Aubrey Beardsley

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Beardsley's first drawing for reproduction
The frontispiece to "Le Morte d'Arthur




P539, Idler magazine 1898--Aubrey Beardsley.png

TO all who knew him, and to all who did not know him but are lovers of lineal art, Aubrey Beardsley's death has been the occasion for much sorrow, an irreparable loss. But there is, I think, some consolation in the thought that he did not die suddenly. Though he died, a great artist, in his first youth, and at the very opening of life, as life is usually reckoned, Fate did not deal with him unfairly, did not take him, as she has taken others, with a kind of brutal treachery, before the fulfilment of all the work that was in him. From his early boyhood, Aubrey Beardsley had known quite well that his life would inevitably be a short one, and it was to this knowledge, partly, that we owe the great range of his achievement in art. Fate had given him a prematurity of power that was in accurate ratio to the appointed brevity of his life, and, in the exercise and the development of his genius, Aubrey Beardsley never rested. He worked on always, with a kind of desperate courage, and with a degree of force and enthusiasm that is given only to the doomed man. He knew that he had no time to lose. At the age when normal genius is still groping for its method, he was the unerring master of his method. He died, having achieved masterpieces, at an age when normal genius has as yet done little of which it will not be heartily ashamed hereafter. Normal genius is in no hurry. If it be struck down suddenly before its prime, it leaves no great legacy to us: we can only rail against Fate.

