The Questing Beast and the Curious Conversion of Aubrey Beardsley

Frederick Evans portrait of Aubrey Beardsley

Aubrey Beardsley, born in 1872, began suffering from tuberculosis at age seven. His life expectancy was thrown into uncertainty. Despite this, he was given an excellent education in art, literature, music, and performance by his father. He grew up to become an influential artist and illustrator during his short lifetime and his work contributed heavily to the Art Nouveau movement. His illustrations were primarily done with black ink and are inspired in many ways by Japanese woodcuts. Japonism is likely the reason for this, as fascination with Japanese art and culture was in full swing during Beardsley’s lifetime thanks to the country opening up to the West in the 1850s.

His career began with a commission for Le Morte d’Arthur by Thomas Malory in 1893. These illustrations are how I first learned of Beardsley, as I own a copy of Le Morte d’Arthur published by Flame Tree Publishing, which uses Beardsley’s art. I immediately fell in love with Beardsley’s style as I have an appreciation for Art Nouveau and woodcut art.

Arthur and the Strange Mantle by Aubrey Beardsley, 1893-1894
The Lady of the Lake by Aubrey Beardsley, 1893-1894

These woodcuts evoke a wonderful feeling of the mystical, the mythic, and the legendary. In the first illustration the wooded setting with Camelot in the background places the reader right in the scene with vivid detail. Each and every line contributes to form a lively and fantastical place. The second illustration goes even further. The frame of the illustration is flowery and lush to match the environment in which the characters are in. Each blade of grass seems to have been given special attention, the forest feels dense and dark, and Arthur’s armor is put on full display.

One particular illustration of Beardsley stood out to me though, that being ‘How King Arthur saw the Questing Beast.’

 How King Arthur saw the Questing Beast by Aubrey Beardsley, 1893-1894

Thomas Malory drew from the Post-Vulgate cycle of the Questing Beast and used it in Le Morte d’Arthur. He writes that the beast, making the sound of a great number of hounds, appears to the young king Arthur as he sits under a tree, just after he had an affair with his half-sister Morgause. That affair would produce Mordred, the bastard son and traitor who would eventually bring about death and destruction to Arthur and the entire realm. This illustration depicts Arthur seeing the beast drinking from a pool after he wakes from a dream which foretold Mordred’s actions.

The beast leaves and King Pellinore arrives not long after, explaining that he and his family are on a quest to hunt and kill the beast. Merlin also comes to the scene and reveals that the beast had a human mother, a princess who had lusted after her brother. A devil promised the girl that the boy would love her if she only slept with the devil, but then the devil convinced her to accuse her brother of rape. The boy, at the king’s command, was torn apart by dogs as punishment. Just before he died, however, the boy prophesied that the girl would birth an abomination that makes the same sound as the dogs just before they tore him apart.

Palamedes, a Saracen knight, also hunts the Questing Beast to no avail, a parallel to his futile love of Tristan’s Iseult. The Post-Vulgate cycle has Palamedes converting to Christianity, which brings him relief from all his worldly hardships and fruitless ventures. Only after this does he finally slay the beast during the Grail Quest.

After seeing these illustrations, I decided to look up Aubrey Beardsley to learn about him and see more of his art. I was, admittedly, surprised. On the one hand, Beardsley produced some fine illustrations which I enjoy, such as this one:

 ‘Abbé’ (‘Under the Hill’), by Aubrey Beardsley, published in ‘The Savoy’, no. 1, January 1896, England.

On the other hand, he is most known for his grotesque, dark, and perverted art. This aligned with his social group, as a number of his most notable patrons were heavily interested in pornography, erotic art, and homosexuality. He was also very close with Oscar Wilde. In fact, some of his most sexual and provocative illustrations were commissions for Wilde’s Salome. However, nothing quite compares to his illustrations for Aristophanes’ Lysistrata. Respecting his dying wish (and considering their nature) I will not display or describe these works but suffice it to say they are nothing less than obscene and pornographic pieces to an extreme degree. Edward Burne-Jones called Beardsley’s art “detestable…more lustful than any I’ve seen – not that I’ve seen many such.” Beardsley took pride in his decadence though, saying in 1897

“I have one aim – the grotesque. If I am not grotesque, I am nothing”

Apart from his art, Beardsley was a dandy and eccentric both publicly and privately. There were rumors of him being a homosexual due to this and his company with Wilde’s group, but these rumors are largely unsubstantiated. There were also speculations that Beardsley had an incestuous relationship with his sister which resulted in a miscarriage. In December 1896, the year after Oscar Wilde was charged and jailed for gross indecency, Beardsley was hit with a terrible hemorrhage. Then, in March 1897, something miraculous happened. Beardsley converted to Catholicism. That autumn, he began work on another project creating illustrations for Volpone. These were going to be of a new style and his greatest ever. He finished only a few, seen below.

(Left to right) Print, proofs for the initial ‘V’ with herm, initial ‘V’ with elephant and initial ‘S’, illustrations by Aubrey Beardsley for ‘Volpone’ by Ben Jonson, 1898, Britain. Museum no. E.1094 to 1096-1996. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Just eight days before he died, Aubrey Beardsley wrote a letter to his publisher. It reads,

Jesus is our Lord and Judge. Dear friend, I implore you to destroy all copies of Lysistrata and bad drawings…By all that is holy – all obscene drawings. Aubrey Beardsley. In my death agony.

He died with a rosary and crucifix clasped in his hands.

His publisher did not honor his request. This may be seen as fortunate or unfortunate depending on whether you believe art ought to be preserved, or whether a dying man’s pious wishes ought to be granted.

I wondered, how did this man go from being a grotesque, scandalous, and offensive artist who created illustrations of an obscene and pornographic nature, to being a pious Catholic?

The answer lies in his art and in the Arthurian legend behind the Questing Beast. Indeed, I believe that his illustration of this scene is his most important and revealing work ever, with the legend having striking parallels to Beardsley’s own life. While it cannot be definitively proven, I believe this illustration and its meaning is a reflection of his own inner struggle with his lust, the sexual relationship he had with his sister, and the miscarriage it produced. In the legend, both Arthur and the princess Merlin speaks of have affairs with their kin which produces a monstrous offspring. In Arthur’s case, it is his traitor son who brings about the downfall of the kingdom. In the princess’s case, it is a mythical beast which leads King Pellinore and the Knight Palamedes on futile quests. In Beardsley’s case, he lusts after his own sister, and it produces a miscarriage as well as a perverted outlook on sexuality, leading to a life of sin and degeneracy. Just as Palamedes was only able to slay the beast and put his earthly troubles with lust behind him after his conversion to Christianity, so Beardsley’s sinful lifestyle came to an end after his late conversion to Catholicism. I believe Beardsley realized the futility of his work as well as the wickedness of his actions. He also likely felt guilty about the affair even before his conversion, as it is said he was always a deeply religious man. Because of this realization and guilt, Beardsley followed in the righteous footsteps of Palamedes and turned towards the Lord rather than worldly pleasure and projects. His letter requesting the destruction of his “bad” and “obscene drawings” is proof of his disdain for his past work.

The illustration of Arthur and the Questing Beast is representative of his life’s struggles, the story surrounding the art providing deep insight into his life. A man, guilty of lust and detestable sexual depravity, having led a futile life which seems to bear no fruit, finds salvation and peace in Christ and His Church.

This poetic parallel is fitting for an artistic genius such as Beardsley. I hope that, if he is in Eternal Paradise, he prays for all those who struggle with similar sins.


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