Celebrated and vilified in his short lifetime, Aubrey Beardsley is still provoking controversy, argues Matthew Sweet

AUBREY BEARDSLEY had an intense preoccupation with sex. In his brief, brilliant career - which saw him celebrated, disgraced, passe and dead before his 26th birthday - he created a uniquely luxurious, lubricious illustrative style: a strongly contemporary graphic art of plush, monochrome obscenity. He wrote Under the Hill, a pornographic novel in which - to take one example - Venus works up an appetite for lunch by masturbating a unicorn called Adolphe ("Adolphe had been quite profuse that morning. Venus knelt where it had fallen, and lapped her little aperitif"). He collected explicit Japanese prints and framed them for his bedroom wall, he delighted in books that detailed carnal curiosities, his intimates were sodomites and smut-peddlers to a man. But his biographers have searched in vain for hard evidence that he didn't die a virgin. "Don't sit on the same chair as Aubrey," his mentor Oscar Wilde declared. "It's not compromising."

When Wilde was escorted by two detectives from the Cadogan Hotel on April 5 1895, the newspaper headlines used the association between playwright and artist to compromise them both: "OSCAR WILDE ARRESTED: YELLOW BOOK UNDER HIS ARM". It might have been a French novel in yellow wrappers. It might even have been a Yellowback, one of the cheap reprints of popular novels sold on railway bookstands. The assumption, however, was that this volume was the Yellow Book, the journal of aesthetic art and literature with which Beardsley was strongly identified. Sufficient numbers of people made that assumption, for a sizeable crowd to assemble outside the offices of its publisher, the Bodley Head, and pelt the windows with stones.

Last September, a Daily Mail columnist denounced the Royal Academy's "Sensation" show as the product of a "perverted, brutal, horribly modish and clever-cunning, degenerate, exhibitionist, high- voiced and limp-wristed" culture, and identified this tendency as Beardsley's legacy. "The Naughty Nineties," he raged, "saw an upsurge of intellectual degeneracy whose taste was for opium, cocaine and obscenity, whose symbol was the Yellow Book, the leading avant-garde publication of the day, and whose talismans were the drawings - some published, most privately circulated - of Aubrey Beardsley. These precious creatures were riding high until, in 1885 [sic], the conviction and imprisonment of Oscar Wilde, the paedophile, brought the edifice of fashionable degeneracy down in shameful ruin."

As is probably the case with Damien Hirst, Aubrey Vincent Beardsley was an innocent little boy before he became a high priest of wasted decadence. He was born in Brighton on 21 August 1872, almost exactly a year before his sister, Mabel. The Beardsleys' foothold on gentility was precarious. His mother, Ellen, was the child of a wealthy ex-Indian Army officer, one Surgeon-Major Pitt, and was convinced that she could have married more ambitiously. She was so celebrated for her slender figure that it's said that she was known as "the bottomless Pitt". She was also a great connoisseur of religious sermons, and on one occasion pretended to be a deaf-mute in order to get herself the best pew in church.

Aged seven, Aubrey listed his interests as cake, circus elephants, fireworks, nautical adventures, pocket money and toy trains. That same year, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Depending on whom you believe, it was Wilde or Beardsley himself who was later to comment that "even his lungs were affected".

The centenary of Beardsley's death has produced two attempts on his life, Stephen Calloway's Aubrey Beardsley, a richly illustrated book closely allied to the Beardsley exhibition the author has curated for the V&A, and Matthew Sturgis's Aubrey Beardsley: A Biography, a thorough but somewhat timid study of the artist and his work. Calloway provides excellent reproductions of Beardsley's work, and his analysis is fluent, but you need to go to Sturgis to fill in details like the pronunciation of key terms. It's "Ah-brey," apparently, not "Orbrey" (a note informs the reader that this information comes "from Moresco Pearce, via Barry Humphries"). And it's the Yellow Book, never the Yellow Book. Got that?

Sturgis is rather unwilling to editorialise upon his subject, with the result that his image of Beardsley tends to get out of focus even as the author piles on information about him. Possibly Sturgis over-identifies with his star, and so handles him too delicately. I don't say that flippantly - the photo of Sturgis on the jacket is a peculiar restaging of Frederick Evans's famous photograph, now hanging in the National Portrait Gallery. Of all the images of the artist, this is the one that most betrays the physical oddness that inspired Punch to parody him as Danbrey Beardless, Daubaway Weirdsley, Weirdsley Daubrey and Awfully Weirdly. As Sturgis notes, Evans took the photograph on 16 July 1894, after a memorial service for Keats in Hampstead. "There's not much to be done with a face like yours," remarked the photographer. "You're only a gargoyle, you know?" Beardsley then did his impression of a gargoyle, the famous Stryge on the roof of Notre-Dame cathedral. Evans got the joke, released the shutter, and created an iconic image: the haircut of a medieval parson, the huge cuffs at half-mast on bony forearms, Nosferatu fingers cupping the cheeks to disguise the elongation of his face, the boat-hook excesses of that great nose. Sturgis's fingers aren't so long, his nose isn't quite so gargantuan, his parting is a little off-centre. But those ears! The resemblance is quite too utterly utter.

