Aubrey Beardsley

“’I never pay my insurance policy, ‘ Moreland said, ‘without envisaging the documents going through the hands of Aubrey Beardsley and Kafka, before being laid on the desk of Wallace Stevens.’” [HSH 53 /54]

Lysisstrata Aubrey Beardsley, 1896 plate I, 12 x 9 in from

Aubrey Beardsley, 1896
plate I, 12 x 9 in

On June 24, 2015, Bonhams auctioneers sold a first edition of Lysistrata, illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley, from Anthony Powell’s library. They also auctioned an assorted set of other Beardsley pieces from Powell’s collection. Powell had inherited the Beardsley works from his father, who had “certain fin-de-siècle leanings. In one form, these were expressed by delight in the drawings of Aubrey Beardsley, though this attraction for the Décadence was balanced by disapproval of much that it stood for. [TKBR 15]”  (For other items auctioned from Powell’s collection, see the Bonhams’ catalog, items 299-342.)

In his youth, Powell would study the drawings in his father’s books.  When he was 17, his own black and white drawing, Caesar Cannonbrains of the Black Hussars, appeared in the Eton Candle; In TKBR (p. 55, drawing on p.56), Powell says the drawing shows unconcealed influences of Beardsley and Lovat Fraser. Later, Powell wrote four essays about Beardsley, anthologized in Under Review: Further Writing on Writers, 1946-1990 [pp 44-52].

Aubrey Vincent Beardsley (1872-1898) began work as a clerk for the Guardian Life  and Fire Insurance Office at age 17. In 1891 he and his sister went to the studio of Edward Burne-Jones under the mistaken impression that it was open to visitors; Burne-Jones invited them in, some say because of Mabel Beardsley’s striking red hair, examined Beardsley sketches, and arranged for him to attend art classes at night, resulting in a few months at the Westminster School of Art, which were his only formal artistic training.  The Beardsleys left Burne-Jones’ studio with Oscar Wilde, beginning an association that linked Beardsey with Wilde in the forefront of Aestheticism.

The Dancer's Reward Aubrey Beardsley, 1894 plate from Oscar Wilde's Salome photo from The Victorian Web

The Dancer’s Reward
Aubrey Beardsley, 1894
plate from Oscar Wilde’s Salome
photo from The Victorian Web

Wilde and Beardsley had a fraught relationship. For example, Wilde invited Beardsley to illustrate the English edition of his Salome. (Powell owned a first edition (1894).)  Wilde, however, was unhappy with the illustrations, believing that they misrepresented and distracted from his writing.

Beardsley worked in black and white, using block prints. His sensual style, often highlighting the  erotic, influenced Art Nouveau and the Arts and Crafts movement.  Critics sometimes classed Beardsley as a Decadent; he dressed foppishly, enforcing this reputation, and delighted in the grotesque aspects of his image. Like a character from La Boheme (Puccini, 1896), he died young of tuberculosis.

We regret that our brief does not allow us to digress further to review the geniuses of Kafka and Stevens.



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1 Response to Aubrey Beardsley

  1. vgreig007 says:

    Happy New Year! Many thanks for this Post and for the link to Bonham’s catalogue which I found very intriguing.

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