Aubrey Beardsley, the son of Vincent Beardsley (1840-1909) and his wife, Ellen Agnus (1846–1932), was born at 12 Buckingham Road, Brighton, on 21st August 1872. His father had inherited a fortune, but soon after his son was born he lost it.
As his biographer, Alan Crawford, has pointed out: "He found a job in London but was unconvincing as a breadwinner, and the Beardsleys lived in lodgings for the next twenty years, fending off poverty. His mother never forgave this fall from grace. She hugged her two children to her, cultivated their genteel talents in music and literature, and presented herself as the victim of a mésalliance."
Beardsley was not a strong boy and his mother described him as being "like a delicate little piece of Dresden China". At the age of seven Beardsley was found to have tuberculosis. In 1884 he went to Brighton Grammar School, where his fees were paid for by a great-aunt. His academic career was fairly undistinguished and he left school at sixteen and obtained a job as a clerk in London.
In 1890 Beardsley discovered the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti and this inspired him to start drawing and painting. He was also impressed with Edward Burne-Jones and as he lived in nearby Rottingdean, he visited him at his home. Burne-Jones praised his work and said he ought to go to art school. Richard Ellmann has argued: "Burne-Jones, usually non-committal when shown work by young artists, offered Beardsley every encouragement." With the support of Burne-Jones, he attended Westminster School of Art in the evenings, where he was taught by Frederick Brown. He was invited to the New English Art Club, an organisation that had been founded by Brown, Henry Tonks and Philip Wilson Steer in 1886.
On 12th July, 1891, Beardsley and his sister Mabel met Oscar Wilde at Edward Burne-Jones' house. Wilde later recorded that Beardsley had a face "like a silver hatchet". The Wildes took Aubrey and Mabel home in their carriage and became friends. It has been argued by one art critic that it was "under Wilde's influence that Beardsley's style became more satrical and sinister". Wilde later claimed that he had "created" Beardsley.
Frank Harris met Beardsley during this period: "The most startling appearance in these early nineties was certainly Aubrey Beardsley. I know no one in the whole history of art who made such an impression, took up such an independent and peculiar place so early in life. Beardsley was of pleasant manners and intercourse: his appearance, too, was interesting; a little above average height, but very slight; perfectly self-possessed, though strangely youthful; quite unaffected, but curiously derisive of affectation in others. While still in his teens he used to sneer at Oscar Wilde's poses to his face, though believing to a certain extent in his genius. Of course Oscar was fifteen years his senior and was better read and had already won a high place."
Alan Crawford has pointed out: "By the spring of 1892 he had begun to draw in the linear style which would make him famous, though nothing was published at this stage. He would sketch a design in pencil and then work over it in black ink, producing images of the strongest contrast: black, white, and no greys. He seems to have grasped the potential of the new process blocks, which were replacing wood-engravings at this time as a medium for reproducing images alongside letterpress. Process blocks were made, not of wood, but of metal, on to which the image was transferred photographically. Being stronger than woodblocks, they could sustain finer lines without breaking down in the printing press. The thin, isolated black lines which sweep so voluptuously across the white in some of Beardsley's most famous drawings are a tribute to the process block, which no other illustrator of the 1890s exploited quite so tellingly."
In the autumn of 1892 the publisher Joseph Malaby Dent asked Beardsley to illustrate Morte d'Arthur by Thomas Malory. Beardsley resigned from his job and worked on the book full-time. He was also commissioned to produce eighty drawings for a series of eighteenth-century anthologies.
In 1892 Oscar Wilde wrote a play entitled Salomé. It was performed in Paris but when Wilde attempted to get it produced in London with Sarah Bernhardt taking the star role it was banned by the Lord Chamberlain as being blasphemous. It was published in book form and the Pall Mall Budget asked Beardsley for a drawing to illustrate the review. The editor rejected the drawing as being obscene. However, in April, 1893, it appeared in the first number of The Studio magazine. Wilde liked the drawing, and his publisher, John Lane, the founder of The Bodley Head, suggested that Beardsley do an illustrated edition of the play.
Wilde and Lane were both very pleased with the illustrations Beardsley produced. Wilde's biographer, Richard Ellmann has argued: "The young man (Beardsley) was strange, cruel, disobedient. He was making his way from a Japanese style towards and eighteenth English one. Wilde had expected a Byzantine style like Gustave Moreau's. Instead Beardsley combined jocular impressions of Wilde's face, as in the moon or in the face of Herod, with sinister, sensual overtones." Wilde described the drawings as "quite wonderful". However, he could not resist making a joke about his influences: "Aubrey is almost too Parisian, he cannot forget that he has been to Dieppe - once."
