Aubrey Beardsley: A British Artist for the 1890s

The Manuscripts Division has particularly rich holdings on Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98), the celebrated fin-de-siècle artist, who is best known for his exquisite black-and-white book illustrations. Beardsley’s books, posters, bookplates, and magazine contributions—most notably Oscar Wilde’s Salome and The Yellow Book—brought him international celebrity before his untimely death from tuberculosis at age 25. Through his art, Beardsley became the leading exponent of a British movement referred to by its detractors as “decadent,” as was Wilde in literature. He completed nearly 1100 drawings in just six years. Beardsley absorbed the Pre-Raphaelites, the Aesthetic movement, Japanese woodblock prints, Greek vases, and eighteenth-century engravings to produce the bold, instantly recognizable “Beardsley style.” Then as now, Beardsley’s artistic vision can be seen as as amusing, grotesque, decadent, perverse, liberating, erotic, or even obscene. But it is always original, unique, and arresting.

Yet while Beardsley’s art has been much admired since his own time, the daunting task of identifying and locating all of his illustrations would have to wait more than a century after his death. The scholarly world is fortunate that a comprehensive catalogue has finally been published. Professor Linda G. Zatlin, Department of English, Morehouse College, spent three decades preparing a Beardsley catalogue raisonné, including innumerable research trips and photography orders to the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. Zatlin has carefully identified, described, studied, and reproduced nearly 1100 extant Beardsley illustrations, whether they survive only in printed editions or also in drawings and sketches preserved in libraries and museums worldwide. The result is an indispensable catalogue, both handsome and learned, which will long remain the standard guide to Beardsley’s work.

Linda G. Zatlin, Aubrey Beardsley: A Catalogue Raisonné (New Haven: Yale University Press for the The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2016), a two-volume boxed set, with 75 color and 1145 black-and-white illustrations. Available from Yale University Press, the catalogue provides a full record for each work, with a provenance note and exhibition history; and discusses themes, motifs, symbolism, and critical reception, with an up-to-date bibliography. Among those to whom the catalogue is dedicated is Mark Samuels Lasner, who co-curated the Library’s Beardsley centennial exhibition (1998-99) with Don C. Skemer, Curator of Manuscripts.

More than 100 of the original Beardsley drawings and sketches cataloged and reproduced by Zatlin are in the Manuscript’s Division’s Aubrey Beardsley Collection (C0056). Most of these were donated to Princeton in 1948 by the American artist and art collector A. E [Alfred Eugene] Gallatin (1881-1952). The collection was one of the earliest exhibitions in Firestone Library, curated by Alexander D. Wainwright, Class of 1939. Additions have been made to this collection in the decades since the Gallatin gift. The drawings and sketches were done for book illustrations, borders, chapter headings, title pages, and posters, and book plates.

These are complemented by selected correspondence and manuscripts. Among Beardsley’s major correspondents are Edmund Gosse, Robert Underwood Johnson, and Leonard Smithers. In addition, there is correspondence from Douglas Ainslie, Joseph M. Dent, John Lane, and Beardsley’s mother and sister, as well as photographs of Beardsley and family members. His own literary manuscripts include “The Art of Hoarding,” “Under the Hill,” and “The Ivory Piece.” The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections also has printed editions of all works illustrated by Beardsley.

For information about Beardsley holdings in the Manuscripts Division, including several recent acquisitions, please contact Don C. Skemer, Curator of Manuscripts,

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