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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Many of Aubrey Beardsley's most famous drawings came from a single series, which he produced for a new publication of Oscar Wilde’s Salome. John Lane, a London publisher, helped out with the printing process and the work was completed in 1894.

Much of Beardsley's work was actually completed a year earlier, when he put together a number of drawings and then sought approval for them. After a few amendments were made, the illustrations were accepted into the publication and his work was completed. The impact that these designs made was so significant that some years later it was decided that a further publication would be made, which featured drawings alone. John Lane also oversaw that book as well which is sometimes referred to as a portfolio. The second release went back to the pre-amended artworks and so was truer to the work completed by Beardsley, prior to the turn of the century. The portfolio was released in 1907 and many items from this release now reside in some notable collections in the UK and US. Japanese vellum was used for these prints which are memorable for their use of black and white only, which lesser men than Beardsley would have found too restrictive.

There would be sixteen plates in total for the second release, plus an additional piece titled Salomé on Settle. The artist would only have been in his early twenties at the time of the original drawings, and sadly had already passed away from illness by 1907. It was important that his small but breathtaking body of work achieved in a career of six years was known to the public and so efforts were made to re-print some of the highlights from it. We do know that Oscar Wilde eventually approved of the work produced by Beardsley and openly commended him for it, stating:

"...March ’93. For Aubrey. For the only artist who, besides myself, knows what the Dance of the Seven Veils is, and can see that invisible dance..."

Some would argue that Beardsley's work brought the play into a contemporary period, and that he was one of the few to truly understand the text properly. His style was described as macabre by many, but there were enough who supported him that his Salome series would actually bring new patrons to his door. It was specifically the erotic nature that concerned many, and the ways in which genders would be fused more closely together which really upset some of the more conservative voices found in the art and publishing industries at the time. Beardsley was not intending to shock anyone, this was merely a natural way in which he worked, and he was ideally suited to taking on Wilde's work. His lifestyle was also uncoventional and contemporary and therefore he would not have worried too much about any dissenting voices, just as long as he could continue to work in this manner and without too much interference.

Beardsley would take his critics head-on. His was unashamed about the style of his work, and the comments about grotesque creatures, he would embrace entirely. His attitude was to be proud of his creations, though even Oscar Wilde expressed concerns about them at some point. He would therefore divide opinion but he was still a very young man at this point and so had not yet learnt the skills of diplomacy which might at least allowed him an easier ride were his career to progress decades longer. On the other hand, to see any artist defending his work against conservative voices is admirable, and many more experienced artists from the past have had to do similar, even though they understood the conflict that this would bring them. It may simply have been the result of Beardsley's character that he reacted in this manner, and his youthful age might not have been that relevant at all. His Salome series is today regarded as the highlight of his career and the individual components which carried over into the later portfolio can be viewed in a number of major art galleries and museums in the present day.

Famous Salome Illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley