Cover image for Aubrey Beardsley : a biography
Aubrey Beardsley : a biography
Sturgis, Matthew.
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Publication Information:
Woodstock, N.Y. : Overlook Press, 1999.

Physical Description:
x, 404 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
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NC242.B3 S78 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Like Oscar Wilde, Beardsley was a leading member of the Decadent movement in England during the 1890s. Together they shocked the press and the establishment by cultivating the pose of dandies, coolly removed from prevailing social mores, and took aim at the dominant figures of the late 19th-century art world: moralizing critic John Ruskin and the sentimental pre-Raphaelite painters. That Beardsley met an early death at the age of 25 after a lifelong battle with tuberculosis was especially ironic, as the cult of the doomed youth was central to the Decadent movement. Throughout, Sturgis is in full command of the cultural conditions that led to Beardsley's emergence as an enfant terrible, such as the newly available illustrated picture press that made the artist's deliberately shocking drawings easily available to the masses and turned him into a media-art star avant la lettre. Sturgis never resorts to flimsy psychological conjecture (although his circumspection may in part be due to Beardsley's own efforts to fashion an elaborate mask for public consumption), and the biographer's prose is unexpectedly affecting when the end comes for his subject, as Beardsley rushes from spa to sanitarium, searching for a cure, frantically taking up and abandoning projects all the while. Arriving as it does in the midst of our own surface-obsessed fin de siecle, Sturgis's biography is not only a faithful record of Beardsley and of his world but also a useful study of the birth pangs of modernity. 26 b&w photographs and Beardsley's line drawings throughout.

Author Notes

Matthew Sturgis is a freelance writer and critic who has written art criticism for Harpers & Queen, travel pieces for the Sunday Telegraph and football reports for the Independent on Sunday. He is the author of Passionate Attitudes: the English Decadence of the 1890s, and the highly praised Aubrey Beardsley. He resides in London.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

The nineteenth century is bracketed by the careers of two great English artists cut down prematurely by tuberculosis--John Keats (1795^-1821) and Aubrey Beardsley (1872^-98). The poet is memorialized in Andrew Motion's superb Keats (1998). Now Sturgis thoroughly recounts the draftsman-illustrator's life in a book more tightly focused than Motion's because Beardsley is better documented than Keats and because Beardsley was not as politically involved as Keats. Sturgis highlights Beardsley's engagement with the two principle artistic currents of his time and place, Pre-Raphaelitism and the art-for-art's-sake aesthetics of Whistler, which together accounted for the poses, attitudes, and decorative backdrops--or lack of them--in Beardsley's drawings. Beardsley grew up in no greater security than had Keats, and he was even more sickly, but he found greater success in his lifetime, despite an association with Oscar Wilde, which he repudiated. Subsequent fashion art is almost unthinkable without the example of the androgynous, aloofly sexy figures in Beardsley's work, and the disease-constricted life out of which they were produced is the stuff of romantic legend. --Ray Olson

Publisher's Weekly Review

In this informative life of Beardsley, the great turn-of-the-century illustrator, limner of impossibly elongated, imperious femmes fatales and fey androgynes, Sturgis captures both his precocious subject's rise to infamy and the cultural changes that made it possible. Like Oscar Wilde, Beardsley was a leading member of the Decadent movement in England during the 1890s. Together they shocked the press and the establishment by cultivating the pose of dandies, coolly removed from prevailing social mores, and took aim at the dominant figures of the late 19th-century art world: moralizing critic John Ruskin and the sentimental pre-Raphaelite painters. That Beardsley met an early death at the age of 25 after a lifelong battle with tuberculosis was especially ironic, as the cult of the doomed youth was central to the Decadent movement. Throughout, Sturgis is in full command of the cultural conditions that led to Beardsley's emergence as an enfant terrible, such as the newly available illustrated picture press that made the artist's deliberately shocking drawings easily available to the masses and turned him into a media-art star avant la lettre. Sturgis never resorts to flimsy psychological conjecture (although his circumspection may in part be due to Beardsley's own efforts to fashion an elaborate mask for public consumption), and the biographer's prose is unexpectedly affecting when the end comes for his subject, as Beardsley rushes from spa to sanitarium, searching for a cure, frantically taking up and abandoning projects all the while. Arriving as it does in the midst of our own surface-obsessed fin de siècle, Sturgis's solid biography is not only a faithful record of Beardsley and of his world but also a useful study of the birth pangs of modernity. 26 b&w photographs and Beardsley's line drawings throughout. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In his brief life, Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98) made himself into his finest creation. Diagnosed with tuberculosis at 16, Beardsley knew his time was limited; though he had almost no formal training, pen and ink became his medium. His first commission was for J.M. Dent & Co.: 20 illustrations and 500 decorations for a new edition of Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. The art world was taken by his sensual illustrations, with lush curves that that seemed at once Japanese and Art Nouveau. Beardsley's incredible output as a book illustrator, poet, writer, and master of poster design covered just six years. Witty and willfully perverse, he was popular with both the Aesthetic Movement and the Pre-Raphaelites, including Oscar Wilde, Edward Burne-Jones, Max Beerbohm, and most of the artistic luminaries of the "Purple Nineties." Sturgis, a freelance writer and art critic, has uncovered new material and used many previously untapped sources to capture Beardsley in the first full-length biography in 20 years. Highly recommended.‘Joseph C. Hewgley, Nashville P.L. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

