On 16 March 1898, Brighton-born artist Aubrey Beardsley died of tuberculosis at just 25 years of age. Much has been written about the latter part of his short life but, for local historians here in Brighton, his early years are perhaps more interesting.
Beardsley was born at the home of his maternal grandfather, Surgeon Major William Pitt, on the corner of Buckingham Road and West Hill Place. The Pitts were well-established in the town – William’s father Thomas Best Pitt was a doctor practising in Brighton as it became a fashionable resort, and William followed his father into medicine. He married in India and it was there, in 1846, that his second daughter Ellen was born.
After many years abroad, the family returned to Brighton in 1864. Ellen Pitt was said to have been a great beauty with a sense of mischief and adventure. Vincent Beardsley, visiting from London, posed as a gentleman but flouted convention by approaching her in public without a formal introduction. They continued to meet secretly, often in the grounds of the Royal Pavilion, but Ellen eventually presented him to her family and the couple were married in October 1870 at St Nicholas Church.
This was not considered an ideal match and, from the start, life was difficult for the Beardsleys. They moved to London in search of work but were continually beset with health and money problems. Perhaps not surprisingly, Ellen returned to the comfort and security of her family home for the birth of her daughter Mabel in 1871 and son Aubrey in 1872.
The next few years were characterised by comings and goings. The family lodged in London for a while, where Ellen inspired in her children a love of books and music. But Aubrey was a delicate child and, at the age of seven, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He was sent away to school at Hamilton Lodge in Hurstpierpoint, where it is said that he first showed an interest in drawing. After four terms, however, he was back in London, before moving to Epsom with his mother and sister, again in search of fresh air. By 1884, this peripatetic existence became unsustainable. Vincent had lost his job and Ellen was unwell, so the children returned to Brighton, this time to the home of their great-aunt Sarah, who lived at 21 Lower Rock Gardens.
Aubrey became a pupil at Brighton Grammar School in November that year, and it seems that he found it a sympathetic environment. Although not sporty or particularly concerned with school work, he read voraciously and took part in school plays – he was often seen pacing up and down on the seafront, learning his lines. He also wrote poems, submitting them to the school magazine, Past And Present. The first of these to be published, ‘The Valiant’, appeared in the June 1885 edition, when Aubrey was just 12 years old.
Encouraged by one of his schoolmasters, he continued to draw and his love of caricature became apparent. Alongside mischievous sketches of his friends and teachers, he produced a charming drawing entitled ‘The Jubilee Cricket Analysis’, which appeared in the Jubilee edition of Past And Present (June 1887). He combined artistic ability with a witty play on words: A Good Bowler is depicted as a hat, Caught shows a man grabbed by the scruff of his neck by a policeman, and Square Leg is a man whose legs are as short as they are wide.
Aubrey became involved in every aspect of the school’s theatrical productions, from writing dialogue to performing, designing costumes and illustrating programmes. The 1888 Christmas production at The Dome, a comic operetta called The Pay of the Pied Piper, was a case in point. The preface notes that, ‘the illustrations are the perfectly original designs and drawings of a boy now in the school, A V Beardsley’. Two years later, having left school and moved to London, he returned for a Conversazione for the Old Boys’ Association, which was staged at the Royal Pavilion on 7 November 1890. It featured a short farce called A Brown Study which, according to the Brighton Gazette, ‘was received with a good deal of favour as the production of an Old Boy, Mr Aubrey V Beardsly [sic].’
Brighton History Centre holds a complete set of Past And Present, which has been produced by Brighton Grammar School (now BHASVIC) from 1872 to the present day.
Kate Elms, Brighton History Centre