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Aubrey Beardsley: A Biography

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Like Oscar Wilde, Beardsley was a leading member of the Decadent movement in England during the 1890s. Together they shocked the press and the establishment by cultivating the pose of dandies, coolly removed from prevailing social mores, and took aim at the dominant figures of the late 19th-century art world: moralizing critic John Ruskin and the sentimental pre-Raphaelite Like Oscar Wilde, Beardsley was a leading member of the Decadent movement in England during the 1890s. Together they shocked the press and the establishment by cultivating the pose of dandies, coolly removed from prevailing social mores, and took aim at the dominant figures of the late 19th-century art world: moralizing critic John Ruskin and the sentimental pre-Raphaelite painters. That Beardsley met an early death at the age of 25 after a lifelong battle with tuberculosis was especially ironic, as the cult of the doomed youth was central to the Decadent movement. Throughout, Sturgis is in full command of the cultural conditions that led to Beardsley's emergence as an enfant terrible, such as the newly available illustrated picture press that made the artist's deliberately shocking drawings easily available to the masses and turned him into a media-art star avant la lettre. Sturgis never resorts to flimsy psychological conjecture (although his circumspection may in part be due to Beardsley's own efforts to fashion an elaborate mask for public consumption), and the biographer's prose is unexpectedly affecting when the end comes for his subject, as Beardsley rushes from spa to sanitarium, searching for a cure, frantically taking up and abandoning projects all the while. Arriving as it does in the midst of our own surface-obsessed fin de siecle, Sturgis's biography is not only a faithful record of Beardsley and of his world but also a useful study of the birth pangs of modernity. 26 b photographs and Beardsley's line drawings throughout.


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Like Oscar Wilde, Beardsley was a leading member of the Decadent movement in England during the 1890s. Together they shocked the press and the establishment by cultivating the pose of dandies, coolly removed from prevailing social mores, and took aim at the dominant figures of the late 19th-century art world: moralizing critic John Ruskin and the sentimental pre-Raphaelite Like Oscar Wilde, Beardsley was a leading member of the Decadent movement in England during the 1890s. Together they shocked the press and the establishment by cultivating the pose of dandies, coolly removed from prevailing social mores, and took aim at the dominant figures of the late 19th-century art world: moralizing critic John Ruskin and the sentimental pre-Raphaelite painters. That Beardsley met an early death at the age of 25 after a lifelong battle with tuberculosis was especially ironic, as the cult of the doomed youth was central to the Decadent movement. Throughout, Sturgis is in full command of the cultural conditions that led to Beardsley's emergence as an enfant terrible, such as the newly available illustrated picture press that made the artist's deliberately shocking drawings easily available to the masses and turned him into a media-art star avant la lettre. Sturgis never resorts to flimsy psychological conjecture (although his circumspection may in part be due to Beardsley's own efforts to fashion an elaborate mask for public consumption), and the biographer's prose is unexpectedly affecting when the end comes for his subject, as Beardsley rushes from spa to sanitarium, searching for a cure, frantically taking up and abandoning projects all the while. Arriving as it does in the midst of our own surface-obsessed fin de siecle, Sturgis's biography is not only a faithful record of Beardsley and of his world but also a useful study of the birth pangs of modernity. 26 b photographs and Beardsley's line drawings throughout.

30 review for Aubrey Beardsley: A Biography

  1. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    Solid and competent biography of an elusive and I think ultimately insubstantial character. Beardsley was influential in the growth of the aesthetic movement and Art Nouveau in the 1890s. His career was brief and cut short by his untimely death from tuberculosis. Beardsley produced some very competent and ground breaking drawings, along with some truly awful poetry. Sturgis sets out to demythologize Bearsdley and succeds well. His sexuality remains unclear but that is not surprising beacuase the Solid and competent biography of an elusive and I think ultimately insubstantial character. Beardsley was influential in the growth of the aesthetic movement and Art Nouveau in the 1890s. His career was brief and cut short by his untimely death from tuberculosis. Beardsley produced some very competent and ground breaking drawings, along with some truly awful poetry. Sturgis sets out to demythologize Bearsdley and succeds well. His sexuality remains unclear but that is not surprising beacuase the backlash against Wilde occured at the height of Beardsley's success. The erotic drawings (especially those for Lysistrata) are striking (and often somewhat juvenile). The obvious talent he had was unfulfilled because of an early death. The Yellow Book still stands out as ground breaking; but he was only a small part of that. However there was much more to that than Beardsley. Sturgis manages to set the decade in context along with Beardsley's contribution and his return to popularity in the 1960s. A good read, almost as good as his biography of Sickert.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Sherwood Smith

