Paul Smith considers the illustrative art of Aubrey Beardsley, who delighted in a sense of demonic mischief and dared to push against the boundaries of Victorian England.
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He sits at the centre of his court, dressed soberly in an immaculate grey suit, surrounded by slender feminine youths – elegantly tall women that resemble sour-faced drag queens, satyrs parading their disproportionately huge erections with triumphal pride, all snaking their way through serpentine flora. This is the fantastical world of Aubrey Beardsley, given exquisitely delicate life by his inky precision. He delighted in a sense of demonic mischief, daring to push boundaries of decency further in that final decade of Victorian England, causing scandal and outrage in an era when the prim, austere exterior hid the deeper lusts and suppressed sexual fantasies. Through his lucid black and white draftsmanship, Beardsley brought those desires into the open but combined them with a decorative dexterity that won him admirers across the world. In many ways these illustrations could be seen as a realisation of his own darker fantasies played out on the page rather than in the bedroom since tuberculosis left him in frail health and finally led to his premature death in 1898 at the age of 25.
Beardsley’ s visits to France helped ignite his own creative fires as he discovered the poster work of Toulouse-Lautrec and the proliferation of Japanese prints. This was not the only influence making its way from the continent, though. The popularity of French erotic fiction had been growing since the 1860s, much of it imported before many writers anonymously turned their hand to producing original erotic stories. It was a lucrative under-the-counter business for the Paul Raymonds of Victorian London which – surprise, surprise – saw the introduction of obscenity laws to protect against anything that was deemed offensive to Christian decency.
This was a period when the aspirational middle classes strived to model their behaviour on what they perceived to be upper class behaviour, obsessing over a genteel image. It meant they strived for respectability but at the expense of repressing their sexual desires when the true aristocracy had no such obsession with conventional morality. The clergy and medical profession could conspire to reinforce the sins of carnal pleasure and the sanctity of a happy married life, but of course, there were always the prostitutes to satisfy those lustful cravings. Repression, hypocrisy and guilt create a potent mix. Anyone who was either unconfined by such repressive urges or broke through them was considered a threat. Beardsley the serpent offered a tempting glimpse of what lay behind the restricted Eden of domestic neatness.
The Brighton-born artist first came to prominence with illustrations for Mallory’s Le Morte Dartur in 1893, a series of drawings that were far more conventional in their celebration of medieval styles in vogue with the Pre-Raphaelites, but it was his bold interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s Salome that brought him huge acclaim with naked demonic hermaphrodites, deformed dwarfs and malevolent women with evil smeared on their lips.
His reputation grew from his association with The Yellow Book (1894), the definitive publication of the aesthetic movement that celebrated poetry, prose and illustration. Published by Arthur Lane, it included contributions from novelists such as Henry James and HG Wells, with artists including Sir Frederick Leighton, president of the Royal Academy and John Singer Sargent, both of whom preferred depicting classical male nudes. As its first art editor though, Beardsley couldn’t resist provoking with his impish eroticism.
Those deceptively simple compositions are crafted with a linear beauty that peel back the darker soul of human nature beneath. His androgynous youths relish their pallid nakedness whilst lustful sirens lure with their voluptuous breasts but ready with the deadly kiss of a femmes fatale. The settings are often artifice, the world of the theatre full of drapes and billowing costumes that would have fitted pantomime dames. Often Beardsley’s faces are painted with cruel leers and disdainful mocking looks but he was capable of refined, even fragile delicacy of expression, but all drawn with the precise linear style that became his trademark.
His unrestrained depiction of nudes eventually made the other contributors nervous and it all came to head in 1895 with the arrest of Oscar Wilde who was allegedly carrying a yellow book at the time, a similar book had featured in The Picture of Dorian Gray when Lord Henry gifted a copy to Dorian. Beardsley was removed from the magazine, He suffered from the backlash of the trial, his name blackened by association, accused of having ‘the Oscar Wilde tendency’ because his name was so closely linked to Salomé, even though he lampooned the playwright in many of his drawings.
Rape of the Lock, Alexander Pope, Aubrey Beardsley / Under The Hill, Aubrey Beardsley
So enter Leonard Smithers, one of those porn barons who sought to positively encourage both Beardsley’s erotic excursions and aesthetic sensibilities. The Savoy was first published in 1896 with contributions from Joseph Conrad and WB Yeats as well as Baron Von Gloeden and Frederick Rolfe’s photographic work, depicting naked adolescent youths. Beardsley illustrated Pope’s The Rape of the Lock with uncharacteristically busy detail, and his own erotic story Under The Hill.
In an attempt to regain his health, he went to live in Dieppe and then later Menton in the South of France, working on his sexually alluring Lysistrata series. However, the godly side of Victorian society reasserted itself as he converted to Catholicism in his final year and demanded that all his obscene drawings were destroyed. They weren’t. With an international reputation, why stop reproducing his work when they were much in demand with collectors?
Despite his slim emaciated appearance, Beardsley cultivated an air of affectation, dressed as an immaculately dandified insurance salesman (he worked at the Guardian Life and Fire Insurance office), but disguising his gleefully perverse imagination. Despite mixing in the elite gay social circles, his own sexuality has remained uncertain, although rumours of increasing absurdity have us believe he was a virgin, a transvestite or even having an incestuous relationship with his sister. No wonder Salomé leers with the malevolent mirth of The Joker. She knows his darkest secrets but those twisted lips remain sealed.
Should we even speculate on how he would fare in this modern celebrity-obsessed world, sharing the same spotlight as Francis Bacon, Warhol, or Damien Hirst, working on poster designs for Jarman, Almodóvar or John Waters, equally at home in Soho, Shoreditch and Mayfair? But his legacy is an exquisite celebration of the pantomime and the exotic, the grotesque and the burlesque, an influence that will inspire generations of artists to come.