Over the past year a number of books have appeared on Beardsley, the witty and provocative illustrator whose ink drawings have come to epitomize the 1890s in Britain. Freelance writer and critic Sturgis weighs in with this elegant and authoritative life, conspicuous as much for its biographic detail as for its analysis of the distinctive bite of Beardsley's art. Sturgis, author of Passionate Attitudes: The English Decadence of the Eighteen Nineties (1995), is an excellent guide to the nuances of the fin de si`ecle world of which Beardsley was such a conspicuous figure. The text is interspersed with black-and-white illustrations and includes a short bibliographic essay. The extensive endnotes gives it an important advantage over Stephen Calloway's recent Aubrey Beardsley (CH, Jun'98), which offers only a select bibliography. Yet Calloway provides an equally compelling narrative accompanied by a wealth of illustrations (many of which are in color)--an essential ingredient for a full appreciation of Beardsley's art. Calloway, therefore, remains a first choice, but libraries choosing Sturgis will have few regrets. General readers; undergraduates through faculty. W. S. Rodner; Tidewater Community College



Chapter One `A Delicate Child' AUBREY BEARDSLEY was born in Brighton on 21 August 1872. It was later claimed that his horoscope revealed `a strange configuration of the moon, the dominant of the imagination, and Herschel, the planet of eccentricity', but at the time this celestial arrangement passed unnoticed. No portents of greatness heralded his arrival: his mother immediately fell ill with puerperal fever, and the new-born infant was given over to the care of the household.     The household was extensive, for Aubrey's parents -- Vincent and Ellen Beardsley, with his one-year-old sister, Mabel -- were living in Ellen's familial home at 12 Buckingham Road. The three-storey house on its corner site was well appointed and substantial. It was presided over by Ellen's father, Surgeon-Major William Pitt, who, although retired, was only in his mid-fifties. There were also Ellen's mother, Susan, and Ellen's two unmarried sisters, Mary and Florence, who at twenty-nine and twenty-one were respectively three years older and four and a half years younger than Ellen. There was a live-in maid of all work and probably additional help for the ailing mother and her child.     Surrounded by solicitous females, bolstered by the assured presence of the medically trained Surgeon-Major and the practical benefits of resident domestic service, Aubrey spent his first weeks as comfortably as the adverse health of his mother allowed. Quite what place Vincent Beardsley, the proud father, held in this attentive throng is difficult to gauge. The history of his relationship with the Pitt family was troubled. The Pitts were a well-established and respected Brighton family. William's father, Thomas Best Pitt ( c . 1784-1844) had been a fashionable doctor in the town when the Prince Regent made it famous as a resort. William, with at least one of his four sisters, was born in Brighton; his name was selected to emphasize a supposed connection with the late, great and eponymous statesman.     Like his father, William chose medicine as a profession. In 1838, at the age of twenty-two, he was elected a member of the Royal College of Surgeons, and received his Assistant Surgeon's certificate the following year. Soon afterwards, he departed for India, having joined the Indian Medical Service.     The empire offered opportunities both professional and personal. In July 1841 at St Thomas's, Dacca (Dhaka, now capital of Bangladesh), William Pitt married Susan Lamb, teenage daughter of a Scottish indigo planter. The match was propitious. The Lambs were a powerful and closely knit expatriate family: Susan's sister, Georgiana, had married her cousin, George Henry Lamb, at the same church in 1838; and George Henry's father (George senior), already a Senior Surgeon, was on the way to becoming president of the Indian Medical Service. He gave his approval to the union of his young niece with William Pitt, and was a witness at the ceremony. He would be a useful ally for the twenty-four-year-old Assistant Surgeon.     Children followed: Mary in 1843, and a second daughter on 28 August 1846. The indigo planter suggested that this new granddaughter be called after him, but as the name Alexander Imlach Lamb did not commend itself as suitable for a young girl, a compromise was decided upon. The addition to the Pitt family was christened Ellen Agnus Pitt, `Agnus' being the Latin for lamb. It is impossible to tell at this distance what prompted this over-ingenious solution; most official documents ignore the pun, and give her name as Ellen Agnes.     Only the dimmest outline of the Pitt family's peripatetic life is traceable. In June 1849 the family returned to Europe on extended leave. They spent time in France -- where a third daughter, Florence, was born in December 1850 -- and also probably in England. When the furlough ended in March 1853, William, together with his family, returned to the East. Immediately on his arrival in India, he was dispatched to serve in the Burmese campaign, was present at the capture of Rangoon, and was promoted full surgeon at the end of the conflict. It is unlikely that Susan Pitt and her three daughters would have followed William and his regiment on this expedition; perhaps they spent their time on the Lamb family plantations at Berhampore, in north-west Bengal.     After another period of respite, and a further two years' leave in the Cape, the Pitts were back in India in 1857 for the cataclysm of the Mutiny. William was involved in the desperate defence of the residency at Lucknow, and received a medal for his part. His wife was with him during this ordeal, as was one child, though Ellen's silence upon the subject suggests that it was not her. Perhaps the experiences of the Mutiny made William reconsider his course in life. He left India in March 1858, ostensibly on `leave to Australia and the Cape'. He never returned. In February 1859, in his absence, he was raised to the rank of Surgeon-Major, but retired from the service in May. He received a pension of 147 [pounds sterling] per annum (net).     