Oct/Nov 1998 Book Reviews

Aubrey Beardsley: A Biography

Matthew Sturgis
HarperCollins, 1998 404pp
ISBN: 0 00 255789 4

reviewed by Ann Skea

"He was on his way to becoming an accomplished performer. He had confidence that his dandified dress would impress; that the discrepancy between his youthful mien and worldly erudition would bemuse; and that the novelty of his drawings would startle."

Aubrey Beardsley, from a very early age, worked on his idiosyncrasies and became expert at eccentric self-promotion. At eighteen, he wrote of himself as having "a vile constitution, a sallow face, sunken eyes, long red hair, a shuffling gait and a stoop". This was probably exaggeration, but it was generally agreed that his appearance was odd: he chose to emphasise it rather than try to hide it. His remarkable success in the art world had a great deal to do with this determinedly perverse aspect of his personality.

In spite of showing distinctive but unexceptional talent in his early years, by the time Beardsley was twenty he was successful enough with his art to resign his office job and devote his life to drawing. Only fifteen-months earlier, he had been able to show some of his drawings to Edward Burne-Jones, who was so impressed by them that he adopted Beardsley as his protegé, made enquiries for him as to the best art school to attend and offered regular criticism of his work. Beardsley, at this time, was entirely self-taught. Five years later, having achieved considerable fame and notoriety, he died of the tuberculosis which he first contracted at the age of seven.

Matthew Sturgis charts the remarkable development of Beardsley's individualistic style through the six hectic years of his public and private life, and he places him deftly in the artistic milieu of the time.

Does anyone still argue about Truth and Beauty, as artists did then? Or have art and literature been so deconstructed that such questions are considered irrelevant? Beardsley was a voracious reader, especially when his health required him to have complete rest. He was well aware of Ruskin's and Pater's opposing views on art and morality and of the ongoing debate in the art world between the traditionalists and the modernists. The traditionalists believed that art had a moral and social purpose, and they considered, as Burne-Jones did, that "...Beauty is very beautiful, and softens, and comforts and inspires, and rouses, and lifts up and never fails". The modernists espoused "pure form", "metropolitan modernity" and "Nature (refined by the artistic imagination). Ruskin, in a famous lecture, illustrated the difference by painting a modernist iron bridge, water pollution and factory smoke onto the glass of a Turner sunset (or so A.E.Houseman once claimed).

Beardsley, it seems, "was ambivalent about taking sides" but the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites on his work is readily apparent. Less obvious, is the influence of Whistler, whose eccentricities of personality appealed to him as much as his claim that the artist was a "privileged figure" free from all constraints but that of "the quest for pictorial beauty".

There is a good deal of humour in this book, and Sturgis has a felicity of style which fits his subject and an objectivity which allows him to see through some of Beardsley's more outrageous claims and self-aggrandisement. He does a thorough job, too, using a wide range of old and new source to present a vivid picture of a young man whose success was not easily won. Beardsley did not come from a privileged background. His earnings often provided essential support for his family, and his health was a constant restriction and frequently prevented him from drawing anything at all. Yet he worked extremely hard to develop a style which was unique and which was perfectly adapted to the requirements of the new photo-engraving process and the increased demand from publishers for book plates, decorative chapter headings and artistic book covers.

Sturgis also provides interesting background to this new development in the printing world. He gives fascinating details of the genesis of the Bodley Head publishing house and of the textile entrepreneur, Charles Holme, who was a patron of the arts, yet saw the commercial potential of the new printing processes. Holme was not, says Sturgis, "a man to be stampeded into enthusiasm". Accepting some of Beardsley's pictures for the first edition of his new art magazine, _Studio_, with a brusque "These will do", Holme nevertheless was astute enough to buy some of them for his own collection.

Beardsley's connection with Oscar Wilde is well known, but his rivalry with him and his determination to prevent him from contributing to _The Yellow Book_ or, later, to _Savoy_ are less known. This antagonism was demonstrated quite early in his drawings for Wilde's _Salome_ by the introduction of ironic caricatures of Wilde into the drawings along with "concealed obscenities in the details". These "pranks" caused Beardsley's publisher, John Lane, to start examining each drawing with a magnifying glass - "in his alarm he would sometimes spot obscenities which were not there whilst missing those that were". Obviously some people had the same problem when Beardsley's drawings enjoyed renewed popularity in the 1960's and 70's - the priapic dwarf in 'The Stomach Dance' from _Salome_ graced the walls of many very conservative cafés and lounges.

In the end, it was Beardsley's supposed connection with the Wilde scandal and public reaction against the Decadent movement (which disdained the classical traditions and the restrains of traditional ethics in art) which made Beardsley's work unacceptable to many publishers and caused him to become reliant on friends for financial subsidies.

Sturgis gives a balanced, interesting and informative account of Beardsley's life and a clear and knowledgeable assessment of his work and the artistic influences from which it developed. Very early in my reading of the book I had to resort to the public library for a volume of Beardsley's art work (and there is a good range of it on the Internet) and I would have liked more of the works under discussion included in the book but no doubt costs precluded this. I would also have been helpful to have had page references in the text for those illustrations which are included. Sturgis discusses the work in some detail and much of this is wasted if the picture is not readily available. A chronological list of Beardsley's work would have been nice, too, because his six years of success was so packed with incident that I often lost track of his actual age.

But these are quibbles. The book is a pleasure to read. And for one who has merely admired some of Beardsley's designs in a rather casual way, this book has provided me with a clear picture of his place in Western art, of the sources from which he drew his inspiration, and of the influence his severe modernist line and abstract form has had on later artists. Sturgis suggests that Kandinsky, Klee, Matisse and Picasso noted his style. Others have mentioned Munch. And, most recently, traces of Beardsley's influence have been seen in the distinctly Decadent work of Damien Hurst.


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