Aubrey Beardsley: ‘He’s not the Master of Line, he’s a very naughty boy’


Photo of Aubrey Beardsley, c1885
Aubrey Beardsley, c1885

When I tell people my favourite artist is Aubrey Beardsley I get varied reactions ranging from ‘Audrey who?’ to the raised eyebrow of one who is young enough to have been a teenager in the 1960s…

Beardsley is famous for his often provocative black and white illustrations which featured in publications of the 1890s, and were popularised in the psychedelic years of the twentieth century. Diagnosed as tubercular at the age of seven, he grew up as a rather fragile being and died at the age of just twenty five. However, many of those who know his name do not realise that he was born in Brighton. If I mention that his birthplace was Buckingham Road the reply is often ‘Oh I was born there too.’ This might seem a strange coincidence at first but it was actually because there was a maternity hospital in Buckingham Road. The coincidence is that the maternity hospital building was formerly Brighton Grammar School, which Beardsley attended in the 1880s.

Photo of Sussex Maternity Hospital, 1975, the building that once housed Brighton Grammar School
Sussex Maternity Hospital, 1975, the building that once housed Brighton Grammar School

Brighton & Hove Museums have a few items in the collection relating to Beardsley. One of them is his Good Conduct medal which I find particularly amusing as he was allegedly quite naughty. His nickname was Weasel and he was known for drawing caricatures of both staff and pupils. On one occasion when the headmaster was addressing a class, Beardsley is supposed to have stuffed the tails of his gown into an inkwell so that the room was splattered when the head turned round to exit the room.

Photo of Aubrey Beardsley's Good Condcut medal
Aubrey Beardsley’s Good Condcut medal

The two drawings in the collection are an interesting pair as one represents Beardsley’s childhood playfulness and the other, an adverse moment in his artistic career. The first is a tiny admission ticket for ‘The Cambridge Theatre of Varieties’. This was the name of the imaginary venue in which Aubrey and his sister Mabel performed their home theatricals for family and friends during the school holidays. Their address was 32 Cambridge Street, Pimlico.

The other drawing is a design for the cover of ‘The Yellow Book’, an art and literary journal of the 1890s. Beardsley was a co-founder and art editor for the first four volumes. This drawing was published on the prospectus for Volume V and should have appeared on the cover of the fifth issue. However it was not to be. Due to his connections with Oscar Wilde, Beardsley was sacked and the design withdrawn. Less than three years after this Beardsley died at Menton, France on 16 March 1898.

Cover design for Beardsley's Yellow Book
Cover design for Beardsley’s Yellow Book

A century later it was my interest in his life and work that led me to Brighton, long before I lived here. Having been immersed in Brighton life for fourteen years, and the world of Aubrey Beardsley for many more, I can only agree with Clifford Musgrave. In his book Life in Brighton the former director of the Royal Pavilion asks:

‘Is it altogether too extravagant a notion to imagine that in the sophistication, the incisive elegance, the brilliance, the clear-cut vision and, not least, in the provocative eroticism of Beardsley’s work we may perceive qualities that are implicit in the atmosphere and spirit of Brighton itself?

Come and hear more about Aubrey Beardsley and view the objects at Bite Size Museum: ‘He’s not the Master of Line, he’s a very naughty boy…’, Saturday 14 March, 12 noon – 1pm, Brighton Museum.

Alexia Lazou, Collections Assistant

Further Resources