Aubrey Beardsley exhibition at Tate Britain

John Westbrooke is dazzled by a scandalous master of illustration

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Even Covid-19 hasn’t been able to wipe out the Aubrey Beardsley exhibition at Tate Britain. It’s ironic, because the artist himself had his own life cut drastically short by illness; but he crammed a huge amount of work, elegant, inventive and frequently scandalous black and white drawing, into just six years.

Born in Brighton in 1872, he was only seven when he was diagnosed with incurable tuberculosis, so he always knew his time was borrowed. His father Vincent had a family history of TB; his mother, Ellen Pitt, was so slender she was known as the bottomless Pitt, but lived to a ripe old age and nursed him in his last illness.

One of the drawings at the Tate shows a young man, writing in an enormous ledger. It looks like a self-portrait of Beardsley’s time as a clerk at the Guardian Life insurance company. But at the age of 18 he called on Edward Burne-Jones, a pre-Raphaelite painter he admired, with some drawings and got unusual praise: “I seldom advise anyone to take up art as a profession but in your case I can do nothing else.”

His early works do look Pre-Raphaelite, figures from religion and mythology with firm jaws and flowing hair; but his style changed rapidly through the years. His first big commission was to illustrate an upmarket edition of Le Morte d’Arthur, a 15th-century account of King Arthur. This involved more than 350 drawings big and small, from chapter headings to covers. It paid £250, enough to allow him to give up the day job.

Already you can see influences from everywhere: he’d studied Japanese prints, he’d looked at posters in Paris (his own posters were almost his only colour work), there are flower-packed drawings that reflect art nouveau, and some of the geometrically composed characters even seem to foreshadow art deco. An illustration of Isolde writing to Sir Tristram features heaped-up Pre-Raphaelite hair, flat white spaces that may be Japanese, Art-and-Crafty windows, and a desk that the caption points outcomes from a Dürer engraving. And yet the illustration couldn’t be by anyone but Beardsley.

In 1893, a story in the art magazine The Studio, enticingly headed “A New Illustrator”, brought his name to a wider public. Among the jobs it prompted was an invitation from Oscar Wilde to illustrate an English-language edition of his French play Salomé, and soon everyone had heard of him. The play’s a purple-prose biblical hymn to sex and death; one picture, The Climax, shows Salomé kissing John the Baptist’s severed head. A remarkable 1923 film version, based on his drawing, is on YouTube.

Wilde was happy to scandalise the bourgeoisie in the pursuit of art for art’s sake, and Beardsley was happy to comply. The publisher kept busy ordering him to draw fig leaves over genitals, erase rude little details and remove hands from between thighs, but he was also developing the fine detail, sinuous lines and masses of accented black you can see in The Peacock Skirt, all of which worked well in contemporary printing processes.

The next year he became art editor of The Yellow Book, the literary periodical that became almost synonymous with him though it published writers as varied as Kenneth Grahame and H.G. Wells. Beardsley’s notoriety was growing. “If I am not grotesque, I am nothing,” he announced.

He was already a work of art himself, a great dandy, depicting himself with centre-parted hair and big bow tie. He was associated in the public eye with aestheticism and decadence; Punch flung names like Weirdsley Daubery at him. There was wild speculation about his sexuality: he was gay, he was celibate, he was a cross-dresser, he slept with his sister. None of it was evidence-based.

But it all blew up when Wilde was jailed for homosexual activity in 1895. Decadence was suddenly unamusing. He’d been carrying a yellow book when arrested: it wasn’t the Yellow Book (which Wilde had never written for) but the public didn’t care. Crowds broke the windows of the publisher; Beardsley was sacked and fled to Dieppe.

Maybe he felt that, as a figure of disgust rather than scandal, his career was over, but he still had some of his finest work ahead of him.

Among his loveliest illustrations are the rococo “embroideries” for Alexander Pope’s mock-heroic poem Rape of the Lock, with many of the fine details picked out in the “stippled manner” – dots rather than lines, a long way from the heavy woodcut look of works only a few years earlier. (He also reduces the over-inked lips that unsettle some of his other work.) “The Battle of the Beaux and Belles”, showing a society lady confronting the man who’s sneakily cut a lock of her hair, is a perfect balance of black and white, detail and empty space, attack and defence.

Less reputably, back in Surrey, he also produced illustrations for a limited edition of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata, in which the women of Sparta and Athens stage a sex strike until their men end the war between the cities. The drawings are more satirical than erotic, but they’re certainly genital-heavy.

Beardsley had a haemorrhage late in 1896, and tried travelling for his health; he eventually died in March 1898 in Menton, on the French/Italian border, aged just 25. Before he did so, he turned to Catholicism, and asked his publisher to destroy his Lysistrata drawings. (He didn’t, he kept on selling them, and copies, and fakes.)

The artist’s reputation was flat for a while, though you can see his influence in works from Heath Robinson to Picasso; he was arguably the first to put sex front and centre. Not till a 1966 V&A exhibition revived interest did he became big again: on display at the Tate are covers of 1960s albums by Procol Harum and Humble Pie that use his work, and, most imaginatively, Klaus Voorman’s famous design for the Beatles’ Revolver.

An artist who works in black and white and is seen as an illustrator is never going to have the status of a “proper” painter – despite his astonishing output of more than 1000 drawings and designs and his continuing influence. But Beardsley belongs up there in the top 10 with Constable and Hockney and any British artist you care to name, and this is the biggest show of his work in 50 years.

Aubrey Beardsley at Tate Britain, extended until September 20 2020. Tickets £16, concessions available; visitors must book.

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