Like many other artists of the '90s, Beardsley greatly admired Edward Burne-Jones, and in the Spring of 1891 he and his sister Mabel set out to visit the artist's home and studio, which the great painter had once opened to visitors on Sunday. As Penelope Fitzgerald explains in her biography of Burne-Jones,
Since Margaret's marriage. The Grange had no longer been open to callers on Sunday. But not everybody knew this, and in the spring of 1891 on a day when Oscar and Constance Wilde were expected to tea, a very young artist, who 'happened' to have his portfolio with him, called with his elder sister. This was Aubrey Beardsley, and when the two young people were discreetly turned away by William [Morris], and 'left somewhat disconsolately',
Fitzgerald then quotes from a letter by Beardsley whose addressee, date, and owner she does not identify (her endnotes at the back of her book only provide the sources of Burne-Jones materials):
'I had hardly turned the corner when I heard a quick step behind me, and a voice which said Tray come back. I couldn't think of letting you go away without seeing the pictures, after a journey on a hot day like this.' The voice was that of Burne-Jones; who escorted us back to his house and took us into the studio, showing and explaining everything. His kindness was wonderful as we were perfect strangers he not even knowing our names . . . I can tell you it was an exciting moment when he first opened my portfolio and looked at my first drawing . . .'
'All this from the greatest living artist in Europe', as Beardsley says in his letter. [232-33]
Impressed by the young man's portfolio, Burne-Jones encouraged him, advising him to study at the Westminster School of Art, and showed him the Mantegna prints in his drawing-room. "He had divined," says Fitzgerald, "that the real point of sympathy between himself and the nineteen-year-old boy was the processional and ritual nature of their art" (233). Afterwards the Wildes "took the Beardsleys home in their carriage" (233).
Malcolm Easton adds, quoting from what may be the same letter as Fitzgerald used, that
"Burne Jones recommended a course of study: 'You must learn the grammar of your art, and its exercises are all the better for being rigidly prosaic'" (Beardsley Archive at Reading University). It was at his suggestion that Aubrey presented himself to Fred Brown at the Westminster School of Art, instead of applying to South Kensington. Brown (that unacknowledged star of late-nineteenth-century English painting) was man enough to swallow the 'grotesque' element in the specimens presented and paid handsome tribute to Aubrey's promise. All these early pieces of professional good fortune — soon to include election to the New English Art Club and a warm welcome at the Salon of he Champs de Mars in Paris — can be traced back to the kind offices of Burne-Jones. The circumstances favoring this dominating influence were therefore exceptional. [7-8]
This "dominating influence" took many forms, the most obvious appearing in those early drawings Beardsley showed the older man — drawings, as the examples included in Marillier make clear, that look like nothing so much as poor imitations of Burne-Jones's own undistinguished early work, which itself took the form of his young man's imitations of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Both artists moved away from these Rossettian imitations, and the facial profiles in Beardsley as late as Salome bear the impress of Burne-Jones. Both men, as Fitzgerald points out, shared "the processional and ritual nature of their art," and both often create androgynous figures.
In the end, however, Beardsley seems to have gone out of his way to reject his mentor, something that Fitzgerald relates from the vantage point of Burne-Jones:
In June, Dent began to publish the Morte d'Arthur, in parts, with the Beardsley illustrations, something which Ned had looked forward to ever since the young artist had paid his timid call at The Grange. He was bitterly disappointed. Some of the drawings were slovenly — Beardsley had got tired of the commission — and others were fantasies on his own style with borders of phallic stalks and pods. Burne-Jones was under no illusion as to why he mistrusted both these and the later drawings. 'Lust does frighten me, I must say,' he told Rooke. 'It looks like despair — despair of any happiness ... I don't know why I've such a dread of lust. Whether it is the fear of what might happen to me if I were to lose all fortitude . . . let myself rush downhill without any restraint.' Beardsley, who had begun by finding Burne-Jones 'inimitable' ('Imitable, surely, Aubrey', replied William Rothenstein), called for a second time at The Grange. Rooke saw 'the back of him, going out of the door', with all that this expressed. He had come to tell Burne-Jones that he hated King Arthur 'and all mediaeval things', and Burne-Jones felt the boy had only come 'to shew off and let me know that my influence with him was over, as if it mattered in the least whether it was or not you know they're impeccable, the young.'. . . . He never knew that when five years later Beardsley coughed himself to death in a hotel room in Mentone, the prints of the Mantegna procession were still pinned up round the walls. [247-48]
Even though Burne-Jones, who had done so much to advance Beardsley's career, disapproved of his protegé's later work, it still bears the obvious impress of the older man's major paintings: the Burne-Jones chin and profile, flattened, decorative space, frieze-like compositions, and androgynous figure types. Of course, the explicit emphasis upon raw sexuality sharply distinguishes the art of Beardsley from that of Burne-Jones. It is as if Wilde — and Swinburne, the Swinburne of "Dolores" and "Laus Veneris" — even more than Wilde became the greater intellectual, if not artistic, influence. He had moved, in other words, from Aestheticism to Decadence.
I find a kind of bitter irony in the relation of the art of Swinburne, Burne-Jones, and Beardsley to their lives: Whereas the painter had at least one notorious affair (here very much proving himself a disciple of Rossetti!), the evidence suggests that neither the tubercular illustrator nor the alcoholic poet had much, if any, sexual experience. For them it most likely was, as D. H. Lawrence put it, "sex in the head."
The Early Work of Aubrey Beardsley. Intro. H. C. Marillier. London: John Lane, 1920. Reprint: New York: Dover Publications, 1967.
Fitzgerald, Penelope. Edward Burne-Jones: A Biography. London: Michael Joseph, 1975.
Easton, Malcolm. Aubrey and the Dying Lady: A Beardsley Riddle. London: Secker and Warburg, 1972.
Reade, Brian. Aubrey Beardsley. Exhibition Catalogue. London: Victoria & Albert Museum/Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1966.
Last modified 4 May 2009