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Drawing until the lights went out


Aubrey Beardsley's illustration for Oscar Wilde's Salome

Collector and author Alan G. Thomas writes in Great Books and Book Collectors (Excalibur Books, 1975) -

"Aubrey Beardsley (1872-97) was, perhaps, the most extraordinary phenomenon in English art. Already tubercular at the age of seven, his only training one year's evening classes at the Westminster School of Art, he was famous at twenty and dead by twenty-five.

This Keats of graphic art created an original and fantastic world entirely of his own with extreme economy of line. His reputation stands higher, and his influence has been greater, than any other English book-illustrator. Forced to earn his living, he worked as a clerk in the City of London offices of the Guardian Life Insurance Company. Many of his lunch hours were spent in the bookshop of Jones and Evans. . ."

JM Dent, the publisher of the Everyman Library, sold books for a shilling, making them available to many who couldn't afford a book otherwise. He did not do this with a government grant, but on his own, and he made a tidy profit. In the 1890s, Dent decided to publish Morte d' Arthur with 350 original drawings. (No small dreams for JM Dent.) Frederick Evans of the bookshop told him that Beardsley was the artist to do it. This was the break that Aubrey needed. He quit the insurance company. Thomas continues -

It is hard to imagine two persons more dissimilar than Dent and Beardsley. Dent. . .was earnest, worthy, rather stolid and a nonconformist. Beardsley was brilliant, a dandy, epicene, erotic and, ultimately, a Roman Catholic. The only quality they had in common was a capacity for hard work. Beardsley worked with the passionate intensity of an artist who knows he must die early. Already, when hardly more than a boy, he was utterly self-assured and created an incredible quantity of drawings. And all this was achieved while he was constantly interrupted by coughing, haemorrhages and the ensuing exhaustion.

Beardsley always worked sitting between two tall candlesticks and coughing, coughing.


The Lady of the Lake, Arthur and Merlin
Image: The Savoy

The Morte was published in two volumes quarto in 1893. In 1894 Beardsley illustrated the first edition of Wilde's Salome.

"These drawings, Thomas wrote, "the masterpiece of Beardsley's early period, had an immense influence on Art Nouveau."

Beardsely went on to create illustrations that were frankly obscene and silly. He had, however, a change of heart and mind -

One of his last acts after converting to Catholicism a year before he died was to plead with his publisher to "destroy all copies of Lysistrata and bad drawings. . .by all that is holy all obscene drawings." His publisher, Smithers, not only ignored Beardsley's wishes, but continued to sell reproductions and outright forgeries. (Wiki)

A betrayal to keep in mind. It is not worse than modern society betraying children by exposing them to unholy - un-whole - images.

Thomas's book reminds us of how many beautiful books have been printed in the previous twelve centuries. Just opening his book is a joy - it has a lovely scent of paper and ink. . .

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