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Aubrey Beardsley, A Biography

by Mathew Sturgis

Harper Collins £19.99

Reviewed by: Linda Dangoor-Khalastchi

A spell of incessant and feverish creativity and inventiveness in the field of design and aesthetics characterised the best twenty years of the 19th Century, both in England and Europe.

Styles and ideas were shifting rapidly due to the industrial revolution, to commerce and to the imports of goods from the Far East, Japan in particular. Arts and crafts societies, handicraft guilds, art centres and exhibitions sprung up all over England.

It was during these excessive and turbulent times, 1872, that Aubrey Beardsley was born. A delicate and frail child, likened by his mother to a "Little piece of Dresden China." He had a very brief life, dying in 1898 at the age of 26, "at the age of a flower" as Oscar Wilde had remarked.

For the 100th anniversary of his death, Mathew Sturgis has produced a new and very detailed biography of Beardsley's life, relating the artist's modest and somewhat shabby childhood in Brighton and London, his close relationship with his sister Mabel, his painfully boring first job in a London insurance office, his discovery by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burn-Jones, his overnight success and fame as a co-editor and illustrator of the quarterly magazine the Yellow Book, his various friendships with prominent figures such as Max Beerbohm and Oscar Wilde and his fall from grace at the wake of the Wilde scandal.

Despite his failing health, or maybe because of it (Beardsley suffered from tuberculosis) - he lived and worked intensely. Very influenced by sensual French literature and by Wagner's Operas with their themes of incest and lust, he created a body of erotic work of great individuality which was regarded as indecent by most of his Victorian contemporaries.

Stark in its simplicity, (his chosen medium was pen and ink), his style owes much to Japanese art. It is a great pity that so little of his work is included in this book as it would give clues to the mind of this wilfully perverse dandy and poseur. And although the decadence of the 19th Century's "fin de si¿cle" with its excesses, diseases and fast shifting ideas can find a parallel with the 20th Century's own turbulent malaise, Beardsley's work, which saw a great revival in the 1970's seems to be curiously out of place today.


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