Laura Gascoigne

The gloriously indecent life and art of Aubrey Beardsley

In seven short years the illustrator mastered the art of outrage

Picture the young aspirant with the portfolio of drawings pitching up nervously at the eminent artist’s studio, only to be turned away at the door by a servant; then the master catching up with him, inviting him in and delivering the verdict on his portfolio: ‘I seldom or never advise anyone to take up art as a profession; but in your case I can do nothing else.’

Within two short years of this fairy-tale meeting in the summer of 1891 between Edward Burne-Jones and the 18-year-old Aubrey Beardsley, the self-taught insurance clerk who had fallen under the Pre-Raphaelite spell had turned himself into the most talked-about artist in London. Van Gogh made history in a brief ten years; the consumptive Beardsley, who didn’t choose the manner of his death, had to be quicker. From the moment he set his heart on ‘oof and fame’ there was a breathless urgency to his ambition, disguised under an affected lassitude.

Beardsley easily outbid Wilde in shock value. Three of his drawings were rejected by the publisher as indecent

With, by his own description, ‘a sallow face and sunken eyes, long red hair, a shuffling gait and a stoop’, Beardsley had that essential quality, charm, that opens doors. It didn’t work on William Morris, who sent him away with a flea in his ear and a recommendation to pursue his talent for drapery, but it did on almost everyone else. Career opportunities fell into his lap. It started with the chance lunchtime meeting with J.M. Dent in 1891 in Frederick Evans’s Cheapside bookshop — where the bookish City clerk traded drawings for books — leading to the commission to provide knock-off Burne-Jones illustrations on the cheap for a new edition of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. Then came the introduction to Lewis Hind as he was launching The Studio and the publication in the magazine’s inaugural issue in 1893 of ‘J’ai Baisé ta Bouche, Iokanaan’, the shocking image of Salome with the head of John the Baptist that would hook Beardsley the commission from ‘decadent’ publisher John Lane to illustrate the first English edition of Oscar Wilde’s banned play the year after.

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