Part 1 - The Formative Years

Aubrey Beardsley
Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum

It's interesting, but futile, to speculate on what people might have achieved had they not died very young. The next thing you wonder is whether or not they would have remained so celebrated had they survived. James Dean, for example. Where would his career have gone?

Aubrey Beardsley died at the age of 25, by which time he had become a well-known and substantial artist. He was a master of line drawing, in the forefront of Art Nouveau, which had its heyday between about 1890 and 1910. After that came Art Deco. Aubrey was long gone by then, but I think he would have liked Art Deco, since it was extravagant and flamboyant, just as he was. His key asset was being untrained and so the works that emerged were artistic expressions of his own personality.


Aubrey Vincent Beardsley was born on 21 August 1872 at 12 (later re-numbered 31) Buckingham Road, Brighton, which was then apparently a well-appointed house: it is Grade II listed, but you can see from the photo below the current condition of it. He had an older sister, Mabel, born on 24 August 1871. Aubrey has three commemorative plaques that I know of, in various places: there is a blue one in Cambridge Street, Westminster, a green one in Bournemouth (accompanied by a mosaic design of one of his drawings) and a particularly ornate one on 31 Buckingham Road, which is thought to have come from the workshops of noted local sculptor Eric Gill. He also has a Brighton and Hove bus with his name on the front (currently a Number 50 for any bus fans out there).

31 Buckingham Road
The Grade II listed house at 31 (formerly 12) Buckingham Road, Brighton.
This is the more photogenic side of the dwelling.
Image ©Linda Jackson 2013

plaque at 31 Buckingham Road   retouched plaque
Left: the painted-over plaque at 31 Buckingham Road as it is now.
Right: a retouched image to show up the inscription.
Images ©Linda Jackson 2013

Aubrey's father was Vincent Paul Beardsley, born in 1839 in Clerkenwell. His father, Paul, was a jeweller, who died in 1845; the widow, Sarah Ann, remarried soon afterwards and started a new family, with Vincent being sent to school. Vincent had a substantial inheritance from his maternal grandfather, property developer David Beynon, and was thus a 'gentleman' by rank, but apparently lost most of his money when he was sued for breach of promise almost immediately after his wedding to Ellen Agnus Pitt on 12 October 1870 at St Nicholas, Brighton. Vincent had worked as a clerk before coming into his inheritance and was obliged to return to that occupation, although it did not stop him describing himself as a gentleman. There does not seem to have been anyone particularly artistic on either side of the family apart from Ellen, who played piano and painted watercolours.

The Pitts, whose home was at 12 Buckingham Road, were prominent members of Brighton society, Ellen's father, William, being a retired Surgeon-Major of the Indian Medical Service in Bengal, but they were not as upper-class as they appeared, being plagued with debt. Additionally it seems that Mrs Pitt, Susan, was the product of her father's affair with a native servant and was quite possibly of mixed race, which might have mitigated against the family in society according to the prejudices at the time.

Vincent's new job was in London so in 1874 the Beardsleys moved to Notting Hill and lodged with retired music hall star Henry Russell, composer of 'A Life on the Ocean Wave'. Subsequently they lived in rented accommodation in Islington. Vincent did not earn much and Ellen supplemented the family income by giving piano lessons and tuition in French; they were also helped by relations and friends.

Aubrey was delicate and in 1879 he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, which was still thought to be hereditary; his parents sent him out of London to a small boarding school at Hurstpierpoint, Sussex, where he first showed an interest in drawing. His health improved and after four terms he returned to the Beardsleys' new lodgings in Pimlico, but in 1882 his mother took him and Mabel to the better air of Epsom, where they went for long walks on the Downs. They lodged for about two years at 2 Ashley Villas, Ashley Road and it is surmised that Vincent went with them and commuted to his job as manager of the London branch of Crowley's Brewery (they were scarcely in a position to rent two establishments, Ellen having giving up her work). It seems that the landlady at 2 Ashley Villas was a Mrs Ann Clark, who appears to have moved in just beforehand (she was not there in the 1881 census) and we believe that the Villas became 35 and 37 Ashley Road, with the latter being the Beardsleys' abode.

