The artist who shocked the 1890s is having a birthday bash. D J Taylor appreciates the art but can live without the poses
Aubrey Beardsley: a biography

by Matthew Sturgis

HarperCollins, pounds 19.99

Aubrey Beardsley

by Stephen Calloway

V&A Publications, pounds 25

Beardsley and the Nineties

by Peter Raby

Collins & Brown, pounds 10.99

Beardsley, Japonisme and the Perversion of the Victorian Ideal

by Linda Gertler Zatlin

Cambridge University Press, pounds 45

Amid a surging tide of books, exhibitions, impersonations - notably Stephen Fry as Oscar - and strangled whispers about the fin de siecle, it is difficult to work up much enthusiasm for the 1890s, or at any rate for the cultural artefacts with which they are popularly linked. "Decadent" literature, all those twittering approximations of darkling hushes and streetwalker's smiles, seems merely anaemic when set against mainstream work by Moore, Wells or Gissing. Wilde himself, on closer inspection, looks more like an Eighties hangover - a more risque Walter Pater, say - than the embodiment of zeitgeist. Meanwhile, the example of genuine decadents of the Baudelaire school is always present on the other side of the channel to show just how diffident and derivative the domestic version of the "wicked Nineties" could be.

If there are consolations in this relentless mimicry of J K Huysmans - whose Against Nature was a key text of the period, and whose hero Des Esseintes, with his orange wallpaper and his morbid imaginings, features as the avant-garde icon of his day - they can be found in the lanky and emaciated figure of Aubrey Beardsley. In fact, it is not going over-far to say that Beardsley, who died a hundred years ago on Monday, is the single significant figure to emerge from this whole area of late-19th- century upper cultural life. There are few lasting images of the period with which Beardsley doesn't have some (usually direct) association, and, a century on, a career that ended before the artist's 26th birthday still looks extraordinarily dense and fertile.

For all his originality, Beardsley remains firmly embedded in the context of his time. Any attempt to track him down not only leads the researcher into some very odd byways of 1890s life, but simultaneously forces him to examine the various identities that Beardsley and his hangers-on contrived for themselves, and in particular the all-purpose tag of "decadent". J H Buckley, in The Victorian Temper, has some useful pointers to what, in practical terms, "decadence" actually consisted of. Its exponents "strove to proclaim in their very dress, speech and gesture, a full aesthetic autonomy", while their drawings "imposed a kind of diseased vitality upon the fixed traditions of a fugitive rococo." An exemplary description of Beardsley, in fact, of whom it can be said that he stage-managed his own life.

If all this makes Beardsley sound an impossibly stylised and rarefied creature, then the effect of these two new biographies is to tether him to another, much more accessible, Nineties pattern. Stephen Calloway makes the point that his early life, spent in a shabby-genteel lower middle- class home whose comparative poverty sent him out to work at 16, belongs to the H G Wells tradition of clerkly improvement. The teenage Aubrey may have been a precociously dandified exquisite, but he was also ambitious, and his attitude to self-advancement - shrewd use of contacts, hardheadedness about money - can often seem surprisingly matter-of-fact.

At the same time he also benefited from some extraordinary strokes of luck. Paying a visit to Burne-Jones's house in the North End Road with his mother (both Mrs Beardsley and his sister Mabel stoutly supported his career) in the hope of being allowed to tour the studio, he was turned away by the servant, only to be pursued down the street by the artist himself and invited back to a tea-party that included Constance Wilde and her children. Similarly, his first important commission, the sumptuous drawings for La Morte d'Arthur, came after he walked into Frederick Evans's bookshop in Queen Street to find the publisher J M Dent discussing potential illustrators.

Not everyone was susceptible to Beardsley's charm or his flagrant careerism. Whistler disliked him, and William Morris resented the stylistic borrowings from Kelmscott Press productions that ignored their principle of hand- crafted integrity. But in retrospect his career seems to have grown out of a shrewd awareness of the opportunities and rewards available to him. Commissioned to illustrate Wilde's Salome, for example, he managed to persuade the publisher John Lane to pay him more for the drawings than Wilde received for the text.

Spurred on by ill health - the tuberculosis which had already damaged his lungs re-emerged in his late teens - Beardsley burst on to the London scene in 1893, when he was taken up by a new art magazine, The Studio. A year later, as art editor of Lane's Yellow Book, he was a household name, lampooned in Punch, and the butt of music-hall jokes. In the event - and ironically, as the two were by this time estranged - it was the Wilde connection that proved his undoing. Arrested at the Cadogan Hotel in April 1895 on 20 charges of gross indecency, Wilde was widely reported to have borne a copy of the Yellow Book away with him. Sturgis and Calloway have no trouble in demonstrating that this was actually a French novel (customarily bound in yellow covers) but the imputation stuck.

A mob attacked Lane's premises in Vigo Street and a deputation of authors lobbied for Beardsley's removal. There followed a twilit decline, marked by a trail of haemorrhages, in which he was supported by an infinitely shabbier publisher, Leonard Smithers - responsible for commissioning the lubricious Lysistrata drawings - and subsidised by the decadent patron Marc-Andre Raffalovich. A Roman Catholic convert, in approved fin de siecle style, he died in a Menton hotel room in March 1898.

Of these various accounts of his life, Calloway's is an excellent illustrated chronology while Sturgis's biography benefits from some assiduous research and avoids the painful stylistic flourishes that marred his book about the English decadents, Passionate Attitudes (though I gritted my teeth at a passage about Beardsley "feeling the forelock of opportunity within his grasp"). Peter Raby's Beardsley and the Nineties is a short and mostly reliable survey of the artist and his time. Both Calloway and Sturgis are good on the myriad influences that Beardsley's magpie sensibility brought together in his illustrative style. These ranged from the fag-end of Pre-Raphaelitism to Japanese woodblock prints (exhaustively covered in Professor Zatlin's scholarly study) and even the sinuous figures of Attic vases. Both biographers trace a debt to Fred Brown, Beardsley's tutor at the Westminster School of Art, who emphasised the virtues of line, simplicity and contour. Certainly Beardsley's finest moments conform to this ideal. The sketch of three French waiters ("Les Garcons du Cafe (Royal)"), for instance, is a perfect example of his ability to convey space, shape and solidity with an absolute minimum of effort.

It is no disrespect to Beardsley's anatomists to say that it would be hardly surprising if the pictures didn't outweigh the interest of the life, much of which must be marked down as a colossal pose. Even the camp naughtinesses of his manner and conversation fail to square with what appear to have been straightforwardly heterosexual tastes. Again, Beardsley's subversiveness works better in his drawings, full of reflexive jokes, which at their best beckon the viewer into an odd, shifting space where the subject threatens to disappear altogether, reemerging as a private theme-park of aesthetic call and response. Dent admitted that one of his chief difficulties lay in maintaining Beardsley's interest: easily bored, he had a fatal habit of simply mucking about.

There is a kind of desperate resolve in all this, though, appealing and at the same time faintly sinister: the self-imposed autonomy - to go back to J H Buckley - of an artist who knew exactly what he wanted and the best means of achieving it before his lungs gave out. If the attendant pierrots of the Naughty Nineties never quite convince, either on the page or off, it is because they lacked both this inner conviction and the physical horrors that lashed it to the surface.

In the end it is difficult not to feel that the sharp, malevolent drawings for Volpone and the bloody hotel room at Menton are all of a piece, and as ever it is Beardsley's achievement that one envies, rather than the intent and feverish pursuit.