The Pitts returned to Europe, spending the first years of their new-found leisure in the Anglo-French atmosphere of Jersey. By 1864, however, they had come `home' to Brighton. The retired Surgeon-Major, his with and three growing daughters settled first at 2 Lansdowne Square, close to William's elder and unmarried sister, Sarah, who lived at No. 4. In 1867, they moved to No. 9 Clifton Place and three years later took up residence at 12 Buckingham Road.     If the Pitt girls were an adornment to Brighton social life, it was generally agreed that Ellen sparkled most brightly. She was tall, slender, and attractive in a slightly equine fashion; her conspicuous points were vivacity, vanity and a well-cultivated gift for self-dramatization: she would make a late entrance into the drawing-room alone, after her sisters had obeyed a parental summons. Such tactics were evidently effective. At social gatherings men would often turn to the sprightly Ellen while more conventionally `beautiful' women were neglected. She had a reputation for daring and even for mischief. On one occasion she pretended to be a deaf-mute in order to secure a reserved pew at the front of a crowded church.     She was talented, especially at music, and played the piano with `more than ordinary amateur skill'. Her other great enthusiasm was religion. She was, in the parlance of the time, a `sermon taster', going to any church where the preaching was supposed to be good; for a dilettante churchgoer Brighton was then an exciting place to be. The town was one of the centres of the Anglo-Catholic revival throughout the second half of the nineteenth century.     The pre-eminent local figure in this movement was the Reverend Arthur Douglas Wagner, a second-generation Brighton prelate. He poured his substantial private wealth into the cause, building five churches and gathering around him bright and able young men from the universities as his curates and emissaries. He sought to revive the ancient usages, adopting eucharistic vestments, the cult of the Blessed Virgin Mary, sacramental confession and daily celebration of the mass. He strove, too, to reassert the cultural power of the church, employing innovative architects such as G. F. Bodley and Edmund Scott for his building projects, and commissioning windows and altarpieces from Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and other Pre-Raphaelite artists.     Such innovations inevitably prompted the wrath of the `Protestant Party', which mistook them for a step on the primrose path towards Roman Catholicism and the pope. There were assaults on members of the clergy; altars were stripped, and hostile notices proclaiming `Daily Opera' went up around churches which offered a sung eucharist. Wagner was summoned before a Royal Commission set up to inquire into the principles and practices of the so-called Ritualists. Such dramas are likely to have heightened Ellen Pitt's enthusiasm for churchgoing. She frequently attended St Paul's, West Street, the church where Father Wagner presided, and the priest and several of his curates became friends of the family.     Ellen was confident of her family's social status. There was much in the family background of which she could be proud: service in the empire, a career in the professions, an easy familiarity with France, an illustrious name, a sense of place, an appreciation of culture. It was, in the middle years of Queen Victoria's reign, a powerful legacy. In the case of the Pitts, however, these achievements did not only proclaim social worth, they concealed social flaws. On Susan Pitt's baptismal registration, signed in 1825 in Dacca, she is listed only as the illegitimate daughter of Alexander Lamb; no mother is mentioned. In such instances (far from uncommon in mid-nineteenth-century India) the unnamed mother was almost invariably a native servant. It is all but certain that Susan Pitt was not only illegitimate but half-caste.     William Pitt would probably have known and accepted his wife's history; such things were common on the sub-continent and, besides, the professional benefits of marrying a Lamb more than compensated for any notional flaw. It is doubtful, however, that the couple's children would have been told of this perceived double stain: Ellen would not have known that she was a quarter-blood, and so, by extension, it is unlikely that Aubrey would have guessed the intriguing probability that he was a Bengali octaroon.     The other besetting shame of the Pitts was less easily concealed: the Surgeon-Major's debts. He was hopeless with money. Certainly he borrowed heavily from both George Lamb and George's son, George Henry. When the former died, in 1862, his will contained the telling provision that `any sum in which Mr William Pitt, Surgeon late of the Bengal Establishment may be indebted to me' shall be got from him and given for `the sole and separate use and benefit of his present wife Susan Pitt (who is a niece of mine) so that the amount may not be subject to the debts or engagements of her said husband'. The death duty register shows the amount to have been over 1000 [pounds sterling].     Moreover, in 1865, when the Surgeon-Major became entitled to an increased pension from the Bengal Medical Retiring Fund, he was obliged to assign this medical annuity of 300 [pounds sterling] per annum to George Henry Lamb. It is impossible to unravel the exact reasons for these manoeuvres, but, although there is no evidence that the Surgeon-Major went bankrupt, he does seem to have existed in a state of protracted financial crisis. There is nothing like the spectre of hidden disgrace to make an English middle-class family stand upon its gentle status. The Surgeon-Major, concealing both the taint of his wife's `bad blood' and the awkwardness of his financial constraint, had made the family duly and proudly aware of their position in the world.     They were also aware of Vincent Beardsley's position. They were aware, at least, that it was ambiguous. In later years, Ellen Beardsley liked to represent the match as a mesalliance -- a doomed pairing of cultivated Professions and uneducated Trade -- but in the summer of 1870 such a divide was, it seems, willingly overlooked. When Vincent Beardsley met Ellen Pitt, his principal claims to attention were a luxuriant moustache and a private income. These gave him the air, and indeed the airs, of a gentleman, even if behind the pose there was little of enduring substance.     