35 and 37 Ashley Road
35 and 37 Ashley Road (Number 37 on the right), Epsom.
Image courtesy of Jeremy Harte

There was a constant theme throughout Aubrey's young life: he would become ill, go somewhere until he had improved, and then it was back to London until it happened all over again. Had he stayed out of the city altogether he might possibly have lasted longer. So, once Epsom had worked its magic on Aubrey's lungs (we shall return there later, so please stay with me), in 1883 he was taken back to London, but it was not for long. Vincent lost his job the following year and Ellen became ill, so Aubrey and Mabel were packed off to Brighton to their paternal great-aunt, Miss Sarah Pitt, who had been rather more careful with her money than her brother, the Surgeon-Major, (he died in 1887, leaving personal estate of just £148, although Susan at least got a pension from his Army service). Miss Pitt lived at 21 Lower Rock Gardens, a nice house in a pleasant road just off the seafront: it has no plaque or listing but is very tidily maintained, as you can see from the next photo.

21 Lower Rock Gardens, Brighton
21 Lower Rock Gardens, Brighton.
Image ©Linda Jackson 2013

Aubrey did not go to school at first and was allowed to explore the town, write and draw; he attended the high Anglican Church of the Annunciation in Washington Street, where the priest, Father George Chapman (also tubercular and he died in 1891), took the lad under his wing.

Church of the Annunciation in Hanover, Brighton
Church of the Annunciation in Hanover, Brighton.
Photo by Hassocks5489 via Wikimedia Commons.


Ellen recovered from her illness in due course, but this time common-sense prevailed and, whilst Mabel was soon repatriated to London, Aubrey remained at the seaside; in January 1885 he was sent as a boarder to Brighton Grammar School, which was then at 77-79 Buckingham Road, at the junction with Upper Gloucester Road, just a stone's throw from his birthplace. The school is no longer there, but there is a newer building in exactly the same spot.

Site of the old Brighton Grammar School in Buckingham Road
Site of the old Brighton Grammar School in Buckingham Road.
Image ©Linda Jackson 2013

Aubrey was not particularly good at conventional school work, but he was very lucky with the teachers he had, who didn't think that the '3 Rs' were the be-all and end-all of a rounded human being. The headmaster was Mr E J Marshall, who served almost 40 years in the job, and he has a plaque on 79 Buckingham Road, undoubtedly done by the same man who sculpted Aubrey's plaque on Number 31, but, as you see, this one has been looked after rather more sympathetically.

Plaque to Mr E J Marshall at 79 Buckingham Road.
Plaque to Mr E J Marshall at 79 Buckingham Road.
Image source:

Mr Marshall positively encouraged activities such as nature trips, sketching parties and entertainments; Aubrey's young housemaster, Arthur King, introduced the boy to Gilbert and Sullivan's work and gave him a free run in his book collection. Strangely enough, art was not on the syllabus at the school, but that did not stop Aubrey drawing.

Whilst Aubrey was not the life and soul of the school generally (for example, he did not join in games much, because of his frailty), he made two great friends in George Frederick Scotson Clark and local lad Charles Blake Cochran). Cochran later became a celebrated theatrical impresario and was knighted (he used to have a plaque in Brighton but it has disappeared - he is, though, currently a number 14C Brighton and Hove bus).

The three boys participated in the school's Christmas Entertainments and in 1887 they dressed up for a spectacular celebrating Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee. Aubrey contributed cartoons to the school magazine and had a poem published locally. He spent school holidays back in Pimlico, where he and Mabel dressed up and put on shows for the family. It has been said that Aubrey liked to wear women's clothes, but whether this was theatricality or something more is not known.

The 1888 school show was held at the Brighton Dome (next to the Royal Pavilion and formerly the Prince Regent's riding stables). Although much altered and renovated over time, it has been a concert hall for more than 150 years and hosts serious musical performances, but is probably best known as the place where Abba won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest. As the name implies, the concert hall is circular and the acoustics are excellent.

The 1888 show was an achievement for Aubrey, in that no fewer than eleven of his illustrations were used in the programme. As yet, of course, he had not developed that style which was so particularly his own, but it was a success of sorts. However, London beckoned again and at the age of 16 he left Brighton Grammar and returned to Pimlico.


Finances in the Beardsley household were as bad as ever. Ellen did some teaching and Vincent picked up clerical work as and when he could. There was no question of an artistic career for Aubrey and through contacts his parents secured him a future opening as a clerk at the Guardian Fire and Life Assurance Company in Lombard Street. It is hard to imagine anything that the boy was less suited for. In the meantime he took a temporary clerkship in the offices of the District Surveyor of Clerkenwell and Islington.

