Fans of the decadent and fantastical monochrome illustrations of Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98) can look forward to a London show this month where a single-owner collection containing the artist’s rarest printed works goes on display.
The Walker Good group has long been lauded as one of the most comprehensive assemblages of Beardsley’s printed material. It encompasses all the major works in the artist’s canon including the book illustrations, periodicals and other printed works that made him a household name in late Victorian London.
The collection, over a century in the making, was started by Rainforth Armitage Walker soon after Beardsley’s premature death in 1898 and continued by his friend and fellow collector WG Good.
Along the way, it formed the basis of two major exhibitions dedicated to the artist at the National Gallery (1923-24) and the V&A (1966).
London dealer Shapero Rare Books is selling the works in a dedicated exhibition at the gallery’s New Bond Street site, which opens on May 13.
“The key factor to this collection is RA Walker and W G Good who were very well-known collectors and scholars of Beardsley material,” says Shapero specialist Roddy Newlands.
“Walker was also a prominent figure in establishing fakes and forgeries of Beardsley’s works and even wrote a book on it.”
Rare first editions of Le Morte d’Arthur, regarded by some as Beardsley’s magnum opus, Salome and complete first-edition issue runs of The Yellow Book and The Savoy appear alongside items from the artist’s own library, rare books on the Decadent and Aesthetic movements, uncensored proofs and other collectables.
The gallery describes the condition of the collection as “exceptional” and prices peak around £10,000 to £15,000 for the top works.
Although Beardsley’s books and publications are rare, they tend to be more affordable on the secondary market than the artist’s drawings which can make upwards of £100,000 at auction.
“Beardsley’s drawings will always make good money because there are enough collectors out there who understand their value,” adds Newlands, but demand tends to ebb and flow for the printed works as collectors are “less aware of their significance and scarcity”.
Despite his brief life, which was cut short at the age of 25 by tuberculosis, Beardsley produced a remarkable quantity of work. “He appears to have been one of those people who lost himself in work to try and compensate for his failing health,” says Newlands.
The early illustrations Beardsley produced for Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1893-94), on the story of King Arthur, amounted to more than 1000 decorations including over 360 full and double-page drawings, borders, chapter headings and ornaments. The 12-part edition, which was later bound into a single volume, blend the artist’s early Pre- Raphaelite influences, particularly the works of Edward Burne-Jones, with the darker Decadent themes of sex and death. Shapero is asking £10,000 for its complete set.
The refinement of Beardsley’s designs coupled with the artist’s quirky sense of humour and fascination with the grotesque and taboo simultaneously thrilled and shocked the late Victorians.
Among Beardsley’s most notorious illustrations were the eight fullpage erotic drawings he made for the satirical ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, published towards the end of his life in 1896. A “possibly peerless” copy of this rare first edition (only around 100 were produced) complete with the publisher’s blue boards is priced at £15,000.
The illustrated first edition of Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1894) for sale at Shapero is from a larger paper issue of 100 printed on Japanese vellum. Priced at £15,000, it includes Beardsley’s famous illustration, ‘The Peacock Skirt’, (pictured above) which depicts the beguiling Salome using her beauty to persuade the Syrian captain of the guard to release his prisoner John the Baptist.
The illustrations in Salome were inspired by the bold and graphic style made popular by Japanese artists of the late 18th and 19th centuries and the decorative art of the Nouveau Age. Wilde himself makes a caricatured cameo in several of the illustrations, most famously ‘The Woman in the Moon’, which would go on to be retitled several times.
The collection includes a possibly uniquely bound full set of eight issues of The Savoy (1896) in three vellum cases rather than the standard clothcase binding, priced at £12,500.
The set was probably commissioned by Beardsley’s close friend and patron Herbert ‘Jerome’ Pollitt (1871-1942) whose bookplate appears in each volume. (The only other set recorded in vellum is a later rebinding.)
The last work undertaken by Beardsley was an illustrated edition of Ben Jonson’s 17th-century satirical work Volpone (1898), with a first edition costing £2000 at Shapero. Initially intended to have 25 designs by the artist, only one full page illustration was completed as Beardsley’s health deteriorated.