But Aubrey Beardsley was bound to die young. All his friends knew that as well as he did. The only wonder was that the fine thread of his life was not severed sooner. I remember that when I first saw him I thought I had never seen so utterly frail a creature—he looked more like a ghost than a living man. He was then, I believe, already in an advanced stage of pulmonary consumption. When I came to know him better, I realised that it was only by sheer force of nerves that he contrived to sustain himself. He was always, whenever one saw him, in the highest spirits, full of fun and of fresh theories about life and art.
"From Bon-Mots."
But one Could not help feeling that as soon as he were alone he would sink down, fatigued and listless, with all the spirit gone out of him. One felt that his gaiety resulted from a kind of pride and was only assumed, as who should say, in company. Perhaps one underrated his strength. When he was alone, he must have worked at his drawings almost without intermission. It is a curious thing that none of his visitors ever found him at work, never saw any of his rough sketches nor even so much as his pen, ink, and paper. It was his pose to appear a man of leisure, living among books. Certainly, he seemed to have read, and to have made his reading into culture, more than any man I have ever met; though how he, whose executive industry was so great, managed to read so much, is a question which I have never quite solved: I can only suppose that he read very rapidly. The literature of the Restoration and of the Eighteenth Century had always especially appealed to him. He delighted (oddly enough) in Voltaire. He was supposed to have read the whole of the Comédie Humaine and he had all the modern schools of France at his finger-tips. He was a good Latin scholar, too, though ill-health had curtailed his schooldays, and he had practically had to teach himself all that he knew. His conversation had always the charm of scholarship. Though not less modest than are most young men, he had strong opinions on most subjects, and he expressed himself with clear precision, and with wit. But he had not the physical strength which is necessary to the really great or inspiring talker. With him, there was always the painful sense of effort. I remember an afternoon I spent with him, at his house in Cambridge Street, soon after The Yellow Book was started. He was in great form, and showed even more than his usual wit and animation, as he paced up and down the room, talking, with all his odd, abrupt gestures, about one thing and another, about everything under the sun. I am a very good listener, and I enjoyed myself very much. Next day I heard that his mother and his sister and a doctor had been sitting up with him till daybreak. He had been seized, soon after I had left, with a terribly violent attack of hemorrhage, and it had been thought, more than once, that he could not live through the night. I remember, also, very clearly, a supper at which Beardsley was present. After the supper we sat up rather late. He was the life and soul of the party, till, quite suddenly, almost in the middle of a sentence, he fell fast asleep in his chair. He had overstrained his vitality, and it had all left him. I can see him now, as he sat there with his head sunk on his breast: the thin face, white as the gardenia in his coat, and the prominent, harshly-cut features; the hair, that always covered his whole forehead in a fringe, and was of so curious a colour—a kind of tortoise-shell; the narrow, angular figure, and the long hands that were so full of power.
(By kind permission of Leonard Smithers, Esq.
Last month, when Beardsley's death was announced in the newspapers, the general public must have read the news with some surprise. The "Beardsley boom," as it was called, had begun with The Yellow Book, and it had ceased with The Savoy, and Beardsley had, to all intents and purposes, been forgotten by the general public. For more than a year, he had been living in this or that quiet place to which invalids are sent. There were no new "Beardsley posters" on the London hoardings. The paragraphists of the London Press gradually let him be. His book of fifty collected drawings created no outcry, for even the book-reviewers could no longer assert that he did not know how to draw, and the tattlers at tea-parties had said all they had to say about him long ago, and had found other subjects for their discussion.
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But, while it lasted, how fierce the "Beardsley boom" had been! The public, as I need hardly say, never admired Beardsley's drawings. It thought them hideous. If the "Beardsley woman" could have been incarnated, she would have been singularly unattractive. Then how could anyone admire her on paper? Besides, she was all out of drawing. Look at her arm! Beardsley didn't know how to draw. The public itself could draw better than that. Nevertheless, the public took great interest in all Beardsley's work, as it does in the work of any new artist who either edifies or shocks it. That Beardsley's work really did shock the public, there can be no doubt. There can be equally little doubt that the public like being shocked, and sympathy would, therefore, be superfluous. But, at the same time, there are, of course, people who do honestly dislike and deplore the morbid spirit that seemed to inspire Beardsley's work, and at such people I should not wish to sneer—on the contrary, I respect their feeling, which I know to be perfectly genuine. Nor should I seek to deny that of Beardsley's work—more especially in some of his early work—there is much that is morbid. But it must be remembered that, when he first began to publish his drawings, he had hardly emerged from that school-boy age when the mind is generally apt to brood on unpleasant subjects, and much of his work, which some people regarded as the sign of a corrupt nature, was really the outcome of a perfectly normal phase of mind, finding an abnormal outlet through premature skill in art.
(From "Bon-Mots.")
I think, too, that he had a boyish delight in shocking people, and that it was often of mere mischief that he chose, as in many of his grotesques for the Bon-Mots series, to present such horribly ugly notions. Many of those who knew Beardsley only through his work generally imagined that he must be a man of somewhat forbidding character. His powerful, morbid fancy really repelled them, and to them the very beauty of its expression may have seemed a kind of added poison. But I, or anyone else who ever saw him at his home, knew that whatever was morbid in his work reflected only one side of his nature. I knew him to be of a kindly, generous, and affectionate disposition; a devoted son and brother; a very loyal friend. He lived, when I first saw him and till some two years later, in Cambridge Street, where he shared a house with his mother and sister. Here, every Thursday afternoon, was held a kind of little salon, which was always well attended. Aubrey himself was always present, very neatly dressed, handing round cake and bread-and-butter, and talking to each of his mother's guests in turn. There were always three or four new drawings of his passed from hand to hand, and he was always delighted with praise from any of his friends. I think it was at these little half-formal, half-intimate receptions that one saw him at his best. With all his affectations, he had that inborn kindliness which is the beginning of all good manners. He was essentially a good host.
From "Le Morte d'Arthur."
I have mentioned his grotesques for the volumes of Bon-Mots, These, if I am not mistaken, were among his very earliest published drawings, and simultaneously with them he was working at that great task, the illustration of Le Morte d'Arthur, on which he lavished such a wealth of skilful and appropriate fancy. In the drawings for Le Morte d'Arthur he was still working, of course, under the influence of Sir Edward Burne-Jones—an influence which was oddly balanced by that of Japanese art in the drawings which he did, at this period, for his own pleasure, and of which "La Femme Incomprise" is a good example. The well-known drawings which, later, he made for The Yellow Book were, with their black masses and very fine lines, arrived at through simplification of the method in "La Femme Incomprise."
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These were the drawings that first excited the wrath of the general public and of the book-reviewers. Most of the qualified art-critics, also, were very angry. They did not know what to make of these drawings, which were referable to no established school or known method in art. Beardsley was not at all discouraged by the contempt with which his technique was treated. On the contrary, he revelled in his unfavourable press-cuttings, knowing how little they signified. I think it was in the third number of The Yellow Book that two pictures by hitherto-unknown artists were reproduced. One was a large head of Mantegna, by Philip Broughton; the other, a pastel-study of a Frenchwoman, by Albert Foschter. Both the drawings had rather a success with the reviewers, one of whom advised Beardsley "to study and profit by the sound and scholarly draughtsmanship of which Mr. Philip Broughton furnishes another example in his familiar manner." Beardsley, who had made both the drawings and invented both the signatures, was greatly amused and delighted.
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Meanwhile, Beardsley's acknowledged drawings produced a large crop of imitators, both here and in America. Imitators are the plague to which every original artist is exposed. They inflict the wounds which, in other days, the critics were able to inflict. With the enormous increase of the Press and the wide employment of ignorant and stupid writers, bad criticism has become so general that criticism itself has lost its sting, and the time when an artist could be "snuffed out by an article" is altogether bygone. Nowadays, it is only through his imitators that an artist can be made to suffer. He sees his power vulgarised and distorted by a hundred apes. Beardsley's Yellow Book manner was bound to allure incompetent draughtsmen. It looked so simple and so easy—a few blots and random curves, and there you were. Needless to say, the results were appalling. But Beardsley was always, in many ways, developing and modifying his method, and so was always ahead of his apish retinue.
(from "Bon-Mots")
His imitators never got so far as to attempt his later manner, the manner of his Rape of the Lock, for to do that would have required more patience and more knowledge of sheer drawing than they could possibly afford. Such a design as the "Coiffing," which came in a late number of The Savoy, and which has often seemed to me the most exquisite thing Beardsley ever did, offered them no possible shortcut to talent. To trace the sequence of technical phases through which Beardsley passed, would be outside the scope of this brief essay. But I should like to remind my readers that, as he grew older, he became gradually more "human," less curious of horrible things. Of this tendency the best example is perhaps his "Ave atque Vale," in The Savoy. Nothing could be more dramatic, more moving and simple, than the figure of that Roman who mourns his friend. The drawing was meant to illustrate one of Catullus' Odes, which Beardsley himself had thus rendered:

