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AUBREY BEARDSLEY (1872–1898), a young, iconoclastic illustrator from Brighton with almost no formal training, was elevated by innovative publishers to positions of responsibility that enabled him to start an artistic revolution in London. Between 1893 and 1898, the main years of his short career, Beardsley's few mentors in publishing gave him the enormous assignments of illustrating full-length books and serving as art editor and principal illustrator for new magazines.
These publications demanded much artwork of him, so that his drawings were executed boldly and were sometimes unrelated to the texts they accompanied. Moreover, he was allowed a great deal of independence, and used these opportunities to introduce elements of blatant sensuality and morbidity. His drawings appeared all over London, and their appearance within the same covers as the work of the outstanding writers and artists of the Aesthetic movement of the period led him to be associated with that influential circle almost immediately.
Beardsley's free hand was unwelcome to the unprepared conservative public of his time, but in the long run was recognized as that of a revolutionary genius. The purity of his use of black and white—sharp, clean line and pure black or white masses with no modeling or shading—was completely original in the illustration of his day; and the freedom and originality with which he associated one theme or motif with another in his compositions is considered remarkable even to today's unshockable art lovers.
Beardsley received his first major commission as an illustrator in 1893, when still only twenty years old: to illustrate Le Morte Darthur for J. M. Dent and Co. This proved to be a tremendous job for which he executed hundreds of drawings. Though executed in a fairly conservative medieval style reminiscent of Edward Burne-Jones, his borders, chapter heads and other page embellishments were seasoned with the appearance of winged figures, satyrs and other unexplained elements; and his full-page drawings imaginatively interpreted the book's characters and scenes. With work from this huge project in his portfolio, the young artist attracted the editors of various London magazines. In the celebrated arts magazine The Studio, his work first appeared with a special introduction, "A New Illustrator," written by the well-established American illustrator Joseph Pennell. It was still 1893 when John Lane, of the publishing firm The Bodley Head, commissioned Beardsley to illustrate Oscar Wilde's Salome, to be published the following year. In illustrating this erotic play about the execution of John the Baptist by Herod Antipas, Beardsley took great liberties himself (it is often said that he sought to ridicule the play), producing sensual and horrifying images that were sometimes completely out of keeping with the text. Stylistically, these particular illustrations appear to reveal the influence of Japanese art, which Beardsley indeed admitted to emulating in some of his work. It is often noted that a visit early in his career to James McNeill Whistler's Peacock Room, which contained a collection of Japanese prints, made a strong impression upon him.
In 1894 John Lane appointed Beardsley art editor and chief illustrator of The Yellow Book, a new arts magazine that would also contain the work of authors such as Henry James, William Butler Yeats and Max Beerbohm and of such illustrators as Sir Frederic Leighton and Walter Sickert. Simultaneously with his Yellow Book career, Beardsley designed covers for the Keynotes series, an assortment of novels with cover designs of very similar format, published by John Lane.
After illustrating four issues of The Yellow Book, Beardsley was dismissed in 1895, at the insistence of readers who mistakenly associated him with the scandals then surrounding Oscar Wilde. This dismissal was a painful blow, removing him from what had become the seat of his career—a position of distinction, in a special circle of prominent London artists associated with the magazine. Soon afterward, however, he found new advocacy in Leonard Smithers, another book and magazine publisher (original publisher of Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest). Beardsley was appointed art editor of The Savoy, a new arts magazine published by Smithers. Havelock Ellis, George Bernard Shaw, Yeats and Beerbohm were among the many outstanding London writers and illustrators featured in its pages. Beardsley illustrated eight issues of The Savoy between 1895 and 1896. In addition to artwork, he contributed his own writings, including the poems "The Three Musicians" and "The Ballad of a Barber," a translation of Catullus' "Carmen CI" and an unfinished novel titled Under the Hill (an expurgated version of another novel he never finished, The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser). These writings were accompanied, naturally, by his own illustrations.
Among the books Beardsley illustrated for Smithers was Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock, which was published in 1896. The famous drawings he executed for this book are considered to be lively and astute interpretations of Pope's satire, and are unsurpassed as examples of Beardsley's fine line work. While he was preparing drawings for The Rape of the Lock, Beardsley also decided to illustrate Aristophanes' Lysistrata. Smithers published an English translation of the text with his drawings in a limited edition. The illustrator's last great drawings took literature for their themes, such as his illustrations for The Forty Thieves, drawn in 1897; and those for Ben Jonson's Volpone, published in 1898 by Smithers. Aubrey Beardsley died of tuberculosis in 1898, at the age of 25.
Beardsley's style of illustration was highly original. He was brought into publication raw, with less than a year of formal training. The content of his drawings must have come mainly from his own young intellect and limited experience—and this fact makes the complexity of his compositions, and the variety of different themes therein, most impressive. Literature was a personal love that dominated the themes of his art. For many of his drawings of characters or scenes from well-known literature that were not published in books, he found outlets in the magazines he edited; and those that went unpublished after his death found their way into collections of his work compiled by his former publishers.
The present Dover collection draws upon all the important sources of Beardsley's work mentioned above—books and magazines from 1893 to 1898, the years of his career in London. To round out this selection of the most important works from his professional repertoire, charming designs for posters, bookplates, invitation cards, catalogue covers and other peripheral projects have also been included. It is hoped not only that readers will enjoy this collection for its comprehensive range of Beardsley's work, but also that today's artists, taking advantage of the fact that these works have been republished from public domain sources, will incorporate these incomparable designs into their own creative projects.
Excerpted from Best Works of Aubrey Beardsley by Aubrey Beardsley. Copyright © 1990 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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The title "Best" is a laughable misnomer. The best is on the cover of the book. The rest of the images are in the "worst" category, or have been bowdlerized beyond recognition.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 28, 2007
Five of the illustrations are expurgated (i.e., censored) versions. There's no reason for the censored versions to have been used. Anyone buying this book is expecting the real deal, and certainly would not find the uncensored versions objectionable. Also, I wish this book existed in hardcover with better paper.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.