One of the drawings was considered by Lane as indecent and was not used in the book. Beardsley reacted by writing a short poem:
Because one figure was undressed.
This little drawing was suppressed.
It was unkind. But never mind,
Perhaps it was all for the best.
In October 1893 a dispute broke out between Beardsley, Oscar Wilde, Alfred Douglas and John Lane over the French translation of Salomé. Wilde's biographer, Richard Ellmann, has argued: "Beardsley read the translation and said it would not do; he offered to make one of his own. Wilde, fortunately for Douglas, did not like this either. There ensued an acrimonious fourway controversy among Lane, Wilde, Douglas, and Beardsley. Lane said that Douglas had shown disrespect for Wilde, but backed down when Douglas accused him of stirring up trouble between them. Beardsley declared that it would be dishonest to put Douglas's name on the title page, when the translation had been so much altered by Wilde."
Beardsley wrote to his friend, the art critic, Robert Ross: "I suppose you've heard all about the Salomé row. I can tell you I had a warm time of it between Lane and Oscar and company. For one week the numbers of telegraph and messenger boys who came to the door was simply scandalous. I really don't quite know how matters really stand now... The book will be out soon after Xmas. I have withdrawn three of the illustrations and supplied their places with three new ones (simply beautiful and quite irrelevant."
Beardsley used the income from the book illustrations to lease a four-storey house at 114 Cambridge Street, Pimlico. His mother and his sister, Mabel Beardsley, also lived in the house. They held regular gatherings on Thursday afternoons and one of their visitors, Max Beerbohm, remarked on the beauty and charm of his sister.
In February 1894 the illustrated Salomé appeared and created a terrible scandal. The Art Journal commented the effect of Beardsley's drawings was "terrible in its weirdness and suggestions of horror and wickedness". Others complained that most of the seventeen illustrations had nothing to do with the text of the play.
John Lane, was pleased with the success of the book and invited Beardsley and his friend, Henry Harland, to produce a new quarterly, called The Yellow Book. The first edition was published in April, 1894. The reviewer in The Times, pointing to the cover that had been produced by Beardsley, wrote of its "repulsiveness and insolence". The drawings by Beardsley created a great deal of controversy and because of this, the first edition of 5000 copies sold out in five days.
Beardsley became the art editor of the quarterly and managed to persuade William Rothenstein, Charles Conder, John Singer Sargent, Philip Wilson Steer, Frederic Leighton and Walter Sickert to contribute material for the journal. Harland also commissioned H. G. Wells, William Butler Yeats, Arnold Bennett, Max Beerbohm, George Gissing, Henry James, Edmund Gosse and Arthur Symons for the new venture.
Beardsley developed a reputation of someone who liked the high life. One of his friends, William Rothenstein, pointed out: "His work done, Aubrey loved to get into evening clothes and drive into the town". According to Alan Crawford: "In a sense, Beardsley's public persona was as much a work of art as his drawings. He cultivated a dandified appearance before the world, and liked to appear wicked, witty, and decadent like the French. He let his reddish hair fall in a fringe so that he looked half like a boy, and dressed his poor thin body immaculately, as if he expected not to be touched by life - a grey suit, grey gloves, a golden tie, a tasselled cane.... He could be found with his friends, Rothenstein, the caricaturist Max Beerbohm, and the writers Ernest Dowson and Arthur Symons, in the Domino Room of the Café Royal in Regent Street, or among the prostitutes and their gentlemen friends in the St James's Restaurant in Piccadilly Circus, dipping into low life."
The 9th Marquess of Queensberry, the father of Alfred Douglas, discovered details of his son's sexual relationship with Oscar Wilde and planned to disrupt the opening night of The Importance of Being Earnest, at the St James's Theatre on 14th February, 1895, by throwing a bouquet of rotten vegetables at the playwright when he took his bow at the end of the show. Wilde learned of the plan and arranged for policemen to bar his entrance. Two weeks later, Queensberry left his card at Wilde's club, the Albemarle, accusing him of being a "sodomite". Wilde, Douglas and Robert Ross approached solicitor Charles Octavius Humphreys with the intention of suing Queensberry for criminal libel. Humphreys asked Wilde directly whether there was any truth to Queensberry's allegations of homosexual activity between Wilde and Douglas. Wilde claimed he was innocent of the charge and Humphreys applied for a warrant for Queensberry's arrest.