Vincent Beardsley's father had been in trade. A manufacturing goldsmith in Clerkenwell, he had died of consumption in 1845, when Vincent, his only child, was five years old. Vincent's mother, Sarah Ann, married again two years later, a young surgeon named William Lait, and they soon had a family of their own. Next to nothing is known of Vincent's childhood, though he was apparently a weak boy and was not, therefore, put into any trade. There was enough money to support such a course of action. Vincent's maternal grandfather, David Beynon, a Welsh-born property developer from north London, made handsome provision for him in his will. When Beynon died in 1859 he left his grandson, then nineteen, 350 [pounds sterling], a quarter share of his estate (valued at over 12,000 [pounds sterling]), and the rights to a house in Bernard Street, Russell Square. The bequest was made on the curious, but not unheard of, condition that Vincent should not `intermeddle in the affairs' of his late father's estate. The clause was clearly intended to prevent litigious wrangling, although there is no further evidence of a quarrelsome side to Vincent's character or a strained relationship with his mother (one of the other three main beneficiaries).     The sums in Beynon's will were healthy enough; the combination of property and money would have yielded Vincent a fair income, although not so large that the temptation to erode the capital was not present. Whether Vincent succumbed to this temptation after he came into his inheritance at twenty-one is not known. Indeed, he disappears entirely from view for over a decade, and it is difficult to suppress the scarcely rational desire to take this want of any historical record as a reflection of want of character on Vincent's part. In 1870 Vincent reappears. He was visiting Brighton, for pleasure probably and perhaps for health. There, on the old Chain Pier, he saw Ellen Pitt, slender, vivacious and twenty-four. And he spoke to her.     Within the constraints of Victorian social etiquette, to strike up an acquaintance in a public place without a formal introduction was a sovereign impropriety. Vincent Beardsley, however, had the practised charm of thirty-one years and a metropolitan upbringing; while Ellen Pitt boasted that streak of daring and perverseness which had already earned her a reputation for unconventionality (it was even suggested in some quarters that Vincent Beardsley might not have been the premier venu ). The first encounter led to others, and they took to meeting clandestinely in the trim gardens of the Pavilion.     Brighton was a small place, devoted to idleness and gossip. Ellen Pitt was well enough known in Brighton society for her assignations to be talked of and, soon after, relayed to 12 Buckingham Road. It is not therefore surprising that Vincent Beardsley's first introduction at Ellen's parental home was fraught. It is a tribute to something in his manner that, front this disadvantageous position, he `won over' the Surgeon-Major and convinced him of his good faith towards Ellen and of his suitability as a son-in-law. Perhaps the medical background of his stepfather stood him in good stead; perhaps it was the lure of his undefined private income.     In due course an engagement was announced, and the wedding of Ellen Agnus Pitt and Vincent Paul Beardsley took place at the old Brighton parish church of St Nicholas on 12 October 1870. The day was so wild, with a storm blowing in from the Channel, that the wedding party was unable to enter the church through the south portal, and had to use the sheltered vestry door at the other end of the building. The scope for metaphor is tempting, but the misfortunes that beset the Beardsley marriage were bathetic rather than tempestuous. The first setback arrived promptly.     Even before the honeymoon was over Vincent Beardsley was sued by the widow of a clergyman for `breach of promise'. She claimed he had undertaken to marry her. Such cases were all too common in the late nineteenth century, and were open to unscrupulous opportunism -- but they were no less distressing for that. Scandal and embarrassment loomed. The Surgeon-Major insisted that his son-in-law settle the matter before it came into the glare of open court.     It is hard to imagine a less propitious start to a marriage: in a single blow Vincent forfeited the trust of his wife, the respect of her family, and the means of his own support. He was obliged to sell some property he possessed on the Euston Road to pay off the widow. The solution had dire consequences. Deprived of financial security, he was thrown back upon Ellen's family, and the newly-weds, unable to set up home on their own, were obliged to live under the parental roof at Buckingham Road. It can be imagined with what sentiments the Pitts welcomed their son-in-law, and with what arguments he sought to explain his behaviour.     There were moments of respite: the birth of a daughter -- Mabel -- on 24 August 1871; and a sparkling appearance in February 1872 at Brighton's premier social event, the Fancy Dress Ball, at the Pavilion, when Ellen's costume -- a blue velvet tunic with white silk skirt and trousers, and matching cap -- drew general admiration. The man from the Brighton Gazette was moved to verse, proclaiming `... then Mrs Beardsley -- may her honours increase,/Looked quite picturesque as a native of Greece'. Vincent did not attempt fancy-dress for himself, but Ellen recalled his whirling her through the `adorable suite of rooms' with pleasure and pride. Despite such giddy intervals, the overall tenor of Vincent Beardsley's existence must have been dispiriting.     It is to be supposed that at the outset he contributed to the household expenses, but even this practicality soon proved beyond him. In the weeks immediately after Aubrey's birth in August 1872 some new reverse overtook him, and he lost the remainder of his fortune. This grim news greeted Ellen when, after the passing of her fever, she left her room to be re-united with her infant son.     