BEARDSLEY (AUBREY) Autograph black-and-white drawing of two fin-de-siècle women in flowing dresses, against a black background, standing by a tree, [chapter-heading for Le Morte Darthur, Volume II, Chapter III, Book XVI],  [1893-1894]
Lot 182
Autograph black-and-white drawing of two fin-de-siècle women in flowing dresses, against a black background, standing by a tree, [chapter-heading for Le Morte Darthur, Volume II, Chapter III, Book XVI], [1893-1894]
Sold for £10,625 (US$ 17,613) inc. premium
Lot Details
Autograph black-and-white drawing of two fin-de-siècle women in flowing dresses, against a black background, standing by a tree, [chapter-heading for Le Morte Darthur, Volume II, Chapter III, Book XVI], black pen, ink and wash over traces of pencil, within a narrow border of about 2mm., pencil inscription on reverse, lightly toned overall, later hinge at top, sold with a silver art nouveau style frame, 158 x 111mm., [1893-1894]


  • A FINE BLACK-AND-WHITE STUDY OF TWO FIN-DE-SIÈCLE MAIDENS BY AUBREY BEARDSLEY – 'Aubrey Beardsley was a prodigy and his career a phenomenon. Born in 1872; diagnosed only seven years later as tubercular; virtually untrained; famous by his early twenties, and dead at twenty-five, leaving an immense volume of work and exercising a wider influence abroad than any English illustrator since Hogarth; almost a world figure... Of his work so formidable a critic as Meiter-Graefe wrote: "Our utilitarianism was never rebuked in stronger or haughtier terms." Figures as remote from one another as Picasso and the pioneer Scottish architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh were in his debt. The history of art has no stranger episode than the violent impact upon an entire generation of the impeccable art of this young dandy who knew he was dying, and whose working hours were interrupted by choking and haemorrhage... Beardsley, it was seen, was able to create an imaginary world, but one which was credible in spite of the most audacious simplifications, and the no less audacious exclusion of everything that did not contribute to the beauty of his design and to the lucid expression of his theme. In his power of the concise delineation of the unexpected and the strange – as memorable at its best as something lit by a flash of lightning in the dark' (from Sir John Rothenstein's introduction to Brian Reade, Aubrey Beardsley, 1967, p. 9; Reade's study being based on the landmark exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 1966 which he had curated).

    The nineteen-year-old Beardsley had been introduced to the publisher J.M. Dent in the autumn of 1892 by the bookseller and photographer Frederick Evans, whose shop both men frequented. Dent wanted to publish an edition of Malory in a form that would appeal to the general reader and with decoration in keeping with what he called 'the mediaeval spirit of the book' (very much in the style of recent publications from the Kelmscott Press). When Evans showed him some of Beardsley's drawings, he 'instinctively felt', as he later recalled, 'that here was a new breath of life in English black-and-white drawing. Its chief feature was a wonderful balance in black and white, giving force and concentration as well as a sense of colour. The young artist, Aubrey Beardsley, was then barely nineteen years of age, and when I saw him I was shocked at his emaciated appearance. He was a strange boy, "weird" is the right description'. Dent commissioned some 350 drawings from him, on the basis of which Beardsley quitted his job at the Guardian Life Insurance Company and turned professional artist.

    After a while, the work proved onerous, and Beardsley began to neglect the wished-for mediaevalism and develop a more contemporary style – that for which he is today best known and which has come to colour our perceptions of the eighteen-nineties. Besides, even before finishing Dent's commission, he had embarked on his drawings for Wilde's Salome (the first and most famous of all -- J'ai baisé ta bouche Iokanaan -- could well have been drawn in the autumn of 1892, the series being commissioned by John Lane the following June). Brian Reade characterises our drawing as having 'A black background typical of the later drawings made for Le Morte Darthur' and notes of it that 'Beardsley was becoming tired of his work for the book, his designs tended to bold simplifications, and the clothes of his figures, as here, began to have the characteristics of the late nineteenth century instead of the Middle Ages': see his Aubrey Beardsley, where it is illustrated, no. 130, plate 130S. Reade identifies it as being for the chapter-heading for Chapter III, Book XVI, p. 755 of Vol. II.

    Beardsley is known to have first sketched his drawings in pencil, which he then inked in, with the pencil under-drawing being then erased. In our drawing vestiges of the pencil-work can just be traced, as for example in the right-hand figure, whose puffed sleeves were less pronounced when first drawn and neckline a little higher. Although not designed to show in reproduction, the patch of grass at the foot of the tree is distinct from the black background surrounding it, in the manner of Beardsley's nocturnes. The drawing is inscribed on the reverse in what appears to be a late nineteenth century hand, and so presumably that of Dent's art-editor or printer: "139/282 reduce 4".

    When reproduced by Reade the drawing was in the possession of the Maas Gallery, London. It is sold with a photograph inscribed by Reade on the reverse: "I certify that in my opinion this is a photograph of an original drawing by Aubrey Beardsley, seen by me in the possession of Mr Achim F. Moeller in March, 1974/ Brian Reade/ 30 March 1974".

    See illustration overleaf and on rear cover.
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