August 21st – Aubrey Beardsley

“People hate to see their vices depicted, but vice is terrible and it should be depicted.”

― Aubrey Beardsley

Aubrey Beardsley, was an English illustrator and author. He was born August 21, 1872, Brighton, Sussex, England. His father suffered from inherited tuberculosis, and lost any fortune he had over a claim for “breach of promise of marriage” to another woman after his marriage to Aubrey’s mother Ellen. The family lived in rented accommodations and struggled with poverty. Aubrey showed musical talent, and in school also began to write poetry and draw cartoons. In 1891 he took up art as a profession and began to attend classes at the Westminster School of Art in 1892. In 1892 Beardsley traveled to Paris where he discovered the art of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, as well as Japanese prints which were in fashion in Paris a the time. These heavily influenced his works. His first commission was the illustrations for Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory, published by J.M. Dent and Company in 1893. Beardsley was 20-years-old, and the commission took him 18 months to complete. The print run was only 1800 copies, and it was an immediate sensation upon publication. ”If he had never illustrated another book, this edition of Morte d’Arthur could stand as a monument of decorative book illustration” (Lewis, pp. 148-9).

Beardsley was a leading figure in the Aesthetic movement. Most of his images are done in ink, featuring large areas of dark or blank space for contrast. He is know for his grotesque images and erotica, which he denounced after he converted to Catholicism shortly before his death. His illustrations for a privately printed edition of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and his drawings for Oscar Wildle’s play Salome are notably erotic in nature, although the simple line drawings are differentiated from later Beardsley forgeries which are more pornagraphic in nature.

Beardsley’s opulent imagery ushered in the era of Art Nouveau, but also shocked audiences with its grotesque portraits of characters and legends. 

Beardsley died of tuberculosis at the age of 25, on March 16, 1898, in France.

Just before his death he worked furiously to complete a catalogue of his works, Book of Fifty Drawings (1897), which was just a selection of the hundreds of illustrations Beardsley produced during his very short career. 

During his very short career Beardsley produced hundreds of illustrations, which were reproduced using line block printing. 

Lesson from Beardsley

Beardsley died at 25 – 25! And we’re still talking about him today. He knew his life was going to be short, like Keats he said. Maybe he predestined it, or just knew. But either way, he studied and drew and created works of art like no other – carrying printed texts along with illustrations that rose them to a greater glory. Maybe we should all thrive on like we’ll live to only 25.

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