Drop a pebble into the water and long after it has sunk from sight ripples it created will be lapping on distant shores. Memories of just such ripples had started in the fashionable drawing rooms of London and still reach our shores more than a century later. I recently have acquired an interest in Aubrey Beardsley. I came across his book cover Ali Baba online.
The impact of Beardsley, considered the greatest illustrator of the Art Noveau period, is due solely to his erotic imagination and marvellous control of line drawing.
His drawing style stems from the prints of the Japanese whose value was first popularised by the American expatriate painter James Whistler. The erotic emotion that Beardsley portrays is in most of us, but well hidden. It was recognition by the British public, of this hidden thing that rocketed Beardsley to fame at an age when most young people are just leaving home.
And it was that very erotic quality that turned the public against the artist only a few short years later. It robbed him of his only security, the editorship of Yellow Book, and probably hastened his death two years later at the age of 25.
Never in modern times did an English artist have such a meteoric career. Never did any illustrator have such widespread influence on the visual arts on his own and following generations. Yet Beardsley never attended an art school, he never painted a big picture and he never had an exhibition of his work.
His influence came entirely from his illustrations for magazines that have long been out of print and in books that are no longer read.
Beardsley’s career was divided into two phases: the quiet but exciting years of promise before he illustrated Oscar Wilde’s “Salome” and the shocking tragic years after. Beardsley’s illustrations for it have stood the test of time. They seem even greater now than they did when the English version of the play was published in 1894.
Beardsley first met Wilde four years previously at the studio of the English painter Burne-Jones. When Wilder was accused and arrested for his homosexuality in 1895 Beardsley so closely associated with the writer in the public’s mind, suffered too. He lost his job with Yellow Book in 1896 and two years later was dead. Two years after that Wilde also died.