Whatever the emotional strain between Aubrey's parents, or between his father and the Pitts, 12 Buckingham Road was still a `family home'. The financial structure which supported it might be precarious, but it provided the semblance of stability and the reality of material comfort. It was a household `devoted' to Art, in the conventional, feminine and domestic sense favoured by middle-class Victorians. The Surgeon-Major was a man of limited imagination, but his family showed more aptitude. Susan Pitt's clever silhouettes of flowers, landscapes and figures adorned the walls of the drawing-room, several modest watercolours by Ellen and her elder sister were included in a family album; and of course there was music.     Ellen was always keen to display her accomplishments as a pianist. And Aubrey, it soon became apparent, was an accomplished and appreciative listener. Even before his first birthday he would crawl to the piano and settle himself beside it when his mother was about to play. She recalled many years later, with a maternal pride which may require some discount, that Aubrey would beat perfect time with his toy to her playing, and that when, in an effort to fox him, she changed from four- to six- time, Aubrey too changed tempo. The altering tempo of life at Buckingham Road proved less easy to adjust to. Vincent, shorn of his inheritance, needed to work, and for work he needed to be in London. Employment opportunities were limited for an untrained thirty-something-year-old with no previous experience and delicate health. Nevertheless, at the beginning of 1874 he got some secretarial work with the West India & Panama Telegraph Company, and a few months later a more satisfactory post as a clerk at the New Westminster Brewery, in Horseferry Road. He brought Ellen, Mabel and Aubrey up to London, where the Beardsleys took lodgings with Henry Russell, a retired music-hall star, and his young family, at 90 Lancaster Road, Notting Hill.     Living in other people's houses: for the next twenty years this would be their lot, with its sense of compromise, lack of permanence, and want of privacy. For Ellen and Vincent there was always the knowledge of what had been, and the rebuke of what was now; for Mabel and Aubrey there was only unease and instability. Although they had left behind the familiar comforts of Buckingham Road and Brighton, the Beardsleys were not quite adrift in London. At Lancaster Road they were close to Ellen's cousins, the Lambs. By the 1870s George Henry Lamb and his wife Georgiana (Susan Pitt's sister) were back in England, living at 11 Colville Gardens, no more than four hundred yards from Lancaster Road, with five of their grown or growing offspring. One of the sons, Henry Alexander, worked in the liquor trade and it is possible that he assisted in finding Vincent his job at Westminster Brewery. Also nearby, at 1 Addison Villas, were Ellen's well-connected half-uncle, David Wight Lamb, and his wife.     Barely a year after the Beardsleys' exodus, the Pitts also left Brighton. What provoked this upheaval -- financial reverse or advance? familial solicitude? desire for change? -- is unknown. The Surgeon-Major seems to have taken up residence in Westbourne Road, Islington, between 1875 and 1880, and then to have left the country. Meanwhile, Ellen's younger sister, Florence, was living in Denbigh Street, Pimlico in March 1876 when she married Moritz Schenkel -- who appears to have been a neighbour, a `gentleman' and the son of a Viennese hotel proprietor. Mary Pitt, the eldest sister, was probably living with her, and was a witness to the marriage. The other signatory was David Imlach Lamb, George Henry's fourth son.     The Beardsleys accommodated themselves to their new surroundings and circumstances. For Vincent the move to London must have been something of a relief. He was back on home ground in his native city, free of the disapproving Pitt household, and he had a job. Although he scarcely emerges from the shadows, it is perhaps possible to make out his attempt to play the part of the Victorian paterfamilias in Ellen's assertion that he beat both children when they were naughty.     The disappointments of married life, meanwhile, were amplifying Ellen's histrionic traits. As reality became increasingly harsh and dull, she strove to project herself beyond it. She clung to her High Tory sentiments and to the prerogatives of gentle birth and began to construct a picture of herself as a martyr to an ill-considered marriage; the picture would become bolder in outline and detail over the years. She retreated into Art and Sentiment. And she sought escape through her children, imbuing them with her aspirations, enthusiasms, prejudices and pretensions: she wanted them to shine.     Despite material constraints, Ellen fostered a continuing awareness that the life of the spirit counted. The household at 90 Lancaster Road was steeped in music: Henry Russell had enjoyed a brilliant career as a music-hall performer, and had written hundreds of popular songs, including `Cheer, Boys, Cheer' and `Life on the Ocean Wave'. His common-law wife, Emma Ronald, was a wonderful pianist, and their eldest child, Landon (born in June 1873), became a concert performer. Ellen must have relished such an environment, and Aubrey seems to have responded to it with real feeling. When the family attended a `Symphony Concert' at the Crystal Palace, four-year-old Aubrey `listened intently' and with obvious enjoyment to the music. He received piano lessons from his mother and he was soon able to play Chopin quite `as charmingly as anyone could wish'. Mabel learnt too. Ellen used to perform six pieces every evening for the family, making up a little book of programmes so that `they did not hear the same thing too often, and learnt to know and appreciate the best music. I would not', she added, `let them hear rubbish.'     The same disdain for `rubbish' guided her children's reading. Mabel read prodigiously, taking up Dickens and Scott at a `very early age', though at six she felt obliged to `draw the line at Carlyle'. Aubrey showed an early enthusiasm for books, learning to read (according to family legend) by some strange osmosis without effort or tuition. What his first reading was remains unknown. Ellen would certainly have pushed him towards Dickens -- if not Carlyle -- as fast as possible.     