The Art of Aubrey Beardsley

By:  Bridget McCormick, ARB Student Assistant

Aubrey BeardsleyBorn August 21, 1872 in Brighton, England, illustrator and author Aubrey Beardsley served as a prominent, albeit controversial, figure within the London Art Nouveau and Aesthetic movements of the late 19th century.

Relocating to London with his family in 1883 when he was eleven years old, an adolescent Beardsley began to study drawing and literary arts while still in primary school. It was not until 1892, however, when he attended formal classes at the Westminster School of Art that Beardsley decided to pick up art as a profession. He most often worked in a plain black and white style, with the detailed application of black ink. His most famous illustrations depict themes of history and mythology. Examples of such works can be seen in Beardsley’s illustrations for his contemporary Oscar Wilde’s play, Salome (1891).

La Morte d'arthur Beardsley had many outside influences within the Art Nouveau style that cultivated his body of work. For example, the intricacies of Beardsley’s illustrations may be traced back to his affinity for Japanese woodcuts and prints. Applying his personal touch to the style, Beardsley often juxtaposed those areas of high detail with moments of negative space.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a prominent French poster-style artist, was another influential figure for Beardsley. Lautrec was perhaps the most notable figure within the poster style, which was cultivated in the 1890s along with Art Nouveau. The style was closely linked to technical advances in printmaking , notably lithography . Characteristic poster designs contained graceful flowing forms and were largely reliant upon line and color. The influence of this style can be seen in countless illustrations across Beardsley’s entire body of work. The most prominent examples of Beardsley’s drawing can be seen in his illustrations for various publications, most notably for The Yellow Book and The Savoy .

The Yellow BookThe Yellow Book, published in London from 1894 to 1897 by Elkin Mathews and John Lane, was a quarterly literary periodical containing a vast array of genres. As the first art editor for The Yellow Book, Aubrey Beardsley became notorious for his continuous attempts to shock the British public with his content, as he put special emphasis on themes of the grotesque, decadent, and erotic. The nature of the illustrations Beardsley created for Oscar Wilde’s Salome is a particular example of this controversy. In Beardsley’s depictions, Salome gives direct glares at other subjects while scarcely clothed as an act of acknowledging her own sexuality. While Salome uses her sexuality in this way, she is not aroused. She assumes a masculine role, entering a power struggle with patriarchy. This empowered stance by a female character opposed the Victorian ideals of femininity of the time period, and was a disturbance to Salome , The Eyes of Herodthe British public. Additionally, because Beardsley was known for hiding inappropriate details in his work, editor John Lane was tasked with scrutinizing each of his illustrations before publication.

Beardsley’s design for the cover of the Yellow Book – a hardcover yellow with black illustration – was a reflection of the ‘Yellow Nineties’, a decade in which the Regency period, noted for its elegance and achievements in the fine arts and architecture, began to give way to less-regal French influences. For yellow was not only the decor of the notorious and dandified pre-Victorian Regency, but also of the allegedly wicked and decadent French illicit novel. As a movement marking the beginning of a shift in public ideology, the color of this time period was associated with all that was bizarre and queer in art and life and with all that was outrageously modern.

The SavoyBeardsley also illustrated for The Savoy, a periodical magazine published in 1896 by Leonard Smithers. Known as a pornographer of the time, Smithers was notorious for his other publications, such as rare erotic works and books bound in human skin. The magazine, started by Smithers with writer Arthur Symons, was described as “a manifesto in revolt against Victorian materialism”. As the artist for the publication, Aubrey Beardsley has illustrations present in each volume of The Savoy. The name of the magazine was inspired by the Savoy Hotel in London, a glamorous building that was notorious for being the location for Oscar Wilde’s trysts. Wilde became significantly associated with the magazine as The Savoy began its decline at the time of his imprisonment for indecency. Ultimately, the periodical ended publication soon after in the same year it began.

beardsley 02 The Savoy_beardsley_1Aubrey Beardsley was a public as well as private eccentric. “I have one aim—the grotesque. If I am not grotesque I am nothing,” he said. In an ironic turn of events, Beardsley converted to Roman Catholicism in March of 1897, and began to plead to his publisher Leonard Smithers to destroy all copies of his most obscene work. Ignoring Beardsley’s wishes, Smithers continued to sell reproductions as well as forgeries of Beardsley’s work. In 1897 due to his deteriorating health, Beardsley moved to the French Riviera where he died a year later on March 16, attended by his mother and sister. He was 25 years old and the cause of death was tuberculosis.

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The Archives and Rare Books Library possesses eleven issues of The Yellow Book, and all eight publications of The Savoy.

The Yellow BookARB Rare Books  AP2 .Y4  v.2(1894:July)  LIB USE ONLY
 ARB Rare Books  AP2 .Y4  v.3(1894:Oct.)  LIB USE ONLY
 ARB Rare Books  AP2 .Y4  v.4(1895:July)  LIB USE ONLY
 ARB Rare Books  AP2 .Y4  v.5(1895:Apr.)  LIB USE ONLY
 ARB Rare Books  AP2 .Y4  v.6(1895:July)  LIB USE ONLY
 ARB Rare Books  AP2 .Y4  v.8(1896:Jan.)  LIB USE ONLY
 ARB Rare Books  AP2 .Y4  v.9(1896:Apr.)  LIB USE ONLY
 ARB Rare Books  AP2 .Y4  v.10(1896:July)  LIB USE ONLY
 ARB Rare Books  AP2 .Y4  v.11(1896:Oct.)  LIB USE ONLY
 ARB Rare Books  AP2 .Y4  v.13(1897:Apr.)  LIB USE ONLY
The SavoyARB Rare Books  AP2 .S37  v.1:no.1-2(1896:Jan-Apr)  LIB USE ONLY
 ARB Rare Books  AP2 .S37  v.2:no.3-5(1896:Jul-Sep)  LIB USE ONLY
 ARB Rare Books  AP2 .S37  v.3:no.6-8(1896:Oct-Dec)  LIB USE ONLY

For more information about ARB’s rare books holdings, email us at, contact us by phone at 513.556.1959, visit us on the 8th floor of Blegen Library or on the web at





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