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Grolier Club Exhibitions

Boy Wonder

J. Hawker. Ellen Pitt Beardsley. Photograph, albumen, [1897].

Like Jane, Lady Wilde (1821–1896), the mother of Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), who had a career in the arts (publishing poetry as “Speranza”) and who nurtured her son’s ambitions, Aubrey Beardsley’s mother greatly influenced his future. Ellen Pitt (1846–1932) was an accomplished musician from a well-off family in Brighton and a woman with a socially defiant streak. When her ne’er-do-well husband Vincent Beardsley (1839–1909) failed to provide for her and their two children—Mabel (1871–1916) and Aubrey (1872–1898), both born in Brighton—she served as a stabilizing force, financially and emotionally. She taught Aubrey piano and encouraged his love of music and theatre, laying the groundwork for his later fascination with the world of Wagnerian opera, which resulted in his outrageously erotic novel, the unfinished Under the Hill, a.k.a. Venus and Tannhäuser.

Ellen Pitt Beardsley. Aubrey Beardsley. Autograph manuscript, 1921.

Cross-dressing appealed to Beardsley in his early years and seemed to suit him. In this reminiscence written decades after his death in 1898, Beardsley’s mother described the amateur theatricals put on at home by the adolescent Aubrey and his sister, Mabel (who went on to become a teacher and eventually a professional stage performer). For Doctor Faustus by Christopher Marlowe (1564–1593), Beardsley was Marguerite, with “long straw plaits fastened on each side of his head.” This manuscript also records memories of her son’s later reluctance to fulfill his commission to illustrate an edition of Le Morte Darthur (1893–1894). In response to maternal prodding, he replied with a limerick: “A youth for a very small salary / Did a cartload of drawings for Malory. / When they asked him for more / He only said ‘Sure / They’ve already enough for a gallery.’”

Aubrey Beardsley. Venus Appeareth to Aeneas, in Nineteen Early Drawings by Aubrey Beardsley from the Collection of Mr. Harold Hartley, with an Introduction by Georges Derry. [London:] Privately printed, 1919.

As a student at the Brighton Grammar School, Beardsley doodled obsessively and caricatured his teachers, while creating ridiculous images to accompany whatever he was reading. Assigned Virgil’s Aeneid, he tried translating it from the Latin, but also drew hilariously inappropriate versions of Aeneas’s adventures—including this encounter with an outsized Victorian Venus—in a style reminiscent of comic works such as William Makepeace Thackeray’s (1811–1863) illustrations for The Rose and the Ring (1855). In their 1970 edition of Beardsley’s letters, Henry Maas, J. L. Duncan, and W. G. Good credit R. A. (Rainforth Armitage) Walker (1886–1960) with being “more than any other man . . . the custodian of Beardsley’s fame.” Under the pseudonym of “Georges Derry,” Walker wrote the Introduction to this 1919 edition of Beardsley’s early work, from the collection of Harold Hartley (1851–1943), a British printer and publisher.

Aubrey Beardsley. Illustrations in “The Pay of the Pied Piper,” in The Brighton Grammar School Annual Entertainment at The Dome on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 1888: Programme & Book of Words. Brighton: Tucknott’s Steam Printing Works, 1888.

Beardsley’s desire for literary fame equaled his ambitions in art. From boyhood onwards, he was writing poetry and prose. But he was attracted, too, to the world of the theatre. At age eighteen—a time when he described himself unflatteringly in a letter to A. W. King (1855­–1922), his former housemaster at the Brighton Grammar School, as possessing “a vile constitution, a sallow face and sunken eyes, long red hair, a shuffling gait and a stoop”—he had a one-act comedy performed at the Brighton Pavilion. Even before this, he had appeared to acclaim in school theatricals and for one of those, an 1888 production of The Pay of the Pied Piper (based on “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”), he also supplied drawings that filled the accompanying booklet. At this point, however, we see that he was more adept at depicting the chubby backsides of rats than the bodies of human children.

Aubrey Beardsley. Autograph letter to G. F. Scotson-Clark, 9 August 1891.

Beardsley admired both the art of James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) and his dandified personal style. But whatever Beardsley thought well of, he could not resist mocking. He would later caricature Whistler as a nearly boneless figure, dwindling from a huge cloud of hair to tiny, pointed feet and seemingly in conversation with a butterfly. (Whistler’s signature was a butterfly.) This early letter, however, features Beardsley’s self-caricature in the famous pose of Whistler’s own mother in the painting Arrangement in Grey and Black, No. 1 (1871). The recipient, George F. Scotson-Clark (1872–1927), was a close friend from their days at the Brighton Grammar School. Here Beardsley, still under the influence of Pre-Raphaelitism, praises The Earthly Paradise by William Morris (1834–1896) and reports that he will again be showing his work to Edward Burne-Jones (1833–1898), whom he had approached in July 1891, seeking mentorship.

Boy Wonder