If we pause and consider for a moment, we are already two-thirds of the way through this young man's life. He has about nine years left and here he is doing clerical work. Needless to say, he was not keen on the job but compensated for it by collecting books and broadening his cultural horizons. Then disaster struck again. He was back in London, of course, and in the autumn of 1889 he had a severe relapse, culminating in a haemorrhage; he was ordered to rest. He was not sent anywhere to recuperate but languished at home in Pimlico, reading French classics; he also had a story published in Tit-Bits magazine, which earned him 30 shillings (£1.50). Some of you may remember this periodical, which used to be filled with busty film starlets and showbiz scandal: it was always a gossip/scandal publication, but in Aubrey's day it also carried fiction by well-known authors.

Despite the fact that he did not rest properly and remained in London, Aubrey had recovered somewhat by 1890 and started at the insurance company on a salary of £50 a year. In the meantime Mabel, who was an excellent academic scholar, was offered a place at Cambridge, but had to decline for financial reasons and took up teaching. This did at least improve the family budget and they all moved to a better shared house in Pimlico, where they managed to afford a maid.

Pen-pushing at the Guardian did not cramp Aubrey's style; he used his spare time to immerse himself in reading about mediaeval Italy and discovered the Pre-Raphaelites. He was particularly fond of the work of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Blake and Edward Burne-Jones and the next two examples give an inkling of where he wanted to go and would go in terms of artistic expression - towards the flamboyant and grotesque. He also admired the Impressionists, although their influence is not visually evident in his work.

 Rossetti's 'The Roman Widow' 1874   Blake's 'The Ghost of a Flea' 1819/20
Left: Rossetti's 'The Roman Widow' 1874.
Right: Blake's 'The Ghost of a Flea' 1819/20.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

He plugged away at the pen-pushing, visited galleries, collected prints and books and was invited to write a one-act play for the Old Boys of Brighton Grammar School, which was performed at the Royal Pavilion (the building was by then in the hands of the local council and used as assembly rooms).

And finally in this Part, Aubrey was inspired by the panels that James McNeill Whistler had painted for the dining-room of shipping magnate Frederick Leyland: the work as a whole is known as 'Harmony in Blue and Gold: the Peacock Room' and, whether you love it or hate it, it is undoubtedly a masterpiece. Flamboyance does not come any more stunning than this.

Part of Whistler's Peacock Room
Part of Whistler's Peacock Room.
Image source:

Part 2 - Life and Career

 Self-portrait   Photo by Frederick Hollyer c.1890
Left: Self-portrait, aged 18, c.1890.
Image source:
Right: Photo by Frederick Hollyer c.1890.
Image source: Wikimedia. Commons.

Starting out in art

It is absurd to describe Aubrey as fortunate, since he was in poor health and certain to die young, but he was blessed in the sense that he received encouragement and encountered people who helped his career enormously. He never starved in an icy garret for his art.

In 1891, still working in the insurance office, he took his annual fortnight's holiday with Aunt Sarah in Lower Rock Gardens and spent much of the time with George Scotson Clark. Whilst in Brighton he went to see his old headmaster, Mr Marshall, and asked his advice about enrolling at art school. Marshall favoured the idea, so Aubrey applied to the Herkomer School of Art in Bushey Park), but it was full for the next term.

Aubrey did nothing further about the idea for a while, but continued drawing. He and his family were friendly with the Reverend Alfred Gurney, vicar of St Barnabas, Pimlico, who had been a curate in Brighton and a friend of Father Chapman. Gurney, who was well-off and cultured (the Beardsleys sometimes lunched at his house after Sunday service), admired the lad's work and bought some of his pictures.

Although many people had a hand in advancing Aubrey's career, he made the first big step himself. Sir Edward Burne-Jones, a close associate of William Morris, supposedly held an 'open studio' on Sunday afternoons; he lived at The Grange, North End Road, West Kensington and had a large studio in his garden. This was not your average shed but more of a gallery.

The Burne-Jones studio
The Burne-Jones studio at The Grange, 1887.
Photo by Frederick Hollyer via Wikimedia Commons.

One Sunday, portfolio and Mabel in tow, Aubrey went to The Grange, but was told by the servant that audiences with the great man were now by special appointment only. However, Burne-Jones himself appeared, asked them in and advised Aubrey to take up art professionally. He was invited to tea on the lawn and Mrs Oscar Wilde (Constance) and her children were also there. Burne-Jones thought that Aubrey could take two hours of lessons each evening and keep his office job while he made his way.