Sex was a profound influence on Beardsley's work, on the company he kept, and on the progress of his illness. In the century that has passed since that final haemorrhage in a hotel room in Menton, on the French Riviera, his work has gone in and out of fashion, his critical stock has fluctuated, and the rumours about his erotic life have accumulated: a week after his death in March 1898, the Times was condemning his "morbid imagination", and his onetime advocate Edward Burne-Jones was disapproving of his association with Wilde and his "horrid set of semi-Sodomites", dismissing Beardsley's work as "detestable" and "more lustful than any I've seen". In 1925, the scandalmongering journalist Frank Harris claimed that Beardsley had confessed that he'd been engaged in an incestuous relationship with his sister Mabel and that she had conceived and aborted their child. Others have attempted to use the recurrent foetal imagery in Beardsley's work to corroborate this assertion.

Evidence that the artist ever put his lurid sexual imaginings into practice is scarce. Sturgis describes how Beardsley and his school friends would ogle the actresses at the Brighton Theatre, but contends that the love poems he sent to a fellow teenager, one Miss Felton ("For thee I am dying / For thee I am sighing / For thee I am bursting, like fine ginger pop ...") were nothing more than a "self-regarding performance". There are vague suggestions that he might have enjoyed some libidinous fumbling during a drunken coach accident on the streets of Paris, and there was certainly an unsuccessful attempt to "ravish" Muriel Broadbent, the mistress of art historian Herbert Horne, in a room at the Thalia supper club. Sturgis makes a frustratingly unelucidated claim that Beardsley "embarked upon a liaison with a girl called Rayon" while on holiday in Brussels. Calloway, meanwhile, casts doubt on W B Yeats's claim that Beardsley had shared the favours of a "painted woman" with poet Ernest Dowson, or that he'd been intimate with a notorious London prostitute with the nom-de-plume of "Penny Plain". Both authors reject the notion that Beardsley's remark to publisher John Lane that he was planning to go to the St James's restaurant "dressed up as tart" amount to a taste for transvestism: neither have any time for Harris's allegations of incest; and both conclude that Beardsley was - as far as the scant evidence will allow them to determine - basically heterosexual.

So, you might ask, why did he spend all his spare time with the decade's most notorious sexual deviants? Why did he turn on Edward Burne-Jones, the elderly Pre-Raphaelite painter who gave him his first major commission, and move firmly into the orbit of figures like Oscar Wilde Robert Ross, John Gray, Max Beerbohm and William Rothenstein? Why was he, in his final years, financially supported by Marc Andre Raffalovich, author of Uranisme et Unisexualite? At the age of 19, he had accepted a commission for an "atmospheric" picture of Hermaphroditus from the "shadowy" Julian Sampson, and was rubbing shoulders with characters like Count Eric Stenbock, whom Sturgis describes as "a 30-year-old half-Estonian nobleman, amiable, witty, fantastically rich and richly fantastical. He had written several volumes of over-wrought verse and a book of lycanthropic short stories." (The Count had also fallen in love with a male music student whom he'd met on the top deck of an omnibus.)

For Sturgis, Beardsley's fascination with this subculture was rooted in his attraction to "its extravagant phraseology, its self-deprecating wit, its obsession with surface. Without committing himself sexually, he learnt the language and studied the pose." Both he and Calloway might have answered this question more persuasively by putting Beardsley's sexuality into its proper historical context. Sturgis writes of a "homosexual milieu" existing by 1892, but since the word ("homosexual," that is, not "milieu") made its first appearance in English that same year, and then only in a translation of a German specialist medical text entitled Psychopathia Sexualis, it's highly unlikely that Sampson, Ross or even Count Eric would have referred to themselves as such. Sexuality itself was undergoing radical redefinition in the 1890s, ten years that would see it increasingly taxonomised by psychologists like Havelock Ellis and Max Nordau, explored by sexual pioneers like Ross, Raffalovich and Wilde, and policed by the British courts. The final decade of the 19th century was the high noon of sexual ambiguity and viewed in this light Beardsley's carnal character is more easy to appreciate.

Both Calloway and Sturgis are unable to understand why, in the aftermath of the Wilde scandal, Beardsley courted controversy by moving away from his mother and sister and into rooms at Geneux's Private Hotel at 10-11 St James Place. He set up home in a suite which Wilde had taken in 1893 to write An Ideal Husband and explore his interest in rentboys. The address had been made notorious by the Old Bailey trial as a place of homosexual assignation. Beardsley's motives are "unfathomable", says Calloway, but they seem perfectly in tune with the artist's vicarious experience of a unique era in sexual history. As Sturgis notes: "It was a period of rapid realignments and emphatic gestures: some fled to France; others took the simpler course of getting their hair cut and subscribing to the Times's Shilling Cricket Fund." With his own sexuality made a matter of public speculation by Wilde's arrest and imprisonment, it's little wonder that Beardsley needed to reflect on the impact of these events.

Perhaps this is how we should remember him: as an artist who tried to go beyond the limits of popular taste, both in terms of style and sexual orientation. One can imagine Beardsley sitting in the Geneux Hotel, pondering Wilde's downfall at the scene of his scandalous crimes; reflecting on his own subversive sexual appetites; sniffing at the linen for traces of telegraph boy: glancing over the columns of the Daily Mail, and wondering if things would ever change.

8 'Aubrey Beardsley' by Stephen Calloway (V&A Publications pounds 25). 'Aubrey Beardsley: A Biography' by Matthew Sturgis (HarperCollins pounds 19.99).

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