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Who is Aubrey Beardsley?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: Sara Z. Potter
  • Last Modified Date: 11 December 2014
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Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) was an English artist and writer of the Victorian period. His distinctive Art Nouveau pen and ink drawings make dramatic use of contrast between dark and light areas. His drawings were featured in many books during his lifetime, including Oscar Wilde's Salome, Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur, and Aristophanes' Lysistrata. His often grotesque and erotic work was controversial for its time, and continues to have shock value for some in the present day. Beardsley also wrote and illustrated Under the Hill, an incomplete erotic work based on the legend of Tannhauser, who according to German legend, was a knight and poet who discovered the underground home of the goddess Venus, and eventually became torn between two opposite women: Venus and "Elizabeth."

Beardsley was born in Brighton, England on 21 August 1872, to middle class parents who struggled to make ends meet. He had one older sister, named Mabel. He suffered from tuberculosis from the age of nine and was sick for most of his life.

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In 1884, he and his sister started living with their aunt. He began attending Bristol Grammar School shortly thereafter. Upon finishing school in 1889, he started working as a clerk in a London insurance office. His mother followed him there and continued to nurse him throughout his life. He was not content with his work as a clerk and sought a career in the art world. He had shown interest in art during his Bristol days when his short prose and poetry pieces as well as his illustrations appeared in school publications. Beardsley and his sister visited the studio of Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, who advised him to hone his craft at the Westminster School of Art.

His drawings soon became popular, and he was commissioned to provide illustrations for Le Morte D'Arthur and Salome in 1983 and 1894, respectively. Publishers objected to the nudity in some of his Salome illustrations, so two versions of some of the drawings exist: the originals and the censored versions. When Wilde, the author of Salome, expressed disappointment with Beardsley's work, he incorporated unkind caricatures of the author into his illustrations.

He then started working as an art editor for The Yellow Book, a decadent journal which cemented his fame. The journal first appeared in 1894, and he worked on it for only a year. He was fired after Oscar Wilde's arrest for "gross indecency" because of his association with the infamous author. However, he would remain forever associated with The Yellow Book in the mind of the public.

Beardsley's next project was a rival publication of The Yellow Book; The Savoy, conceived of by publisher Leonard Smithers. He contributed both illustrations and writings to this publication, and continued working as an illustrator for Smithers after The Savoy ceased publication in 1896. Smithers also published a collection of his work entitled A Book of Fifty Drawings.

Beardsley's life was tragically cut short at the age of 25 by tuberculosis which had plagued him since childhood. He died in Menton, France, where he had moved in an attempt to improve his health, in the first hours of 16 March 1898.

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