Aubrey enrolled at the Westminster School of Art under Frederick Brown, who emphasised line drawing and largely left the pupils to do their own thing. He attended classes for only three months but Burne-Jones was impressed with his progress. At home Aubrey was drawing by candlelight, which was wearing on the eyes (this became an affectation later on and something he did even when it was daylight outside); he suffered a personal blow when Scotson-Clark and Charles Cochran left for America in December 1891 to seek their fortune. Aunt Sarah died in that same month, but the silver lining was that she left £500 each to Ellen, Mabel and Aubrey, the 'children' to receive their inheritance on reaching 21; Vincent received 19 guineas.


As was often the case, Aubrey was ill that winter and had to take time off work, but it did not stop him drawing when he felt well enough. Lady Luck stepped in once more in January 1892 when Aymer Vallance, a writer on interior decoration and a friend of William Morris, paid Aubrey a visit. Yet again this was a connection from the Church of the Annunciation in Brighton, since a clergyman there had mentioned Aubrey to him. Vallance was himself an Anglican priest (the Rev William Howard Aymer Vallance) but converted to Roman Catholicism in 1889.

Vallance was the man who opened the doors for Aubrey, introducing him to Robert 'Robbie' Ross and More Adey. Ross was a lover of Oscar Wilde and a friend of both him and Lord Alfred 'Bosie' Douglas; he was with Wilde when the latter died and his ashes are buried in Wilde's tomb at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Both Ross and Adey were homosexuals, the former being 'out' and the latter being rather more discreet.

Wilde and Douglas, c.1893   Robbie Ross, c.1893
Left: Wilde and Douglas, c.1893.
Right: Robbie Ross, c.1893.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Aubrey was friendly with several homosexuals at this time, including Julian Sampson (brother of Mr Gurney's curate) and Count Eric Stenbock, a rich and very eccentric writer, introduced by Ross. Stenbock came to a sticky end (in Brighton, needless to say). In 1895, whilst having a drunken argument with his stepfather, Sir Francis Mowatt, then Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, he brandished a poker, lost his balance, hit his head on the fireplace and died.

Count Eric Stenbock
Count Eric Stenbock.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Vallance tried hard to enlist William Morris in Aubrey's cause but Morris was not impressed. In the spring of 1892 Aubrey's health improved and he started to adopt Japanese influences in his art, moving away from the Pre-Raphaelite style. He was offered work by the magazine publisher Cassell's and his friend, bookseller Frederick Evans, introduced him to J M Dent, who was about to issue cheap reprints of classics with new illustrations. The first project was to be Malory's 'Le Morte d'Arthur' from the 15th Century and Dent engaged Aubrey to execute the drawings in 'mock mediaeval' style. Later in 1892 Frederick Brown invited him to exhibit at the New English Arts Club's next show.

The work now started coming in. John Lane, co-founder of The Bodley Head, gave Aubrey commissions and an art periodical called 'The Studio' wanted him. A new gallery, The Grafton, opened and immediately sparked a controversy by exhibiting 'L'Absinthe' by Degas. You will all know this painting, but see below anyway. It is a work of social comment, but the Victorians found it shocking and a debate raged about what should or should not be shown in public. Imagine then the furore that would greet something sexually explicit.

L'Absinthe by Degas, 1874
'L'Absinthe' by Degas, 1874.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Aubrey, becoming bolder, thought that you could show anything and drew a picture called 'The Dancer's Reward', which depicted Salome about to kiss or having kissed the severed head of John the Baptist. His friends continued to introduce him to prospective publishers and he obtained work from 'The Studio' and 'The Pall Mall Budget'.

The Dancer's Reward 1894
The Dancer's Reward 1894.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Studio
Beardsley's illustration for the first edition
of 'The Studio' 1893.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1893 Aubrey and Wilde had intended to 'do' the Paris salons, but by now the latter was very deeply involved with Douglas (they were also using 'rent boys') and Wilde pulled out of the trip. Aubrey went anyway, accompanied by Mabel and some friends. John Lane commissioned ten full-page illustrations for an edition of Wilde's play 'Salome'. In the summer of that year the Beardsleys moved to 114 Cambridge Street, still in Pimlico. It seems that Vincent was with them but he had become increasingly marginalised and took no part in the social gatherings held by the others.

Aubrey was supposed to be working on 'Le Morte d'Arthur' but had gone cold on the project, being unhappy with the reproduction of his work for the first instalment and missing deadlines. It was a feature of his career that he waxed hot and cold on projects and went off at tangents, something that would happen increasingly as time went on. His lack of enthusiasm for the Malory job showed up in his work, which was of variable quality, and he started to include details which led Lane to seek out the hidden obscenities with a magnifying glass.

Fame and notoriety

Meanwhile Aubrey and American novelist/editor Henry Harland came up with the idea of a quarterly publication called 'The Yellow Book': this would not be like any other periodical but would appear as a real hard-backed book, containing about 250 pages. It would be yellow in order to resemble cheap French novels, which had yellow covers, the idea being to suggest that it was rather risqué. The idea was put to Lane, who agreed to produce it, with Harland as the literary editor and Aubrey as art editor. Wilde was not invited to contribute, since the editors felt that he would try to dominate proceedings.

The illustrated 'Salome' was published in February 1894 to generally bad reviews. Critics thought that the drawings dominated the text and that some of them had little to do with the play. This next illustration was considered to be the best of the bunch.

The Peacock Skirt
'The Peacock Skirt' for 'Salome'.
Image source:

Other drawings provoked outrage. This next one, for example, clearly shows a female serving girl with male genitalia.

The Toilette of Salome
'The Toilette of Salome' .
Image source:

Even Wilde himself was said to be perturbed by some of the illustrations but his friendship with Aubrey continued, if rather uneasily. We can see the direction in which the artist is headed - he intends to draw attention to himself and shock people. As we know, he had always been something of a 'performer' and now he had a very large stage.

The first edition of 'The Yellow Book' came out in April 1893; the reviews were not that good but it gained widespread attention and went into reprint. Aubrey received much criticism, the illustrations being described in words such as ugly, vulgar and repulsive.

The Yellow Book
Beardsley cover for 'The Yellow Book'.
Image source:

For some reason Aubrey's portrait of the celebrated actress Mrs Patrick Campbell came in for the most criticism, although it looks pretty innocuous to me. Perhaps that was the problem. Anyway, Oscar Wilde liked it so much that he bought it.

Mrs Patrick Campbell
Portrait of Mrs Patrick Campbell.
Image source:

Whatever one's opinion of 'The Yellow Book', it made Aubrey's name and launched him firmly into society; having this big stage, he played the part to the hilt, becoming increasingly affected and dandified. At around that time many people in literary and artistic circles were converting to Roman Catholicism - it seemed to be the fashion - and both Aubrey and Mabel started to attend the Brompton Oratory. Mabel gave up teaching and announced that she would go on the stage. It is hard to discern any characteristics in their ancestry which might have made them the artistic, attention-seeking and social pair that they were, but the genes must have been somewhere in the family.

Mabel Beardsley
Mabel Beardsley.
Image source: New York Public Library via Wikimedia Commons.

The social round, including a Wagner season at Drury Lane, took an inevitable toll on Aubrey; his health suffered and he neglected preparations for the second edition of 'The Yellow Book'. However, it did come out and was apparently less controversial than the first issue. He also got poster commissions and the example below that he drew for the Avenue Theatre on the Thames Embankment has become a classic. There was another one for Singer Sewing Machines, depicting a lady playing the piano and not a sewing machine in sight, although she was wearing an elaborate dress that might have been run up on a Singer earlier.

Illustration from the Avenue Theatre poster
Illustration from the Avenue Theatre poster.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.


Money was not a problem at this stage, but health was. In the summer of 1894 Aubrey collapsed with a severe haemorrhage and the family feared for his life; he was whipped off to Haslemere in Surrey for rest. Meanwhile Mabel had been given an acting engagement and Ellen went to Brighton with Vincent.

It was characteristic of Aubrey's rests after a haemorrhage that he became bored with both the venue and the lack of stimulation and after two weeks in Haslemere he returned to London. It was in 1894 that the figure of Oscar Wilde began to loom large once more.

Robert Smythe Hichens was a musical journalist on the fringes of Wilde's circle and in 1894 he published 'The Green Carnation', a thinly-veiled satirical account of the relationship between Wilde and Douglas, featuring 'Esme Amarinth' and 'Lord Reggie Hastings' as the lead characters. Aubrey was alluded to in passing and later the book was used in evidence at Wilde's trial for gross indecency. Aubrey's drawings for 'The Yellow Book' continued to feature sex, to the extent that Burne-Jones pronounced them immoral. He hadn't seen anything yet.

