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British Medievalism: A Subject Guide

Aubrey Beardsley and the Aesthetic Movement

Frederick H. Evans, photographer.[Photograph of Aubrey Beardsley]. In Andre Thevet, Les vrais pourtraits et vies des hommes illustres grecs, latins et payens. [ca. 1895]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Aubrey Vincent Beardsley was born in Sussex, England in 1872; he died of chronic tuberculosis only twenty-five years later. Despite his delicate health, during his short life he became England's leading illustrator in the 1890's.

Interested in drawing since childhood, Beardsley met the Pre-Raphelite artist Edward Burne-Jones in 1891 and began attending drawing classes at the Westminster School of the Arts. Only two years later, Beardsley was commissioned by the book publisher J.M. Dent to create ink drawings to illustrate a popularized version of Sir Thomas Malory's Morte d'Arthur translated by William Caxton. A defining moment in his career and in the history of book illustration, the edition contained 16 full-page illustrations, 4 double-page illustrations, 43 lavish border designs, 288 decorated initials, headpieces, and in-text embellishments all in the recognizably "Beardsley style."

Beardsley's drawings for Malory's Morte d'Arthur intentionally echo the black outlines of the woodcuts from the 1498 edition of the poem printed by Wynkyn de Worde. For comparison, a digitized copy of the 1498 edition External is available at the John Rylands Library at the University of Manchester in England.

While Beardsley's illustrations echo earlier versions of Malory's famous Arthurian legend, his drawings are recognizably complicated, provocative, and decadent. His style is influenced by both the work of the Pre-Raphaelites and by Japanese woodblock prints. While some critics have interpreted Beardsley's departure from traditional visual interpretation of the text as being evidence that he did not in fact read the poem, others have suggested that Beardsley's designs are a response to the complex Victorian attempt to adopt chivalric tropes as an emblem of social integrity. This view of Beardsley's designs as presenting a complicated medievalism further suggests that in his Art Nouveau style, Beardsley is implying that the institution of knighthood is not--or perhaps should not be--the Victorian ideal.

Sir Thomas Malory,The birth, life, and acts of King Arthur .Translated by William Caxton. Illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley. [London : J. M. Dent & Company] 1893-94.. Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

Related Library of Congress Resources

Researchers interested in the work of Aubrey Beardsley may also be interested in these related resources from the Library of Congress: