Aubrey Vincent Beardsley (1872 – 1898) was an artistic and musical prodigy from an early age. Born to a father who preferred to squander his inheritance rather than adopt a trade, Beardsley’s creative prowess helped stave off complete destitution. At age 12 he and his older sister Mabel (who would later become an actress) performed musical duets in a public concert. A witty child with a wicked sense of humour, Beardsley drew caricatures of his grammar school teachers and by age 14 had published his first poem, “The Valiant,” as well as a series of sketches titled “The Jubilee Cricket Analysis” in the school’s magazine, Past and Present.
From childhood Beardsley’s life expectancy was short and uncertain. At the age of seven he contracted tuberculosis, a disease then known as “consumption” because sufferers appeared to waste away. Beardsley’s fragile health meant that he was somewhat frail as a boy and often found himself confined to his bed, unable to attend school or play with his peers. The impact of this disease on the artist’s childhood was no doubt on his mind when as an adult he created Self-portrait in Bed (1894). The ink drawing depicts a small child nearly swallowed up by the enormous bed that he occupies. An inscription in French at the top left reads: “By the gods not all monsters are in Africa.” The quote is as much a reference to his lifelong struggle with tuberculosis as it is indicative of his fascination with the grotesque and macabre.
In 1891, at age 19, Beardsley accompanied his sister to the studio of painter and illustrator Sir Edward Burne-Jones. Although the siblings were initially denied admittance, Burne-Jones’s interest was piqued when he noticed Mabel’s striking red hair. Beardsley soon built up the courage to show the artist his portfolio. Deeply impressed by the youth’s obvious talent and imagination, Burne-Jones recommended Beardsley to the Westminster School of Art.
Aubrey Beardsley’s artistic career was remarkably impactful for its brevity. In the seven years he was able to draw and write before succumbing to tuberculosis, Beardsley developed a reputation as one of the most controversial artists of his time. The linear elegance of his designs coupled with the artist’s bizarre sense of humor and fascination with the grotesque and taboo simultaneously intrigued and repelled his Victorian audience. His illustrations comprised characteristics of Aestheticism, Decadence, Symbolism, and, most apparently, Art Nouveau. Beardsley’s block prints allowed his work to be easily reproduced and widely circulated. The diabolic beauty of his work and its overwhelming presence in English publishing houses meant that Beardsley quickly became the most influential draftsman of his time.
Messum’s Wiltshire is a pioneering multi-purpose gallery and arts centre celebrating the creative endeavour.