There was, however, time for the more conventional pleasures of childhood, and here Aubrey was fortunate: the last third of the nineteenth century was a great age for illustrated children's books. The combination of new technologies, enterprising publishers, aesthetic doctrines, and rare talents resulted in exciting work: the nursery rhymes of Randolph Caldecott, the annuals of Kate Greenaway, the Toy Books of Walter Crane. Aubrey was exposed to, and enraptured by, the magical world of clear lines and bold tones. Nevertheless he was not encouraged to experiment in that direction. It was through music and literature that Ellen sought to expand her children's horizons; visual art did not seem to interest her particularly.     Despite this limitation, she did much to foster her children's (particularly Aubrey's) sense of specialness and self-worth. Family lore preserves several anecdotes on this count. When, as a child of six, he was taken by his parents to a service at Westminster Abbey, he was much intrigued by the numerous monuments to National Greatness. He asked for an explanation of the imposing bust of Brunel near their seat, and of the commemorative stained glass window opposite. Coming away after the service, he demanded with touching solemnity whether he should have `a bust or a stainglass window' when he died. `For', he is supposed to have added, `I may be a great man some day.' When his mother asked what memorial he would like, he is said to have pondered the question before deciding upon a bust -- `because I am rather good looking'.     The excursion to Westminster Abbey, though memorable, marked only a small part of the family's churchgoing regime. Ellen had lost none of her enthusiasm for `sermon tasting', and London offered considerable scope for her discerning palate. For a while she abandoned her High Church sympathies and fell under the sway of the Revd Thain Davidson, of the Presbyterian church in Colebrook Row, Islington. Indeed it seems likely that during the mid-1870s the Beardsleys moved to Islington (which would have made sense if the Surgeon-Major lived in Westbourne Road). Certainly the minister of Colebrook Row was for a while Ellen's `chief advisor' in spiritual, if not in practical matters. Davidson, a formidable Scot, was one of the great preachers of the age. He regularly filled not only his own church but also the Agricultural Hall on Upper Street with his direct, humorous preaching style. His particular theme was the dangerous attractions that the Modern City held for `young men'.     Aubrey, however, was too young to take an interest in this subject, though he was beginning to exercise his parents' concern in other ways. He had developed into a delicate child, frail and pallid; his mother likened him to a `little piece of Dresden china'. She recalled how once, like a miniature aged man, he helped himself up a flight of steps with a twig -- an incident which seems to reflect the infant's propensity for self-dramatization quite as much as his actual frailty. From a young age he fell under the care of his barely older but more robust sister. The two children were thrown increasingly together. Ellen was obliged to work to help support the family. She taught privately, giving piano lessons (to the children of the German ambassador among others), and French tuition to students trying for the Civil Service Examination. Although, in her free moments at the end of the day, she lavished attention upon Mabel and Aubrey, giving them lessons of their own, and although it seems unlikely that the children were left absolutely alone at so young an age, Ellen characterized their existence during these years as `a lonely life in lodgings'.     This isolation from children of their own age fostered that quaint and distinctive precocity of manner common among children brought up in mainly adult company; while the early shared loneliness bound the siblings together, forging mutual reliance and stimulating their escape into the realms of imagination. The imagination, however, could only offer so much. It was no real proof against an existence of boredom, loneliness, cramped conditions and irregular hours. In the summer of 1879, soon after his seventh birthday, Aubrey fell ill; he went off his food, developed a cough and became feverish. The doctor, applying his stethoscope to the boy's puny chest, detected the faint yet ominous whisper of infected lung tissue. He diagnosed tuberculosis.     The verdict was grim, but not yet an irrevocable death sentence. The disease was common in late Victorian England, but it touched more people than it killed. Rest, fresh air and the body's own resources could, in time, heal any minor lesion in the lungs. The cause of the disease -- the tuberculosis bacterium -- was not identified until 1882, and even then acceptance and understanding of the discovery and its ramifications were painfully slow; the popular belief remained that the disease was hereditary. (The diagnosis of Aubrey's condition would, one suspects, have further damaged Vincent's standing with Ellen and her family, as it would swiftly have been recalled that his father had died from the disease. Poor stock was revealing itself two generations on.) The doctor, who already harboured doubts about the healthiness of Aubrey's London life, urged his removal to the country, and it was decided to send him to Hamilton Lodge, a small boarding preparatory school at Hurstpierpoint, about eight miles out of Brighton. There seems to have been some existing connection with the school; Ellen appears to have known Miss Barnett (who ran the school with her aunt, Miss Wise) -- perhaps from her Brighton days.     It is not known who paid Aubrey's fees, but by 1879 the Beardsleys had been confirmed in the sad role of `poor relations': the recipients of ingeniously disguised charity from parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, and even family friends. Lady Henrietta Pelham, the elderly unmarried sister of west Sussex's principal grandee, the Earl of Chichester, took an interest in the family. She had met them in Brighton and maintained the connection in London, where she had a house in Chester Square. She paid for Aubrey's piano lessons at Hurstpierpoint. Transported from his `lonely life' in London to the company of boisterous contemporaries and the backdrop of the Sussex Downs, Aubrey rallied. Anxiety that he might be teased on account of his Christian name proved unfounded and on the evidence of his letters home Hamilton Lodge was a happy place. He does not appear to have suffered from homesickness, although the suspicion that this might have been due to the unsatisfactory nature of his `home' life seems belied by the tone and content of his letters; he makes frequent and solicitous inquiries after not only Mabel and his mother but also his father. Indeed, Vincent's continuing place at the centre of family life is illustrated by a decorated bookmark Aubrey sent him, inscribed with the word `Affection' (`because', as he explained in an accompanying note, `I love you'), and by a Valentine card which Vincent sent his son.     