Queensberry entered a plea of justification on 30th March. Owen Dudley Edwards has pointed out: "Having belatedly assembled evidence found for Queensberry by very recent recruits, it declared Wilde to have committed a number of sexual acts with male persons at dates and places named. None was evidence of sodomy, nor was Wilde ever charged with it. Queensberry's trial at the central criminal court, Old Bailey, on 3–5 April before Mr Justice Richard Henn Collins ended in Wilde's attempt to withdraw the prosecution after Queensberry's counsel, Edward Carson QC MP, sustained brilliant repartee from Wilde in the witness-box on questions about immorality in his works and then crushed Wilde with questions on his relations to male youths whose lower-class background was much stressed."
Queensberry was found not guilty and his solicitors sent its evidence to the public prosecutor. Oscar Wilde was arrested on 5th April and taken to Holloway Prison. The following day, Alfred Taylor, the owner of a male brothel Wilde had used, was also arrested. Taylor refused to give evidence against Wilde and both men were charged with offences under the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885).
The trial of Wilde and Taylor began before Justice Arthur Charles on 26th April. Of the ten alleged sexual partners Queensberry's plea had named, five were omitted from the Wilde indictment. The trial under Charles ended in jury disagreement after four hours. The second trial, under Justice Alfred Wills, began on 22nd May. Douglas was not called to give evidence at either trial, but his letters to Wilde were entered into evidence, as was his poem, Two Loves. Called on to explain its concluding line - "I am the love that dares not speak its name" Wilde answered that it meant the "affection of an elder for a younger man".
Both men were found guilty and sentenced to two years' penal servitude with hard labour. The two known persons with whom Wilde was found guilty of gross indecency were male prostitutes, Wood and Parker. Wilde was also found guilty on two counts charging gross indecency with a person unknown on two separate occasions in the Savoy Hotel. These may in fact have related to acts committed by Douglas, who had also been Wood's lover.
During the trial reference was made to Wilde carrying a book with a yellow cover. The press falsely reported that this was a copy of The Yellow Book. Hostility against Wilde was so great that a crowd threw stones through the windows of the Bodley Head office in Vigo Street. On 8th May a group of contributors approached John Lane and demanded that Beardsley be dismissed as art editor of the journal because. Beardsley was not a homosexual, but he was closely associated with Wilde, and Lane, fearing a decline in the sales of the journal, he was sacked from his post. Beardsley lost his main source of income and had to move to a cheaper house at 57 Chester Row, Pimlico.
Leonard Smithers, was a thirty-four-year-old ex-solicitor who sold old books, prints, and pornography from a shop in Arundel Street, off the Strand. He had also published the highly controversial Book of One Thousand and One Nights by Richard Burton and a series of pornographic books under the imprint of the Erotika Biblion Society. Smithers suggested he was willing to employ Beardsley to produce a rival publication to The Yellow Book. Another rich friend, Marc-André Raffalovich, a well-known homosexual, also volunteered to help fund the journal. The first edition of The Savoy appeared in January 1896. At the party to celebrate the launch of the journal, Beardsley suffered a slight haemorrhage, highlighting that his tuberculosis had not gone away.
Beardsley also began work on the illustrations for The Rape of the Lock, a long narrative poem by Alexander Pope. The book was published in May 1896. He was also working on a pornographic version of Lysistrata. This could not be openly published and was distributed the book privately to customers at his shop.
In December 1896 Beardsley suffered a violent haemorrhage at Boscombe. He moved to nearby Bournemouth for the mild climate and on 31st March 1897, he was received into the Catholic Church. Soon afterwards he wrote to Leonard Smithers about the work he had done for his illegal operation: "I implore you to destroy all copies of Lysistrata and bad drawings... By all that is holy, all obscene drawings." Smithers ignored his request.
Aubrey Beardsley moved to the French Riviera and stayed at the Hotel Cosmopolitan in Menton. He died on 16th March, 1898. Oscar Wilde wrote a letter to Leonard Smithers commenting: "There is something macabre and tragic in the fact that one who added another terror to life should have died at the age of a flower."