Aubrey Beardsley lived in 114 Cambridge Street, just a few doors up the road from Classic Rare Books. If accounted for in years, Beardsley barely lived at all, dying from tuberculosis at the age of 26. Measured seismically, though, his life pounded within the late Victorian atmosphere.
Beardsley was an illustrator, an author; a decadent, an aesthete. The high priest of decadence – Oscar Wilde – first met Beardsley at Edward Burne-Jones’ house, 12th July 1891. Wilde and his wife, Constance, took Beardsley (and his sister Mabel) home in their carriage. They became friends. Wilde later claimed that he “created” Beardsley. But Beardsley had sufficient projects and initiatives independent of Wilde to contend such a claim. There was one collaboration, however, that achieved the height of erotically infused, decadent, artistry.
In 1894, Wilde decided to bring out an English translation of his 1891 French play, Salome. The play had a chequered past. An illustrious production with the famous actress, Sarah Bernhardt, ensnared as Salome, was banned by the licenser of plays before its first performance (ostensibly on the grounds of the illegality of staging Biblical characters). Determined to proffer it to the public somehow, Wilde planned to publish it irrespective of its theatrical censorship. Perhaps surprisingly, the publication was praised by numerous of his peers, most notably by various French contemporary authors including Mallarmé, as well as the Belgian author, Maeterlinck. So Wilde decided to have John Lane publish Salome in English. Finding an illustrator was crucial to Wilde’s aesthetic vision. Beardsley’s depiction of Salome holding the head of John the Baptist in the Studio (1983) caught Wilde’s eye (as its artist perhaps intended it to). Consequently, Beardsley was enlisted to produce eleven illustrations for a play that framed (and celebrated) Decadent eroticism and artifice within the bracket of Christian myth.
Both Beardsley and his illustrations persistently defied expectations. ‘The young man was strange, cruel, disobedient,’ Wilde’s biographer tells us. The illustrations that Beardsley presented had to be repeatedly revised, adjudged by the publisher (and even Wilde) as too outrageous. They were revised to such an extent, that several of the pictures bear no direct relation to the content of the play; many became, as Vyvyan Holland (Wilde’s second son) later described them, ‘decorations,’ not illustrations.
The figure of the moon in the play is female, but Beardsley caricatures Wilde’s face as the image of this “character.” In each of Beardsley’s compositions, sexual mutability and subversity are explicit, and decadent symbolism, implicit. Beardsley’s drawings proclaim a decadent manifesto. In his assimilation of Wilde (the author) into the visual design, Beardsley reinforces the decadent belief in the symbiosis between life and art, material object and its written content.
During his trial, Wilde was seen to carry a yellow book into court with him. The media mistakenly reported this to be The Yellow Book: the decadent periodical that Beardsley was a prolific contributor to (it was Beardsley that insisted upon its distinct yellow covers). Beardsley’s decadent ties in life came to undo his decadent mission in art. The sum of his mischief in the magazine, not to mention this new and very public association with Wilde, resulted in his excommunication from The Yellow Book. Two years later, Beardsley died. His renown as man and artist, however, fortunately live on: both in the blue plaque a few doors down, and in the yellow books housed on our shelves.