Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Beardsley, Aubrey Vincent

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BEARDSLEY, AUBREY VINCENT (1872–1898), artist in black and white, born in Buckingham Road, Brighton, on 24 Aug. 1872, was son of Mr. Vincent Paul Beardsley and his wife, Ellen Agnes (born Pitt). He was educated at Brighton. After leaving school he worked for a short time in an architect's office, which he left to become a clerk in the office of the Guardian Insurance Company. At about the age of eighteen he began to be known in a narrow circle by the strange designs which were soon to make him famous. His first chances of employment came to him through his friendship with Mr. F. H. Evans, the bookseller and publisher of Queen Street, London, E.C. His earliest important commission was one from Messrs. Dent & Co., to illustrate a two volume edition of the 'Morte d' Arthur.' For this he produced more than five hundred designs, taxing his strength and interest in his task to a dangerous point. At about the same time he contributed drawings to the 'Pall Mall Budget.' These were mostly theatrical, but they included portraits charges of Zola, Verdi, Jules Ferry, and others. He also drew for the 'Pall Mall Magazine.' Acting on the advice of influential friends, Sir E. Burne-Jones and M. Puvis de Chavannes among them, he now abandoned his connection with 'the City,' and devoted himself entirely to art. He worked for a time in Mr. Fred Brown's school, and on the foundation of the short-lived 'Yellow Book,' in 1894, accepted the post of its art editor. Many of his most original conceptions saw the light in its pages, wherein, moreover, he was not averse to playing with the public by offering them designs signed with strange names and displaying none of his usual characteristics. His connection with the 'Yellow Book' lasted little more than a year, but a few months later he joined Mr. Arthur Symons in the production of the 'Savoy,' which lived to see eight numbers (Jan.-Dec. 1896). To the 'Savoy' he contributed three poems and a prose fragment, 'Under the Hill,' a parody on the legend of Tannhaüser and the Venusberg. Much of his work for the 'Savoy' was produced at Dieppe, where he spent part of the summer of 1895 in the company of Mr. Arthur Symons and some other young writers and artists.

His later work included series of designs for Oscar Wilde's 'Salome,' for 'The Rape of the Lock'—a series suggested by Mr. Edmund Gosse, in which his strange fantasy reached the acme of elaboration—for 'Mademoiselle de Maupin,' and for Ernest Dowson's 'Pierrot of the Minute.' His last work was a set of initials for an edition of 'Volpone.' These were finished only a week or two before his death.

Beardsley had musical gifts of a high order; the charms of his conversation were great; and he had an extraordinary knowledge of books for so young a man. Certain sotto voce whisperings of his art were, perhaps, to be accounted for by the want of physical balance of the poitrinaire. Throughout his life he suffered from weakness of the lungs, and his abnormal activity had seemed to his friends to be at least partly due to a desire to forestall death, and, in spite of its imminence, to leave a substantial legacy behind him. Few men have done so much work in so brief a space of time — work, moreover, which was always deliberate and finished in the true artistic sense. Shortly before his death Aubrey Beardsley was received into the church of Rome. He died of consumption at Mentone on 16 March 1898, and was buried there.

Beardsley's critics see in his art three distinct phases: first, a romantic and Pre-Raphaelite phase, in which the influence of Burne-Jones and Puvis de Chavannes may be traced; secondly, a purely decorative phase, based mainly on the Japanese convention; thirdly, a more delicate and complex way of seeing things, induced by his study of French art in the eighteenth century. To these Mr. Arthur Symons would add a fourth manner, adumbrated in the 'Volpone' initials, in which the grotesque forms of his earlier styles are discarded for acquiescence in nature as she is or may be. The weak point in his art is its capricious-ness. He fails to convince us completely of his sincerity. His peculiarities seem occasionally to have no sounder foundation than a wish to be different. They too often lack that inevitable connection with a root idea which should characterise all design. On the other hand, his inventions betray extreme mental activity, and his technique a hand at once firm, delicate, and sympathetic. To some the strange element in his work seems merely fantastic; to others it appears morbid in the last degree, if not worse. One anonymous critic describes his art as 'the mere glorification of a hideous and putrescent aspect of modern life.' A more sober judgment might call him a pagan infected with a modern interest in psychology. A list of his works, complete to the end of 1896, was compiled by Mr. Aymer Vallance for the 'Book of Fifty Drawings' (1897).

The best portrait of Beardsley is the photographic profile, with his remarkable hands, reproduced in 'The Works of Aubrey Beardsley' (2 vols. 1899, 1901).

[Times, March 1898; Athenæum, March 1898; Academy, March 1898; Studio, April 1898; The Yellow Book, pts. 1-4; Savoy, pts. 1-8; The Works of Aubrey Beardsley, vol. i., The Early Work, with biographical note by H. C. Marillier, 1899, and vol. ii., The Later Work of Aubrey Beardsley, 1901; A. B., by Arthur Symons (Unicorn quartos, No. 4), 1898; A Book of Fifty Drawings, with catalogue by Aymer Vallance; private information.]

W. A.