Final Days of English Illustrator Audrey Beardsley

About the final days of English illustrator Audrey Beardsley, biography and history.


AUBREY BEARDSLEY, English illustrator

Died: Hotel Cosmopolitain, Menton, France, Mar. 16, 1898, early morning.

Beardsley's last day, like the weeks of days preceding it, was spent in a morphine stupor. The artist was suffering the terminal stage of tuberculosis. The disease, contracted when he was six, had allowed some years of remission, but from 1896 until his death at 25 it sapped his already wraithlike constitution and made him a total invalid. During those last two years, however, he illustrated numerous works, including Alexander Pope's Rape of the Lock. When he died, Beardsley was working desperately to finish some ornate lettering for an edition of Ben Jonson's Volpone. Although a member of the homosexual clique that included Oscar Wilde and the English aesthetes, Beardsley was basically heterosexual--though perhaps his only female partner had been his adored elder sister, Mabel (who may also have borne his miscarried child). Some biographers suggest that Wilde's celebrated downfall and the public revulsion that followed it may have precipitated Beardsley's final illness. In March, 1897, after converting to Roman Catholicism, he and his mother traveled to Paris. Doctors advised against spending the winter in the city, so in November they went to southern France. There, ravaged by chills and weakness, Beardsley took to bed and never left his room after a bad lung hemorrhage on Jan. 26. Thoughts of religion and guilt about the frank eroticism of his past work haunted him, and he spent hours reading about the lives of Roman Catholic saints. Nine days before he died, he scribbled a note to his London publisher with the heading "Jesus is our Lord & Judge." The note read: "I implore you to destroy all copies of Lysistrata. . . . By all that is holy--all obscene drawings." (Since the book had already been published, however, posterity was not deprived of these most original and openly suggestive illustrations.) Unable to manage the delicate penwork for Volpone, he resorted to pencil. Early in the morning on Mar. 16, when his mother and Mabel were out of the room, the artist apparently tried to draw, for when Ellen Beardsley returned, her son was dead and his favorite gold pen--either thrown or dropped on the floor--was standing upright like an arrow. The New York Times for Apr. 2, 1898, condescendingly recognized his originality but prophesied that "a coming age will wonder why there was any brief interest taken in Beardsley's work. It was a passing fad, a little sign of decadence, and nothing more."

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