Born in 1872 , Aubrey Beardsley died in 1898. In those twenty-five years he managed to do something to art from which it has never recovered. He never went to art school, never painted a single large canvas; he was never exhibited; he was dead before his twenty-sixth birthday, and yet of all the artists of 1890s, he is the greatest influence, the most talked about, written about and examined. He was an illustrator primarily, most of his work on display in books and magazines. In a way, as much a part of literature as of art.
His first bout with tuberculosis was as a child, and he spent the rest of his life fighting it. His earliest influence was Kate Greenaway and from her style he moved on to emulate that of Bourne-Jones. However, as a teenager he developed his own, unique style and, in 1892 received his first major commission, illustrating Mallory’s Morte d’ Arthur for J. M. Dent. Over the next six years he would illustrate Oscar Wilde’s Salome , Bon Mots of Smith and Sheridan , The Rape of the Lock , Lysistrata , Volpone and A Book of Fifty Drawings , along with the Yellow Book and the Savoy magazines.
Beardsley and American writer, Henry Harland, combined their talents to found the Yellow Book . The first issue appeared in April, 1894 with Harland as the Literary Editor and Beardsley as Art Editor. John Lane of the Bodley Head, who had published Oscar Wilde’s play Salome with Beardsley’s illustrations, was the publisher. The avant garde approach was highly successful, and the initial issue went through three printings to satisfy demand. The critics, as was expected, vilified both the text and the artwork, especially Beardsley’s. And Punch parodied it relentlessly. However, the public seemed to embrace it.
The magazine was done in during its second year by a coincidence. Oscar Wilde was arrested, carrying a book with a yellow cover. Wilde rather openly despised Yellow Book , and it was not a copy of the magazine he was carrying, but a French novel. Beardsley’s association with Wilde through Salome forced Lane to fire Breadsley as Art Editor. The magazine limped on, publishing avant garde writers and artists such as Edmund Gosse, Walter Crane, Sir Frederick Leighton, and Henry James, as well as then newcomers, Arnold Bennett, Charlotte Mew, and Maurice Baring, but a declining readership forced Lane to cease publication on it’s fourth anniversary in 1898, after thirteen issues.
The first year (four issues) containing Beardsley are slightly higher in value in keeping with the high ticket market for all original Beardsley items. Subsequent issues retain a decent value, especially with early originals by Bennett and Mew, but don’t outstrip the Beardsley issues.
The Savoy was very much the step child of the Yellow Book . It hinged on three people, Leonard Smithers, a bookseller and fitful publisher; Arthur Symons, whose third book London Nights , published by Smithers, was the literary scandal of the season; and Beardsley, recently dismissed in the Wilde flap at Yellow Book . Though it only lasted 8 issues, two quarterly and six monthly, all 1896, The Savoy managed to publish a great many important pieces, and no issue really seems to take precedence with collectors. Aside from the fact that every issue of The Savoy was an original Beardsley production, original poetry and short stories by W. B. Yeats, Ernest Dowson, Symonds and Beardsley are highly sought after, as are reviews of Neitzsche, Zola, and Hardy’s Jude the Obscure by Havelock Ellis. Symond’s translation of Verlaine in the second issue, and his translation of Mallarme in the eighth; Yeats essay on Blake spanning issues one, three and five; and Max Beerbohm’s caricatures are all reasons The Savoy is a top ranked collectible.
The magazine failed to draw an audience, in the final issue, Symonds posited the whys of the failure of The Savoy : “…And then, worst of all, we assumed that there were very many people in the world who really cared for art, and really for art’s sake. The more I consider it, the more I realize that this is not the case. Comparatively few people care for art at all, and most of these care for it because they mistake it for something else.”
Beardsley’s novel Under the Hill was too hot for its time and unfinished at his death. Originally offered to John Lane, the early chapters were first published in serial form by Leonard Smithers in early numbers of The Savoy . With Smither’s bankruptcy, Lane acquired all the surviving material for the book, including most of the pictures, and in 1904 issued a heavily expurgated, though illustrated, version of the manuscript in a handsome quarto volume as Under the Hill . In 1907, Smithers pirated a version, however, under Beardsley’s original title, The Story of Venus and Tannhäuser , without illustrations limited to 300 copies “for the use of literary students who are also admirers of Beardsley’s wayward genius”. Its chief merit lies in the fact that it makes available a much fuller text than had Lane, though still expurgated. The novel was completed by John Glassco and published by Olympia Press in an unexpurgated version in 1959 in a limited edition of 3,000 numbered copies, bound in green silk on BePegarde watermarked paper. Reissued the same year as part of the Traveler’s Companion Series in green wraps, under the title Under the Hill .
Aubrey Beardsley died on the night of March 15, 1898, a young man of 25, unaware that he would be the chief innovator of art nouveau and the spiritual godfather of art deco. In a very short quarter century, Aubrey Beardsley displayed a genius that would influence all of the art of the twentieth century and most probably, several centuries yet to come.