November brought another haemorrhage, with the invalid being dispatched to a hydropathic clinic in Malvern. His complete rest (during which he continued to draw) lasted for a month and then, after spending Christmas with friends in Windermere, he returned to London. He was planning a trip to America but in the end was not fit to go.

You will all know the story of how Wilde was ill-advisedly persuaded to sue the Marquess of Queensberry (Douglas's father) for libel and how the action was dropped in the light of the revelations about Wilde's sexual proclivities, leading to Wilde's arrest at the Cadogan Hotel, Knightsbridge on charges of sodomy and gross indecency. Although Aubrey was by now irritated with Wilde, he did sympathise with the man's situation.

The Illustrated Police News, 4 May 1895
The Illustrated Police News, 4 May 1895.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

Aubrey suffered by association with Wilde, mainly because the press thought the latter was carrying a copy of 'The Yellow Book' when arrested: it was actually a French novel but Aubrey was tarred as degenerate and the windows of The Bodley Head publishing company were stoned. Lane gave into pressure and dropped him from 'The Yellow Book'. This was a significant blow since the work from Lane provided Aubrey's major regular income.

Mabel then took a hand in matters and introduced Aubrey to her friend Marc Andre Raffalovich, who was rich, a writer on homosexuality and partner of the poet John Gray (a former close friend of Wilde). Raffalovich was of Jewish origins but became a Roman Catholic in 1896 and he was to figure importantly in the rest of Aubrey's life, as a source of moral and financial support. There is no suggestion whatsoever that their relationship was anything more than friendship, especially as Raffalovich was devoted to Gray.

Marc Andre Raffalovich c.1880
Marc Andre Raffalovich c.1880.
Image source: Wikipedia.

In May 1895 Mabel became Roman Catholic. Raffalovich bought some of Aubrey's work and very probably gave him money too. Aubrey and Mabel took a house together. Leonard Smithers then came on the scene and he was to be Aubrey's next publisher.

Smithers was originally a solicitor, but got into publishing erotica and, after the Wilde scandal, was one of the few who continued to issue 'decadent' works: he was eventually the publisher of Wilde's 'Ballad of Reading Gaol'. In the summer of 1895 he decided to start a rival offering to 'The Yellow Book' - this would be 'The Savoy' - and he wanted Aubrey as the art editor. The artist was then in Dieppe, recovering from a haemorrhage and writing a poem called 'Tannhauser', based on the story of a 13th century German poet (also the subject of the eponymous Wagner opera). This was never finished but parts of it, described as bordering on pornography, were subsequently published by Smithers, who cut out the more controversial portions.

It was one of Aubrey's silly affectations that he claimed not to be able to draw anywhere but in London, but he did draw in Dieppe and decided to change his style. His first design for 'The Savoy' cover depicted a cherub preparing to urinate on 'The Yellow Book' and his illustration of John Bull for the prospectus went through a print run of 80,000 copies before someone noticed that, although Mr Bull was fully clothed, there was something slightly untoward happening in his nether regions; this oversight was smoothed out in the second printing.

As mentioned, Smithers was into erotica, but he knew what was and what was not acceptable in public print and so suggested an illustrated version of 'Lysistrata' by Aristophanes, which could be sold privately and expensively to connoisseurs. In the meantime Aubrey was working on drawings for Alexander Pope's poem 'The Rape of the Lock'.

The Rape of the Lock
One of Aubrey's illustrations for The 'Rape of the Lock'.
Image source: Wikipedia.

Part 3 - Decline And Death

We are now in 1896 and Aubrey's life is about to decline quite markedly. There is some evidence that he had girlfriends and, for example, in February he and Smithers went to Paris with a girl. Then, on a whim, he went to Brussels, where there was another girl. However, he had a series of haemorrhages and eventually Ellen, who was ailing herself, went over to take him home. Robbie Ross found him some new rooms in Kensington (Mabel was usually away touring with an acting company).

After publication of 'The Rape of the Lock' Aubrey was sent for rest in Crowborough, Sussex, but was banned from drawing and became bored after a fortnight; he thought he would move back to Brighton, but his doctors recommended Epsom, which is how he came to be ensconced in two 'palatial' rooms at The Spread Eagle Hotel in the summer of 1896, illustrating 'Lysistrata' by candlelight and walking on the Downs. It was about thirteen years since he had last stayed in the town.

