Yale University Press has honoured the Victorian era’s greatest illustrator with the publication of a magnificent catalogue raisonné. At last Linda Zatlin’s impressive Aubrey Beardsley – A Catalogue Raisonné celebrates his artistic output in a way commensurate with the importance of his place in the history of illustrative art: a tragically brief skyrocket-burst of magnificent originality and creative energy that began when he was nineteen and lasted until tuberculosis claimed his life at twenty-five. More than 1100 images are recorded in this massive 1112-page, two-volume opus, exquisitely designed and illustrated. It’s a work of loving scholarship with notes to each catalogue entry that place each work in context with wonderful clarity.
We know Beardsley as the poster boy for Naughty Ninety’s decadence: he was by far the most controversial exponent of Art Nouveau; apart from Henry Fuseli, virtually the only nineteenth century British erotic artist of any real importance (his Lysistrata was privately published); he lost his job as art editor at The Yellow Book essentially because of his association with Oscar Wilde. But despite all the controversy, his outstanding talent was feted by his contemporaries. Walter Crane, another important artist and book illustrator of the time, and a significant contributor to the Arts and Crafts movement, wrote that he was “… a remarkable designer … His work shows a delicate sense of line and a bold decorative use of solid blacks, as well as an extraordinary wired fancy and grotesque imagination.”
In an earlier life as an art dealer I was lucky enough to handle a few of his pen and ink drawings and what always struck me as almost miraculous about these was the certainty of his line, unbelievably delicate yet executed with an assurance that can only be produced by genius.