"By ways remote and distant waters sped,
Brother, to thy sad grave-side am I come.
That I may give the last gifts to the dead,
And vainly parley with thine ashes dumb:
Since she who now bestows and now denies
Hath ta'en thee, hapless brother, from mine eyes.

"But lo! these gifts, the heirlooms of past years,
Are made sad things to grace thy coffin-shell.
Take them, all drenchèd with a brother's tears,
And, brother, for all time, hail and farewell!"

These lines, which seem to me no less beautiful than the drawing itself, were written shortly before Beardsley left England for the last time. On the eve of his departure, he was received by Father Sebastian into the Catholic Church, to which he had long inclined. His conversion was no mere passing whim, as some people supposed it to be; it was made from true emotional and intellectual impulse. From that time to his death he was a pious and devout Catholic, whose religion consoled him for all the bodily sufferings he underwent. Almost to the very last he was full of fresh schemes for work. When, at length, he knew that his life could but outlast a few more days, he awaited death with perfect resignation. He died last month, at Mentone, in the presence of his mother and his sister.

Thus ended this brief, tragic, brilliant life. It had been filled with a larger measure of sweet and bitter experience than is given to most men who die in their old age. Aubrey Beardsley was famous in his youth, and to be famous in one's youth has been called the most gracious gift that the gods can bestow. And, unless I am mistaken, he enjoyed his fame, and was proud of it, though, as a great artist who had a sense of humour, he was perhaps, a little ashamed of it too, now and then. For the rest, was he happy in his life? I do not know. In a fashion, I think he was. He knew that his life must be short, and so he lived and loved every hour of it with a kind of jealous intensity. He had that absolute power of "living in the moment" which is given only to the doomed man—that kind of self-conscious happiness, the delight in still clinging to the thing whose worth you have only realised through the knowledge that it will soon be taken from you. For him, as for the school-boy whose holidays are near their close, every hour—every minute, even—had its value. His drawing, his compositions in prose and in verse, his reading—these things were not enough to satisfy his strenuous demands on life. He was himself an accomplished musician, he was a great frequenter of concerts, and seldom, when he was in London, did he miss a "Wagner night" at Covent Garden. He loved dining-out, and, in fact, gaiety of any kind. His restlessness was, I suppose, one of the symptoms of his malady. He was always most content where there was the greatest noise and bustle, the largest number of people, and the most brilliant light. The "domino-room" at the Café Royal had always a great fascination for him: he liked the mirrors and the florid gilding, the little parties of foreigners and the smoke and the clatter of the dominoes being shuffled on the marble tables.
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Yet, though he took such a keen delight in all manifestations of life, he himself, despite his energy and his high spirits, his frankness and thoughtfulness, seemed always rather remote, rather detached from ordinary conditions, a kind of independent spectator. He enjoyed life, but he was never wholly of it. This kind of aloofness has been noted in all great artists. Their power isolates them. It is because they stand at a little distance that they can see so much. No man ever saw more than Beardsley. He was infinitely sensitive to the aspect of all things around him. And that, I think, was the basis of his genius. All the greatest fantastic art postulates the power to see things, unerringly, as they are.

  1. A very fully illustrated interview with Mr. Beardsley appeared in The Idler for March, 1897, to which the reader may be referred for additional information, together with many more of the artist's best illustrations—[Ed. Idler].

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1924.

The author died in 1956, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.