John Austen’s Haunting Illustrations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet: A Masterpiece of the Aesthetic Movement (1922)


We’ve pop­u­lar­ly come to think of the Vic­to­ri­an era as one in which a prud­ish, sen­ti­men­tal con­ser­vatism ruled with impe­r­i­al force over the arts and cul­ture. But that broad pic­ture ignores the strong coun­ter­cur­rent of weird eroti­cism in the work of aes­thetes like Dante Ros­set­ti, Oscar Wilde, and Aubrey Beard­s­ley.


Beardsley’s ele­gant, bawdy illus­tra­tions of Wilde’s erot­ic play Salome scan­dal­ized British soci­ety, as did the play itself. His pen­chant for occult sub­jects and a wicked­ly sen­su­ous style res­onat­ed well into the 20th cen­tu­ry. Salome was a high­light of the Aes­thet­ic move­ment,” writes the Met, “and an ear­ly man­i­fes­ta­tion of Art Nou­veau in Eng­land.” By the 1920s, Beard­s­ley was per­haps one of the most influ­en­tial of lit­er­ary illus­tra­tors.


Irish artist Har­ry Clarke took direct­ly from Beard­s­ley in work like his rich­ly-detailed 1926 edi­tion of Goethe’s Faust. And in 1922, British artist John Austen mod­ern­ized Ham­let by draw­ing on Clarke’s ear­li­er work, as well as, quite clear­ly, on Beard­s­ley. As artist John Coulthart remarks, “If you’re going to bor­row a style then you may as well take from the best.” Like Beardsley’s Salome and Clarke’s Faust, Austen’s Ham­let “is often rat­ed as his chef d’oeuvre, and with good rea­son, he man­ages to lend some visu­al splen­dor to a play whose con­cerns are a lot more intro­spec­tive than the usu­al illus­tra­tion stan­dards of The Tem­pest and A Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream” (just as T.S. Eliot had crit­i­cal­ly argued two years ear­li­er).


Pub­lished by Dover’s Calla Edi­tions (and recent­ly back in print), Austen’s illus­trat­ed Ham­let takes the fine, spare lines of Beardsley—well rep­re­sent­ed in his Poe edi­tion—and clothes them, so to speak, with Clarke’s “man­ga faces, spiny fin­gers and swathes of black.” Each of the three artists has a dif­fer­ent take on the macabre: Beardsley’s sub­tle sym­bol­ism giv­ing way to Clarke’s sur­re­al­ism and the heavy iconog­ra­phy in Austen’s Ham­let, per­me­at­ed by the play’s arche­typ­al images of “masks, swords and skulls.” Austen would soon leave behind the influ­ence of both artists, adopt­ing a much block­i­er style for lit­er­ary illus­tra­tions lat­er in the decade. In many ways, he rep­re­sents a bridge between the ele­gant Art Nou­veau aes­thet­ics of Beard­s­ley and the mod­ernism of Art Deco, by way of Clarke’s unique goth­ic style.


You can view and down­load all of the Austen illus­tra­tions online: The Fol­ger Shake­speare Library hosts all 121 orig­i­nal draw­ings in high res­o­lu­tion scans, each of which is down­load­able in res­o­lu­tions up to 3072px. Coulthart excerpts sev­er­al of these images at his blog {feuil­leton}. And at, you can see the Austen illus­tra­tions in con­text with the play’s text in high res­o­lu­tion scans. There, you’ll also find more mod­ernist illus­tra­tions Austen con­tributed to edi­tions of Tris­tram Shandy, Byron’s Don Juan and E.C. Lefroy’s Echoes from The­ocri­tus, and a 1937 instruc­tion­al book on pen and ink draw­ing. In at least one oth­er instance, how­ev­er, Austen retained the styl­ized, Sym­bol­ist Clarke and Beard­s­ley approach—an erot­ic pen draw­ing of She­herezade that pays full homage to Beardsley’s sen­su­al Salome illus­tra­tions.


Relat­ed Con­tent:

Oscar Wilde’s Play Salome Illus­trat­ed by Aubrey Beard­s­ley in a Strik­ing Mod­ern Aes­thet­ic (1894)

Har­ry Clarke’s 1926 Illus­tra­tions of Goethe’s Faust: Art That Inspired the Psy­che­del­ic 60s

Aubrey Beardsley’s Macabre Illus­tra­tions of Edgar Allan Poe’s Short Sto­ries (1894)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.