The Divine Mr Beardsley - Art Nouveau at its most stylish

31st October 2010
All right, so perhaps I am given to exaggeration sometimes, it's true, but the word 'divine' simply means 'transcending, connecting to sacred things.' And whenever I look at the work of the great English illustrator Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) I always feel slightly transported to another plane. Just a bit closer to the heavens. I wonder if you agree?


It was when I was working in a commercial art studio in London during the 70’s that I first encountered the work of Beardsley. A colleague brought in a book of his drawings. And from that moment on I have been a steadfast admirer and, very occasionally, a very poor imitator, of his extraordinary style. Here are a whole bunch of random thoughts and observations that explain just why I admire his work so much.
elaborate line drawing of woman in long robes, scarlet bacground at top
Isolde (1895).

What he did

Beardsley lived only a short while. He died from TB at the age of just 25. Yet in that time he packed more productivity into his life than most of us would usually manage in a hundred years. His art was inspired every bit as much by music and literature as by other pictorial artists. He was excited by ancient classics such as Malory’s Le Morte d'Arthur) or the plays of Aristophanes. He was inspired by the music of Chopin and Wagner. Consequently, many of his best works are illustrations to Wagnerian themes. And he moved in an exciting social milieu between Belle Epoque London and Paris. This was a world that included luminaries such as Burne Jones, Oscar Wilde and Sarah Bernhardt, all immersed in a heady culture fuelled by absinthe and opiates.
photo, black and white, of young Edwardian man, Aubrey Beardsley, in profile, thin
Aubrey Beardsley.
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From a purely technical point of view his work is immaculate. His unbroken line, drawn with pen and ink (rarely a brush) is astonishingly accomplished and smooth. He was a consummate draughtsman, but with an imagination to match. A very rare combination.

His was a world of late Victorian decadence. It was sandwiched just in-between the Pre-Raphaelites and the exciting Art Nouveau and Art Deco eras that followed. This was a period that celebrated extravagant, curvaceous flowing lines in everything from furniture to clothing, from porcelain to glassware. It was an age that celebrated the human form and the clothed human form in particular as something equally as alluring and beauteous as the naked body.
elaborate black and white drawing of two figures in very long robes, as if conversing
"The Peacock Skirt" 1894.
The illustrations shown above are some of his finest, and are restrained enough to be presented on this blog. Much of his work, however, is strongly erotic and gloriously frivolous. Any google search will take you to plenty of examples. In the mean-time, for a very thorough critique of his work try this: Arthur Symons : prose, Aubrey Beardsley.
Authored by Robert Stephen Parry

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