrations that depicts women as defiant and free to act as they please.

Life in detail

Black and white extremely detailed piece with lots of figures and objects weaving in and out of each other

Aubrey Beardsley The Cave of Spleen (Illustration to Alexander Pope's "The Rape of the Lock") 1896 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. William Sturgis Bigelow Collection

Beardsley illustrated Alexander Pope’s poem The Rape of the Lock in 1896. By this point, the artist, at only age 25, was nearing the end of his life. Yet his artwork became more intricate than ever. This drawing, The Cave of Spleen, is a small but incredibly detailed illustration made up of extremely thin lines and cross-hatching. The ‘grotesque’ characters and objects weave in and out of each other, making it difficult to see where one ends and another begins. Art like this is associated with Decadence in art. ‘Decadents’ sought an escape from the 19th century world through fantastical imagery. Beardsley himself called pieces like this ‘embroideries’.

He created this drawing with the knowledge that it would be reproduced and circulated as a print, which is true of the vast majority of his artworks. Thanks to a booming print and magazine culture, Beardsley became internationally famous in his lifetime. Many artists were inspired by his distinct, subversive style.

In 1966 the V&A famously held a popular Aubrey Beardsley exhibition. This led to a huge Beardsley revival. From album cover designs to tattoo art, Beardsley’s influence is noticeable even today.

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