Flipping through a picture book is a magical pastime. But because some illustrations hold more power than others, it follows that some illustrators are greater magicians. One of the greatest is surely the late Aubrey Beardsley, whose black ink drawings conjure fantasy worlds and monsters.
Beardsley is one of the most celebrated and controversial book illustrators of the Art Nouveau era. In his prolific but short lifetime (he died of tuberculosis aged 25), he illustrated Malory’s Morte D’Arthur in neo-Kelmscott medieval style and rendered Oscar Wilde’s Salome in pen and ink.
Towards the end of his life Beardsley’s style became darker and he began producing grotesque erotica. His Japanese woodcut style and painstaking detail lent itself wonderfully to fantastical scenes such as Der Puderquast, which shows a naked woman being carried off by a goat-headed man.
After converting to Catholocism in 1897 Beardsley entreated his publisher to destroy his “obscene drawings”. Leonard Smithers refused his request and many of Beardsleys controversial drawings (including Arbuscular, pictured) were saved.
Some of Beardsley’s best illustrations are currently on show alongside the work of other major illustrators of the era including Arthur Rackham, Harry Clarke, Edmund Dulac and Kay Nielsen.
Fancy and Imagination: Beardsley and the Book of Illustrators is at the Audrey Burton Gallery in Leeds from now until 12 February 2011.