Tall, thin and tragic, the ultimate dandy of his day, Aubrey Beardsley produced a prodigious amount of distinctive artwork in his short working life and died of TB at 25. Yet his work continues to inspire and influence artists, as this dazzling show at Tate Britain shows.

What strikes you most effectively at this wonderful show, Aubrey Beardsley, at Tate Modern is the quantity of work on display.  Considering his career lasted a mere seven years – he died of tuberculosis in Menton in the south of France in 1898 at the age of 25 – and, knowing that his life was inevitably going to be short he devoted all his time to art.

And what an artist he was.  His prodigious talent was clear to see at an early age and, I would imagine, the moment he picked up a pencil or pen, he must have drawn with remarkable precision.  The thing about this exhibition is the chance to see the originals – and they are so remarkably clean and perfect. No ink splashes, no apparently rubbings out and starting again. The designs, for that is what the drawings really are, seem to have emerged, fully formed from his imagination and done with clarity and a very steady hand.

The Birthday of Madame Cigale

The exhibition takes us chronologically through his life.  From the moment you see his deftly drawn self-portrait, made when he as 18, it’s clear that he has established a style and will run with it.

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Beardsley was clearly influenced by the romanticism of the pre-Raphaelites – Burne-Jones was his hero – but he was also fascinated by Japanese prints and scrolls with their spare compositions, confident lines and playful detail.  Beardsley’s style evolved independently of these influences and he found work creating illustrations for publications, frontispieces and images for magazines.  It was interesting to see that the briefly unknown artist shot to fame when a feature was written about him (complete with images) in Studio magazine in 1893.  He became an overnight sensation. His work lent itself so perfectly to prints and became widely available.

 

 

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Above: The scarlet Pastorale – ink and graphite.  A rare work with colour.

In the final room of the exhibition the curators have gathered together works by subsequent artists who make no apology for their interest or obsession with Beardsley’s work.  In 1966 the Victoria and Albert Museum held a huge exhibition of his work and interest in the black and white line drawings filtered into all kinds of household objects and images of the day.  I have a memory of these kinds of drawings, along with actual Beardsley prints, appearing in copies of Jackie which I read in the late 1960s.

Just think of the record sleeves which display his influence – most famously, the Beatles’ Revolver.

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The whole show is a testament to a supremely talented artist who also epitomised the style of the time. He fits with the aesthetics, the art deco designers and the romantic narratives of the pre-Raphaelites. His very appearance created his ‘brand’ – tall, skinny, pale, gaunt, beautifully dressed, dainty, elegant – the ultimate ‘dandy’ – images of him are instantly recognisable.   The joy of the show is to look at and then into the drawings, allowing the shapes and narratives to, literally, draw you in with the subject, the detail and the perfection of them. A joy.

Above:  Portrait by Sickert at a memorial for Keats in Hampstead and a portrait by Emile Blanche in 1895

The show is on at Tate Britian until 25th May 2020   www.tate.org.uk

 

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