    What came to be called art nouveau, or art deco, was in part an inspiration of Aubrey Beardsley, whose illustrations came into vogue when I was young, though many of them were not reproduced as being too scandalizing. Little or nothing was written about the artist, except for some suppressive statements equating him with the decadent absinthe-drinking crowd around Oscar Wilde. So I was delighted to find this sympathetic, witty biography that goes into quite a bit of detail about Beardsley's very What came to be called art nouveau, or art deco, was in part an inspiration of Aubrey Beardsley, whose illustrations came into vogue when I was young, though many of them were not reproduced as being too scandalizing. Little or nothing was written about the artist, except for some suppressive statements equating him with the decadent absinthe-drinking crowd around Oscar Wilde. So I was delighted to find this sympathetic, witty biography that goes into quite a bit of detail about Beardsley's very short life. Sturgis draws on numerous period references, letters, and of course publications, careful to point out the many anecdotes that are probably spurious. The truth is, very little is known about Beardsley's inner life: very early on he developed a persona along with his art, though he consistently referred to himself as asexual, and "a solitaire" in spite of the cynically sexual nature of much of his art. Sturgis takes care to paint word pictures of the amazing fin de siecle art scene, and Beardsley's many friendships. He does an admirable job of extricating the complexities of Beardsley's and Wilde's relationship, and comments on the development of Beardsley's art with a sharp eye. Excellent bibliographic notes wind up a satisfactory read.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Gerry

    Aubrey Beardsley was only 25 when he died (Oscar Wilde was quoted as saying, 'he died at the age of a flower') but in his short life he had made a name for himself as one of the defining figures of the 1890s with his sometimes outrageous draughtsmanship and his very striking and original black and white art. But not everyone liked him or his work and he sparked many and varied reactions wherever he went. He was born in Brighton on 21 August 1872 but moved to London's Notting Hill at a young age w Aubrey Beardsley was only 25 when he died (Oscar Wilde was quoted as saying, 'he died at the age of a flower') but in his short life he had made a name for himself as one of the defining figures of the 1890s with his sometimes outrageous draughtsmanship and his very striking and original black and white art. But not everyone liked him or his work and he sparked many and varied reactions wherever he went. He was born in Brighton on 21 August 1872 but moved to London's Notting Hill at a young age when his father gained employment with the West India and Panama Telegraph Company. But Aubrey was a sickly child and a doctor ordered him out of London so his parents placed him in a boarding school at Hurstpeirpoint, about eight miles out of Brighton. He subsequently attended Brighton Grammar School where he met Charles Cochran, the future theatrical impresario, who became a lifelong friend. And it was at Brighton Grammar School where he first appeared in print as an artist, the school magazine publishing an unlikely (for Beardsley) cricket drawing entitled 'The Jubilee Cricket Analysis' and shortly afterwards he appeared in the magazine 'Brighton Society' with a poem entitled 'Two-To-One'. Despite his illness, he got employment as a clerk in the Guardian Assurance office but he continued to draw and write voraciously. Then in July 1891 he met his hero, Edward Burne-Jones, who took an instant liking to Beardsley and his work; their friendship lasted some years until Beardsley lampooned him and thereafter Burne-Jones denounced Beardsley's drawings as 'immoral'. He had a mixed relationship with Oscar Wilde, whose 'Salome' gave Beardsley tremendous approbation with his drawings, which Wilde stated, 'were wonderful'. But some time later when Beardsley attended the premiere of 'The Importance of Being Earnest' he found Wilde 'increasingly irritating' while Oscar said, 'What a contrast the two are: Mabel [Aubrey's sister] a daisy, Aubrey the most monstrous of orchids'. Their relationship was strained from that moment on. Beardsley played a major role in the launching of 'The Yellow Book', indeed one quote of the day was 'The Yellow Book is Aubrey Beardsley' but eventually some of drawings were suppressed from future issues and finally he was, somewhat clandestinely, removed from the production altogether. Beardsley was not happy and mocked those who read imaginary obscenities into his drawings. As a rival to 'The Yellow Book' he was involved in the birth of 'The Savoy', designing the cover very much in the style of the earlier magazine and contributing drawings, prose and verse to the first issue. However, he was still regarded as 'a decadent'. Indeed, Ada Leverson provided a spoof for the magazine 'Punch' in which she portrayed Beardsley as 'Daubaway Wierdsley'. Just prior to his death he converted to Catholicism but after his death on 16 March 1898 at the French Riviera seaside resort of Menton he was, as an English citizen, assigned a plot in the protestant part of the cemetery. Beardsley was undoubtedly one of the outstanding figures of the 1890s and Matthew Sturgis has produced a thoroughly well researched and a sensitively written biography that could well become the definitive biography of this talented artist.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Rohase Piercy