There were about twenty-five boarders (aged between seven and twelve) at the school and the regime was relaxed. Academic work did not, it seems, play a prominent part. The only books Aubrey mentions are Captain Cook's Voyages and a volume on French and English ships from which Miss Wise would read to them. Outings were frequent and imaginative: to the circus, to Hurstpierpoint `Exhibition' (a glorified bazaar), to Danny Park, the local Elizabethan manor house, to Wolstonbury Hill, to the nearby `Chinese Gardens', and to Brighton. Aubrey's delicate health, although known, seems to have been unremarked and unremarkable. He threw himself into the school's activities, enjoying the `drilling practice' on the lawn, the daily walks with `Fido' the school dog, the games and excursions. He seems not to have been accorded, or to have required, special treatment.     The piano studies progressed slowly. Despite Ellen's insistence upon his `great feeling' for music, Aubrey confessed to driving Miss Barnett `nearly bald' teaching him. But with continued support, if not pressure, from home he improved and by the end of his first year was planning to play a duet in the school end-of-term concert.     From the evidence of his correspondence, Aubrey was an engaging if unremarkable seven-year-old. His stated interests -- cake, circus elephants, fireworks, nautical adventures, pocket money, and the condition of his toy engine -- though largely conventional, give perhaps some hints of aesthetic and dramatic sensibility. Ellen described his childhood character as `gentle, affectionate and whimsical', and these traits are present in his solicitude for his sister and his delight in the circus elephants. But Ellen also noted sharper forces at work, recognizing her own fault of `vanity', the desire to `shine', to impress whatever company one was in. At school this force began to inspire contradictory impulses: what impressed teachers (and parents) was often different from what impressed classmates. Aubrey desired to shine on both fronts. His enthusiastic participation in the life of the school secured the approval of the staff, but he also took care to gain a reputation among his peers for mischief and stoicism. When Miss Barnett was obliged to beat him for some infraction, he defied her best efforts and refused to cry.     From an early age Aubrey developed this ambiguous relationship to authority. He recognized authority, and frequently sought its approval, but he also delighted in subverting it. He was much beaten for wilful naughtiness during his childhood, not just by his teacher but by his parents; and certain family friends, who were delighted to invite Mabel to lunch, wouldn't have Aubrey because `they thought he would be troublesome'. Yet he knew well how to please and impress when he wanted. As yet, however, his range of effects was limited. Any precocity he displayed was more apparent than real and relied upon his mother's connivance. For example, she sent him a sonata to play when Miss Barnett was offering a piece with the unsophisticated title, `Fading Away'.     At Hamilton Lodge Aubrey began to show an interest in drawing. His first efforts were `copies of Cathedrals', but he then turned to his imagination and produced work which, curiously, prefigured many of the enduring themes of his adult art. One of his first successes was a picture of `a Carnival' -- a `long series of grotesque figures' which he presented to his grandfather.     He stayed at Hamilton Lodge for only four terms. Perhaps the cheerful tone of the letters and the frequent assurances of his well-being concealed a worsening condition, or perhaps the fees were proving too heavy a burden for whoever was paying them. In either case, Ellen, in her own phrase, was `obliged to have him home again'. Home by 1880 was Pimlico. The Beardsleys lodged at 57 Denbigh Street (the same dull thoroughfare from which Florence had married Moritz Schenkel). It was an area they were never entirely to escape. Pimlico was then, as it is now, an unlovely district of London, between the characterful worlds of Westminster and Chelsea. In the 1880s it had neither the colour of historical association nor the glamour of newness. It had been developed in the 1840s and 1850s by London's prolific speculative builder, Thomas Cubitt, on the marshlands abutting the Thames, as a middle-class suburb, a bourgeois equivalent to his earlier `aristocratic' development of Belgravia.     While Belgravia derives charm from its architectural variety -- the grand squares and terraces broken up by little service courts and mews -- Pimlico was designed without thought for carriages and large establishments. There is an appalling uniformity of standard tropes and stucco fronts; the streets are of tedious length, and the regular height of the houses (all four or five storeys) combined with the flatness of the site shuts off any vista of the city or the river, resulting in an enclosed, oppressive air. In addition, Cubitt's demographic ambitions were only partially successful. By the 1870s the area could boast a few enclaves of respectable affluence and even -- in its tree-lined squares -- modest grandeur, but among the long, unbroken files of stucco terracing a strained and straitened respectability marked the inhabitants: Pimlico had become a land of lodging houses.     Ellen Beardsley struggled against this fate on Aubrey's account. His health was still delicate and the London smogs were oppressive. Early in 1882, she decided to `give up her work' and take the two children to Epsom. They lodged there, for two years, with a Mrs Ann Clark, at 2 Ashley Villas. Vincent, it is to be supposed, went with them and commuted the fifteen miles to his work in town (the Epsom train service stopped at Vauxhall, where he was now the manager of the London branch of Crowley's Brewery), or remained in town and travelled out at weekends. Vincent was already drifting to the margins of family life, and the decampment to Epsom isolated him further from his children, who were placed in a yet closer relationship with their mother.     