The Spread Eagle c.1904
The Spread Eagle c.1904.
Image courtesy of Surrey Libraries and is held in the
Epsom & Ewell Local And Family History Centre Collection
(Links open in new windows)

He stayed for only a very few weeks, but completed eight illustrations. An Epsom doctor said that his left lung was breaking down completely and that the right lung was becoming affected. Before long he was too weak to walk or undertake much exertion. On 17 July 1896 he had a will drawn up, leaving everything to Mabel.

This is a family-friendly website and the 'Lysistrata' drawings are sexually explicit, so I will tell you that the full set is online. Please access the link, or not, at your own discretion. However, whatever you may think of them, I suppose that they do form part of Epsom's rich heritage.

Next Aubrey started on 'Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves' and I can show you something from this.

Ali Baba
Cover design for 'Ali Baba' 1897.
Image source:

Smithers had made the mistake of turning 'The Savoy' into a monthly publication, with a resulting strain on contributors and finances. By this time Aubrey was not working on it very much. Then, W H Smith cancelled its order, probably on the ground that some of the content was offensive.

There was no doubt by now that Aubrey was nearing death; the haemorrhages resumed and he was advised to move to Boscombe, near Bournemouth, which he did in mid-August. Mabel found him rooms at a small guest-house above the beach and stayed there with him for a month. Smithers suggested producing an album of his best drawings and at the end of August he managed to visit London to gather up some of his work for inclusion. However, he had a relapse, was taken back to Boscombe and was confined to his room for a month. Everyone thought that this was the end, but he rallied and continued compiling the album.

W H Smith had hammered the final nail into the coffin of 'The Savoy' and the last edition was due to appear at the end of 1896. Smithers wanted to make it an issue with plenty of Beardsley content. Aubrey was deteriorating and also had financial worries, although he apparently got some help from Robbie Ross and Raffalovich; Raffalovich then introduced him to the Jesuit fraternity in Boscombe and Aubrey's thoughts started to turn towards conversion.

On 10 December 1896, whilst walking uphill with his mother, he had another haemorrhage, with the bleeding continuing intermittently for almost a week. He was still working at this time, doing some illustrations for 'Erda' (part of Wagner's Ring Cycle), although the series was never completed. At Christmas, still at Boscombe, he was taken ill again and the doctors decided that Bournemouth would suit him better. There seems little rhyme or reason for this constant upheaval (Aubrey was quite happy with Boscombe) and the medical recommendations just smack of being heard to be saying something. The situation was hopeless and they all knew it.

On 17 January 1897 Aubrey collapsed and this time it really did seem like the end. Mabel was not there (she was acting in America) but Ellen stayed with him and he rallied sufficiently to be transported just along the road to Bournemouth, where they checked into the 'Muriel' guesthouse. The house no longer exists but there is a delightful mosaic memorial to Aubrey on the site, featuring one of his drawings. (I am just wondering whether Lester Bowden's, which now occupies the site of 'The Spread Eagle', might like to have a plaque and an illustration from 'Lysistrata' on the front wall ... no, perhaps not.)

Bournemouth Plaque
Photo by Alwyn Ladell via

Close-up of the Bournemouth plaque
Close-up of the Bournemouth plaque.
Photo by Alwyn Ladell via

Ellen was told that Aubrey would not last another winter, although he did. The album, entitled 'The Book of Fifty Drawings', was published in January 1897 to muted response and I draw the inference that he had gone out of vogue. Aubrey was not producing much now, with a resulting depletion of funds, but Raffalovich came to the rescue with an allowance of £100 a quarter. Following another haemorrhage Aubrey had improved somewhat by March, but was not well enough to draw: instead he did some writing. On 31 March a priest received him into the Roman Catholic Church at 'Muriel'.

Exile and death

The next intention was go to France - the Riviera was mooted - and with this in mind Aubrey travelled to London on 7 April. After two days there, the Riviera plan was discarded and Paris substituted. He and Ellen travelled to Paris on 9 April, accompanied by a doctor, and everyone knew that he would never return.

