Art on show in Brighton & Hove and Sussex
Aubrey Beardsley scandalised and delighted the late Victorians with his decadent black and white drawings. The illustrator created erotic and elegant art, both humorous and grotesque, which is now often viewed through the prism of a queer perspective.
A new display will be unveiled at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his birth this month. It explores the life and work of the artist with an emphasis on his childhood in Brighton and the time he spent at Brighton Grammar School.
Beardsley enthusiast and curator of the exhibition Alexia Lazou said: “Since the 90s I have made it my mission to draw attention to this unique artist and son of Brighton. I am honoured to help extend the line of Beardsley admirers into the future with this celebration of his 150th birthday.”
Aubrey Vincent Beardsley was born in Buckingham Road, Brighton, on 21 August 1872. He spent some of his childhood years living in and around Brighton and attended Brighton Grammar School. At the age of seven he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and the disease cast a shadow over his life.
His professional career as an artist lasted only six years but he became one of the most celebrated artists in Europe. His connections with Oscar Wilde and the Decadent movement of the 1890s brought fame and attention. Provocative and extraordinary, his black-and-white drawings were instantly recognisable. Success and scandal both took their toll on his fragile health, and he died in France at the age of just twenty-five.
Today his style and characters are constantly reappraised, and his imagery is increasingly examined from a ‘queer’ perspective.
The small display includes objects from Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust (RPMT) collections, The Keep, and private lenders. Highlights include an early drawing, a letter from Beardsley to one of his teachers, an unpublished design for The Yellow Book, volume 5, and a box owned by Beardsley at the end of his life.
CEO of the Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust Hedley Swain said: “Aubrey Beardsley has had a major influence on British culture – out of proportion to his tragically short life. I’m pleased that we can remind people that he spent his early years in Brighton.”
‘…the remembrance of a pure childhood & a good school time…’
Aubrey Vincent Beardsley was born in Buckingham Road, Brighton, on 21 August 1872. As a young child Beardsley and his elder sister Mabel were taught by his mother. In 1884, his mother became ill, and the children were sent to stay with their great aunt Sarah Pitt in Lower Rock Gardens in the centre of Brighton. From her house by the seafront, they regularly made the long journey up the hill to the Church of the Annunciation.
It was at Brighton Grammar School that Beardsley developed his talents. He wrote poetry, some of which was published in the school magazine. He began to explore art and drew caricatures of his schoolmasters, as well as contributing illustrations to the programme for a school theatre production. He excelled at acting and took part in regular performances.
Career as an artist
Aged only 19, Beardsley was commissioned to illustrate an edition of Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte d’ Arthur. This enabled him to leave his job as an insurance clerk and become a full-time artist. He went on to illustrate the English edition of Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé.
His black ink drawings depicted the grotesque, the decadent, and the erotic and he was a leading figure in the aesthetic movement. In 1894 Beardsley became art editor of The Yellow Book, a journal of new art and literature. Success came but it was short lived. When Oscar Wilde was arrested for gross indecency in 1895, Beardsley was swept up in the scandal and lost his position.
He continued to work as an artist, producing illustrations for The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope, Lysistrata by Aristophanes, and starting a new journal, The Savoy. However, his health rapidly declined, and he died in 1898.
Items on display
The drawing Cover Design for The Yellow Book Volume V, 1895 was bequeathed to Brighton Museum & Art Gallery by the publisher John Lane at his death in 1926. Lane was the co-founder of The Bodley Head, which published The Yellow Book, Salome and collections of Beardsley’s artwork. He was well aware that Beardsley liked his art to provoke, and suggested the drawings should be checked ‘under a microscope and…upside down before they could be passed for publication’.
In 1946 Lilian Dash, a friend of the Beardsley family, gave a wooden box bearing Beardsley’s signature to Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. With it was a tiny leather wallet containing a photograph of Beardsley as a boy, the Admission Ticket for the Cambridge Theatre of Varieties drawing, and Beardsley’s bronze Good Conduct medal from Brighton Grammar School, awarded in December 1888. Dash lived in Brighton and had been the carer of Beardsley’s mother, Ellen.
Other Beardsley material comes from the archive of Brighton Grammar School, (now Brighton Hove & Sussex Sixth Form College) and is held by The Keep, Falmer. Much of the archive was collected by Henry Payne, Beardsley’s form master. The letter Beardsley wrote to his former headmaster, EJ Marshall, was passed to his successor, Thomas Read, and later donated by Read’s daughter.
Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, part of Royal Pavilion & Museums Trust, is one of Britain’s oldest public museums. Located in the Royal Pavilion Estate at the heart of the city’s cultural quarter, the collections showcase arts and crafts from across the world and history from Ancient Egypt to modern Brighton.
Admission fee payable, Brighton & Hove residents free
Royal Pavilion Gardens, Brighton BN1 1EE Tel 03000 290900
Open Tue-Sun 10am-5pm, Closed Mon (except Bank Holidays 10am-5pm)