Ellen filled her children's lives. She took them walking every day on the Downs; in Aubrey's case, `to get strong'. She also gave them regular lessons, and beyond such schoolwork there was, of course, the great ocean of culture: the piano lessons, the evening programme of suitable pieces, the directed reading, the drawing and copying. Given that Ellen's artistic gifts were interpretive rather than creative, it is unsurprising that she viewed art in terms of public projection rather than private enjoyment. It was not enough that Mabel should read Dickens, she must learn to recite him. Ellen tutored her ten-year-old daughter in this most Victorian of skills, though their lessons were often interrupted as teacher and pupil dissolved in tears over a pathetic passage from the master of dramatic sentiment.     Mabel's party-piece, however, was comic rather than pathetic; Ellen tells us that she performed the skating scene from Pickwick `too wonderfully', and could recite from the same work for `two hours on end'. The choice of Pickwick Papers was, of course, a convention, but is it perhaps possible to trace the influence of Ellen's will behind it? The dramatic hinge of the novel is Mr Pickwick's arraignment on a breach-of-promise charge brought by his widowed landlady; it is easy to imagine Vincent's discomfort, and Ellen's bitter satisfaction, as they sat listening to their daughter recounting the grim court case and Mr Pickwick's principled, if foolish, line of defence.     Aubrey's response to Dickens was pictorial. He was showing marked fondness, if only limited ability, for drawing. He made careful illustrations of both the `Maypole Inn' and the `Boot Inn' from Barnaby Rudge . He occasionally worked from his own imagination, but seems to have had the impatience with his technical shortcomings which often characterizes the imaginative temperament. He wanted the gratification of finished achievement and found that he could obtain more satisfactory results by copying from books than by conjuring stiff-limbed little figures from his own imagination. One reason why he was anxious to produce finished work, even at the age of nine, was that he was already working to commission. Although this public projection of his talent had Ellen's approval, it was more an accident of family circumstances than a tribute to her son's talent.     The financial plight of the Beardsleys was a matter of continuing concern to their relatives and friends, especially since Ellen had given up work to look after the children; there seems to have been a benign conspiracy to provide covert charity for the family by commissioning drawings from Aubrey. Lady Henrietta Pelham bought some; a set of place-cards, illustrating characters from Dickens, was ordered for a family wedding, and other requests were made. Aubrey earned about 30 [pounds sterling] during the year: a considerable sum.     However derivative these juvenile efforts are, they have a certain charm (largely lost in reproduction) and display care and facility: an attention to detail was not surprising in a boy whose grandfathers were a goldsmith and a surgeon. More importantly, these drawings represented a first success, which brought the intoxicating rewards of approbation and cash, and they presented Aubrey to himself and to a limited public in the role of `draughtsman'. Satisfaction in this achievement must have gratified him often during his childhood. But drawing was never regarded as Aubrey's main accomplishment. Music, Ellen had decided, was his forte. Under her tuition, both Aubrey and Mabel had become able pianists; they played duets and nocturnes, and Aubrey had begun to compose.     After two years of Epsom air and maternal solicitude, Aubrey's strength returned; the isolated lesions of his lungs healed over, and he regained the semblance of health. In 1883 the Beardsleys returned to London. Their friends, anxious to support them, soon took to inviting the talented children to perform at private parties. Ellen dramatized this as an entry into `public and social life', while Aubrey, who had quite as much histrionic flair as his mother, later amazed his friends by oblique references to his early years as a musical prodigy. In fact, his career as a child wonder was extremely limited. Ellen Beardsley, writing in the 1920s, remembered Mabel playing and reciting often, but could recall only two occasions on which Aubrey played `in public': once at Lady Derby's, where he played solos and duets with Mabel, and at a fashionable church concert. The location of this concert is not recorded, but it may well have been St Paul's, Knightsbridge. Ellen's enthusiasm for good sermons and genteel surroundings would have been satisfied by the chic high-church establishment in Wilton Place, and one of the curates there -- Robert Eyton -- made a particular friend of Aubrey at about this time.     In recalling these two occasions, Ellen always claimed that Aubrey was very shy and hated being asked out: nine is indeed a self-conscious age. Having a more assured elder sister can make it more so, but there may also have been a touch of fastidiousness in Aubrey's reluctance to perform. It is possible that he felt the hint of well-meaning condescension at those gatherings in St James's Square and Belgravia. The same note could have been detectable behind the place-card commissions, but drawing is work where the artist can be protected from his audience.     Despite the `public and social' successes of the Beardsley children, the stability of family life in London was impossible to maintain. Vincent lost his job at Crowley's in 1884 when `one of the younger partners took his post'; he received excellent references, but at the age of forty-four new jobs were hard to come by. Ellen fell ill and had to enter a nursing home. In the face of this double crisis the extended family rallied round: Aubrey and Mabel were sent to a great-aunt at Brighton.     Sarah Pitt was the Surgeon-Major's elder, and unmarried, sister. Unlike her brother, she seems to have had a firm grasp of money and its management. She had over 3000 [pounds sterling] of debenture stock at 4 per cent, and lived carefully off the interest. In the summer of 1884 she was approaching seventy, and had recently moved from Lansdowne Square to a three-storey house close to the sea-front, at 21 Lower Rock Gardens. It was here that Mabel and Aubrey were to live.