His friend, William Rothenstein, paid a visit and said that by then all artifice had gone from Aubrey: he was gentle and affectionate and had found peace after years of rudderless vanity. The problem with Paris was that there was too much to see and too many social activities and inevitably Aubrey deteriorated again, so moved to St Germain-en-Laye, a resort suburb of Paris, where he revived a little. And yet again a doctor recommended moving somewhere else, so off they went to Dieppe, where there was the potential embarrassment of accidentally running into Oscar Wilde, newly released from Reading Gaol.

Aubrey occupied himself by beginning a series of new illustrations, intended for an edition of Theophile Gautier's novel 'Mademoiselle de Maupin', and he experimented with pencil and watercolour wash rather than his usual pen and ink. As you see below, the talent was still there.

Mademoiselle de Maupin
Mademoiselle de Maupin.
Image source:

In September Aubrey returned to Paris and managed to get out and about, still working on 'Mademoiselle de Maupin'. However, the financially straitened Smithers was unhappy, as it was complicated and expensive to replicate wash and pencil illustrations; this in turn made Aubrey anxious and then, with the onset of colder weather, he was sent on another medical relocation, to Menton on the Mediterranean. This was to be the final move, although he started work on some pictures for Ben Jonson's play 'Volpone'.

An illustration for 'Volpone' 1898.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

An attack of rheumatism in his arm brought a halt to Aubrey's drawing and on 26 January 1898 he had a haemorrhage which went on for days: he was too weak even to shave. He started to rally but on 6 March the game was finally up - he had a massive haemorrhage and Mabel was sent for urgently. On his deathbed he wrote to Smithers, imploring him to destroy all copies of 'Lysistrata' and all his other obscene drawings. Smithers telegraphed to say that he had done so. Aubrey died in the early hours of 16 March 1898 and was buried in Menton Cemetery, which is on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean (see the findagrave entry here).

Menton Cemetery
Menton Cemetery, on top of the hill.
Photo by Tangopaso via Wikimedia Commons.


The obituaries for Aubrey were not generous, damning his work as 'unwholesome', but one could say that he had brought it upon himself and upset 'The Establishment' too often. His estate amounted to just over £836 net. A memorial mass was held in London and his friends rallied round to sing his praises. Even Whistler, who was emphatically not a fan, selected some of his drawings for a big exhibition.

The Death of Pierrot
'The Death of Pierrot' 1896.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons.


Smithers had lied to Aubrey about destroying the drawings and continued to sell works still in his possession, as well as forgeries thereof. In 1900 he went bankrupt and in 1907 was found dead and naked in a lodging house, surrounded by empty bottles of Dr J Collis Browne's Chlorodyne. (Older readers will remember this as an effective household remedy for several common ailments in moderate dosage, but it did actually contain laudanum, cannabis and chloroform, so that overdoses could be - and often were - fatal.) Lord Alfred Douglas paid for Smithers's burial but would not go so far as to stump up for a headstone.


Vincent seems to have lived apart from his family for quite a few years, but he did attend Mabel's wedding in 1903 and returned to Ellen; both of them became Roman Catholics. Vincent died on 17 July 1909 and was buried in St Pancras Cemetery, East Finchley. His gravestone bears the following inscription.

Ora Pro Nobis (Pray For Us)

In loving memory of my dear husband Vincent Paul Beardsley who died July 17th 1909 aged 69 years.

'Till with the dawn those angel faces smile, which I have loved long since and lost awhile.'


In 1903 Mabel married actor George Bealby Wright, who was a few years her junior, at Westminster Cathedral. In the 1911 census Ellen was living at the couple's home in Kensington, although Mabel herself was in hospital. In 1912 Mabel was diagnosed with cancer of the uterus and lingered on, nursed by Ellen, until she died on 8 May 1916; she is also buried in St Pancras Cemetery.

Mabel was not an actress of the first rank, but she did obtain fairly regular work and was the subject of a poem by W B Yeats, a friend of hers and Aubrey's: it is called 'Upon a Dying Lady' and can be found here.


Poor Ellen, who had devoted most of her married life to her children, now found herself alone and impoverished; at some point she moved to Haywards Heath, Sussex and died on 15 January 1932 in a nursing home at Hurstpierpoint, leaving £365.

It is said at that she may have been buried with Vincent at St Pancras Cemetery, as there is a handwritten note of her name above Vincent's name in the burial register, but there is no actual entry for her and no inscription for her on the stone.

Linda Jackson
August 2013

Main source: 'Aubrey Beardsley, A Biography' by Matthew Sturgis, first published 1998.

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