Along with the Irish writer and wit Oscar Wilde, whose play Salome he illustrated to astonishing effect, Aubrey Beardsley is the key figure in the English 19th Century fin-de-siecle.
In his precocious, short lived yet immeasurably influential career Beardsley started out as a follower of Aestheticism, England’s anaemic version of the international Symbolism/Decadent movement. At the age of twenty his art implicitly rejected the insipid romantic cliches of the Pre-Raphaelites, which Aestheticism was still in thrall to, and concentrated on the grotesque and the erotic. Inspired by Japanese woodblocks and the poster art of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, he was one of the first artists to exploit the new process of ‘line-block’, which enabled unlimited prints to be made without losing the clarity of the original drawing. Beardsley’s most important contribution to the history of drawing was, however, the value he attached to line. Beardsley noted that artists “are in the habit of using thin lines to express backgrounds, and thick lines to express foregrounds.” His simple yet revolutionary idea was that he could achieve a greater effect if “the background and foreground are drawn with lines the same thickness.” The importance of Beardsley on the sinuous curve of the then nascent Art Nouveau style is hard to over-estimate.
Beardsley’s first commission in 1893, at the age of twenty-one, for the Everyman edition of Sir Thomas Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur caused quite a stir with its languid atmosphere of androgyny and perversion. He was a co-founder of The Savoy magazine, where parts of his unfinished erotic novel Under the Hill (with illustrations) were published, and the first art editor of The Yellow Book. Beardsley is credited with the distinctive yellow cover, daringly associating it with the tradition of bounding illicit, pornographic books in that colour in France. Along with the illustrations for Salome, this would prove to be problematic for Beardsley at the time of Wilde’s trial for gross indecency in 1895 and the publishers of The Yellow Book gave in to demands for his dismissal.
Beardsley would continue to illustrate books, notably Lysistrata, Pope’s The Rape of the Lock and selected tales of Edgar Allan Poe, before moving to the South of France in 1897 due to his deteriorating health. He died the following year at the age of 25 from tuberculosis.