21 August marks the centenary of the birth of Aubrey Beardsley whose highly distinctive work in black and white made him one of the best known Art Nouveau artists.
Aubrey Beardsley shocked and delighted late-Victorian London with his sinuous black and white drawings inspired by Japanese woodcuts. He explored the erotic and the elegant, the humorous and grotesque, winning admirers around the world with his distinctive style.
Beardsley did not receive any formal art training, in fact he was working as a clerk in London when he was ‘discovered’ by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Beardsley’s intense and prolific career as a draughtsman and illustrator was cut short by his untimely death from tuberculosis at the age of 25. His charismatic persona played a part in the phenomenon that he and his art generated, so much so that the 1890s were dubbed the ‘Beardsley Period’ – an author of a thousand radical designs which achieved ‘publicity without a frame, and beauty without modelling’.
Beardsley was a public, as well as private, eccentric. He said “I have one aim – the grotesque. If I am not grotesque, I am nothing.” Oscar Wilde said Beardsley had “a face like a silver hatchet, and grass green hair.”
He produced extensive illustrations and caricatures for books and magazines, notably for Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur and Wilde’s Salome.
Beardsley’s work continued to cause controversy in Britain long after his death. During an exhibition of Beardsley’s prints held at the V & A in London in 1966, a private gallery in London was raided by the police for exhibiting copies of the same prints on display at the museum, and the owner charged under obscenity laws.
(The plaque to Aubrey who was born and spent his formative years in Buckingham Road, Brighton is just around the corner from where I lived for a number of years, Ed)