Aubrey Beardsley (18872-1898) was born in Brighton, Sussex, England.
Beardsley traveled to Paris in 1892, where he discovered the poster art of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the Parisian fashion for Japanese prints. His first commission was Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory (1893), illustrated for the publishing house J.M. Dent and Company. In 1894, a new translation of Lucian’s True History, with illustrations by Beardsley, William Strang, and J. B. Clark, was privately printed in an edition of 251 copies.
Beardsley had six years of creative output, which can be divided into several periods, identified by the form of his signature. In the early period, his work is mostly unsigned. During 1891 and 1892, he progressed to using his initials A.V.B. In mid-1892, the period of Le Morte d’Arthur and The Bon Mots, he used a Japanese-influenced mark that became progressively more graceful, sometimes accompanied by A.B. in block capitals.
He co-founded The Yellow Book with American writer Henry Harland, and for the first four editions, he served as art editor and produced the cover designs and many illustrations for the magazine. He was aligned with Aestheticism, the British counterpart of Decadence and Symbolism. Most of his images are done in ink and feature large dark areas contrasted with large blank ones as well as areas of fine detail contrasted with areas with none at all.
Beardsley was the most controversial artist of the Art Nouveau era, renowned for his dark and perverse images and grotesque erotica, which were the main themes of his later work. His illustrations were in black and white against a white background. Some of his drawings, inspired by Japanese shunga artwork, featured enormous genitalia. His most famous erotic illustrations concerned themes of history and mythology; these include his illustrations for a privately printed edition of Aristophanes‘ Lysistrata and his drawings for Oscar Wilde‘s play Salome, which eventually premiered in Paris in 1896. Other major illustration projects included an 1896 edition of The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope.
He also produced extensive illustrations for books and magazines (e.g., for a deluxe edition of Sir Thomas Malory‘s Le Morte d’Arthur) and worked for magazines such as The Studio and The Savoy, of which he was a co-founder. As a co-founder of The Savoy, Beardsley was able to pursue his writing as well as illustration, and a number of his writings, including Under the Hill (a story based on the Tannhäuser legend) and “The Ballad of a Barber” appeared in the magazine.
Beardsley was a caricaturist and did some political cartoons, mirroring Wilde’s irreverent wit in art. Beardsley’s work reflected the decadence of his era and his influence was enormous, clearly visible in the work of the French Symbolists, the Poster Art Movement of the 1890s and the work of many later-period Art Nouveau artists such as Papé and Clarke. Some alleged works of Beardsley’s were published in a book titled Fifty Drawings by Aubrey Beardsley, Selected from the Collection of Mr. H.S. Nicols. These later were discovered to be forgeries, distinguishable by their almost pornographic erotic elements rather than Beardsley’s subtler use of sexuality.
Beardsley’s work continued to cause controversy in Britain long after his death. During an exhibition of Beardsley’s prints held at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1966, a private gallery in London was raided by the police for exhibiting copies of the same prints on display at the museum, and the owner charged under obscenity laws.