The Aubrey Beardsley exhibition at Tate Britain includes work by the draughtsman and distinctive illustrator who, suffering from tuberculosis, spent crucial months from August 1896 to the end of January 1897 by the seaside.
Young Aubrey Beardsley came to Boscombe by accident. His doctor has chosen Dieppe for the ailing artist but he was scared about going having once failed to pay an hotel bill there.
His sister Mabel found the Pier View boarding house (now replaced by The Point flats) on the corner of Sea Road and The Marina . The coast path passes the building so one can begin to get a feel of the view of Boscombe Pier and the bay enjoyed by Beardsley from his first floor room with a balcony.
He became friendly with writer Eleanor Towle who promised to take him along the cliff to Shelley Park and meet Jane Shelley who might show him items once belonging to her poet father-in-law. Beardsley was known to be knowledgeable about Keats.
Later Beardsley was caught up in excitement caused by the discovery of a 65 foot long whale washed up on the beach below Shelley Park.
We know that he became familiar with Boscombe Chine and walked up to the East Cliff although he felt ill as he returned. He tasted the Boscombe Spa water available at the chine entrance.
Beardsley, having been sacked from The Yellow Book magazine was working from Boscombe as art editor of The Savoy magazine. His deadline was about a month ahead for each issue which usually carried a cover by him. The content caused WH Smith to refuse copies.
The Savoy editor Leonard Smithers visited from London and is depicted as a chain smoking dissolute in a Max Beerbohm caricature.
Smithers was also a pornographer and had commissioned from Beardsley explicit erotic drawings for Lysistrata and Juvenal’s Sixth Satire. They were to be for private circulation and few saw them at first since Beardsley always worked with curtains closed anyway.
He finished Lysistrata in Epsom a month before arriving in Boscombe in August 1896. At once he was working on the Juvenal series starting with Bathyhurst in the Swan Dance. Messalina Returning Home was followed by The Impatient Adulterer before the end of the month.
Beardsley had long thought about religion and in Boscombe visited Corpus Christi Church. The following year when living in nearby Bournemouth’s Exeter Road during February and March he visited the Sacred Heart Church several times. With encouragement from art patron Marc-Andé Raffalovich, who was always sending chocolates, flowers and books, Beardsley was received into the Church.
This may have led him to ask, on his deathbed in Menton, for Smithers to destroy all the sensational drawings. He did not and the Tate has devoted a ‘Curiosa’ room to them as part of the special exhibition.
Soon after arriving in Boscombe he was also working on the cover for his Book of Fifty Drawings which was published during his last month at Pier View. A reproduction with an introduction by Alice Insley, one of exhibition curators, is on sale at the Tate (£9.99).
During September he completed The Comedy of the Rhinegold frontispiece.
A picture taken in Beardsley’s last hotel room in France gives us a clue about how his Boscombe workroom might have looked. On the table are his two ormolu candlesticks. The wall of prints, like some furniture, travelled with him. In Boscombe he had so many books that when he left that a bookseller was called in to pack them.
The exhibition includes the paper knife which Beardsley would have used in Boscombe to slit open both good news letters from his publishers and angry final demands from creditors.
In Bournemouth during March 1897 he finished a hand wash of the first Mademoiselle du Maupin drawing.
Beardsley’s doctor thought that Bournemouth’s air was better than Boscombe’s but the patient was still in poor health after two months so Beardsley left by train just before Easter 1897 for Paris. He died in Menton a year later.
Beardsley souvenirs in the Tate shop include, a scarf, robe, bag, mug, fridge magnet and postcards.
Aubrey Beardsley is open daily at Tate Britain until 25 May; admission £16 (conc £15).