    I did enjoy this thoughtful, balanced biography of an outrageous fin-de-siècle character whose innovative art has become forever identified with the 'Decadent' movement of the 1890s. There's a good balance between discussion of Beardsley's art and his character, and some of the more sensational myths doing the rounds (eg that he had an incestuous relationship with his sister Mabel) are de-bunked. Like David Bowie, Aubrey Beardsley lived through a persona, or series of personae, and his personal I did enjoy this thoughtful, balanced biography of an outrageous fin-de-siècle character whose innovative art has become forever identified with the 'Decadent' movement of the 1890s. There's a good balance between discussion of Beardsley's art and his character, and some of the more sensational myths doing the rounds (eg that he had an incestuous relationship with his sister Mabel) are de-bunked. Like David Bowie, Aubrey Beardsley lived through a persona, or series of personae, and his personal struggle towards the end of his life, when knowing himself to be dying of TB he tries in vain to reconcile his spiritual and venal natures, is movingly documented. Dying a Catholic convert, he begs his editor Leonard Smithers to destroy all of his 'obscene drawings' - how fortunate for posterity that Smithers did not comply, though to ease Aubrey's moral panic he pretended to have done so. My only criticism is that I wish it included more examples of the art that's so vividly described - there are several tantalising examples but I suppose there's a limit to how much illustration a biography can include. Still, it inspired me to look the relevant pieces up for myself, and I feel that I've gained a privileged insight into Aubrey Beardsley's character, psychology and work.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Will Mayo

    This, now, Aubrey Beardsley, is a man that has fascinated me for some time. Diagnosed with tuberculosis at age 7, he lived into his 20s and illustrated the books and magazines of his era, the 1890s, with wild abandon, borrowing equally from Japanese manga prints and 18th century French painting, abandoning all pretense to nature with wild, curving circles like those found in illuminated manuscripts and with erotic images such as hermaphrodites, transvestites and elves with enormous members, thus This, now, Aubrey Beardsley, is a man that has fascinated me for some time. Diagnosed with tuberculosis at age 7, he lived into his 20s and illustrated the books and magazines of his era, the 1890s, with wild abandon, borrowing equally from Japanese manga prints and 18th century French painting, abandoning all pretense to nature with wild, curving circles like those found in illuminated manuscripts and with erotic images such as hermaphrodites, transvestites and elves with enormous members, thus making him equally praised and damned in the dying days of the Victorian era. Though he enjoyed the company of tarts off the street and known homosexuals such as the author Oscar Wilde, his debauchery remained, for the most part, intellectual rather than fleshly in nature like that of this reviewer and, like his idol, Oscar Wilde, he ended up renouncing it all on his deathbed and converting to Roman Catholicism in the last gasp of the guilt trips of morality plays over art. Nevertheless, it is not for his misgivings for which he is remembered but for his art which laid out its long arm of influence from the decorative art movement of 1900 to the novels of the Great Depression to the psychedelic art of the 1960s to Mapplethorpe's erotic photographs in the 1980s, on into the glorious millennium in which we find ourselves. Though he disdained the name decadence, he remains a decadent through and through in what he has given us. For that, we all are grateful.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Eleonora Pogostina

  7. 4 out of 5

    Catherine Pope

  8. 5 out of 5

    Dean Brooks

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jan

  10. 5 out of 5

    Alistairc

  11. 5 out of 5

    Vanessa

  12. 4 out of 5

    Susan

  13. 4 out of 5

    Alexandra Turney

  14. 4 out of 5

    Rebecca

  15. 5 out of 5

    Aubrey Hale

  16. 4 out of 5

    MrJones

  17. 4 out of 5

    Stephen

  18. 5 out of 5

    A.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Mat Joiner

  20. 5 out of 5

    runningreader Hill

  21. 4 out of 5

    Amy

  22. 4 out of 5

    olivia eltaki

  23. 4 out of 5

    Jasmine Martin

  24. 5 out of 5

    Mike Fores

  25. 5 out of 5

    Rob

  26. 4 out of 5

    Tekori

  27. 4 out of 5

    Louis Stiller

  28. 5 out of 5

    Tracella Shelton

  29. 4 out of 5

    Emily Louise

  30. 5 out of 5

    Melanie Hawthorne

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