Symbolism and Censorship in Aubrey Beardsley’s ‘Portrait of Himself in Bed’

At 22 years old, Aubrey Beardsley was in the midst of one of the most prosperous periods of his short life, thanks to regular employment with the quarterly artistic and literary periodical The Yellow Book (fig. 1). For the journal’s third volume, published in October 1894, Beardsley created an illustration entitled Portrait of Himself in Bed (fig. 2).[1] This drawing was printed using the line block technique, which necessitated his use of only black and white, with no middle tones. He employs characteristically long lines and delicate detail to render an image of himself asleep in bed. Sweeping lines move the viewer’s eyes across bedcovers, curtains decorated with flowers, and to Beardsley’s sleeping face. Above him hangs a figurine of a woman. The composition is accompanied by a quote translating to “by the twin gods, not all monsters live in Africa.”[2] Without the title, Portrait of Himself in Bed would not immediately be identifiable as a self-portrait. In other self-portraits, Beardsley attends faithfully to his long features, gaunt cheeks, and severe hairstyle (fig. 3).[3] Here, his cheeks are rounded and he has a small, button nose. Like any self-portrait, Portrait of Himself in Bed is a vehicle for self-reflection. However, the self-reflection manifested in this work is ideological rather than visual. In Portrait of Himself in Bed, Beardsley critiques the censorship of his work at The Yellow Book, and examines his complicity in it.

Figure 1. Ed. John Lane. The Yellow Book Illustrated Quarterly, Volume 3. October 1894. Boston: Copeland & Day. Image Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum.
Figure 2. Aubrey Beardsley, Portrait of Himself in Bed or Self-Portrait in Bed, from The Yellow Book, vol. III. October 1894. From line-block. Image Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum.

Both The Yellow Book and Beardsley shared an adherence to the principles of the nineteenth-century Aesthetic Movement, which championed “visual and sensual qualities of art and design over practical, moral, or narrative considerations,”[4] as well as the Decadent Movement, which emphasised “the spiritual, the morbid, and the erotic,” according to The Tate Museum.[5] For Beardsley, the ideals of these movements manifested in grotesque and erotic illustrations, for which he became well known. The journal set forth lofty ambitions in line with these movements, aiming to depart

as far as possible from the bad old traditions of periodical literature, and to provide an Illustrated Magazine which shall be beautiful as a piece of book-making, modern and distinguished in its letter-press and its pictures, and withal popular in the better sense of the word…It is expected that The Yellow Book will prove the most interesting, unusual, and important publication of its kind that has ever been undertaken.[6]

Figure 3. Aubrey Beardsley, Self-portrait, 1892. Pen and ink wash. Image Credit: The British Museum.

In the journal’s case, these ideals were hampered by conservative editor John Lane, who took great care to not alienate readership by producing work that was too shocking in content. Lane and Beardsley’s differing approaches to artistic production caused severe tension between them. Beardsley repeatedly produced grotesque and erotic imagery which John Lane cut from the journal before it could be published.[7] This was not the first time that Lane had censored Beardsley’s work. The pair first worked together on a published version of Oscar Wilde’s Salome, for which Beardsley created a sexually explicit first draft (fig. 4). After the draft was rejected by Lane for its content, Beardsley seemingly toned down the content of subsequent drafts. However, he hid many sexual symbols within rich illustrations, many of which slipped past Lane’s editorial eye and into publication.[8] In Portrait of Himself in Bed, Beardsley crafts a similarly coded message, critiquing the censorship of his work. However, in the self-portrait, Beardsley does not simply poke fun at Lane. Instead, Beardsley employs symbolism to examine his own complicity in the censorship of his work and the consequences of that complicity.

Figure 4. Aubrey Beardsley, J’ai Baisé ta Bouch, Iokanaan (The Climax) from Oscar Wilde’s Salome, published in Pal Mal Budget, 1893. Image Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum.

To do so, Beardsley leverages the tools of yet another nineteenth-century movement with which he identified — the Symbolist Movement. The Tate explains that Symbolism “advocated the expression of an idea of over the realistic description of the natural world.” Beardsley’s inclusion of the quotation “by twin gods, not all monsters live in Africa” invites us to consider a non-literal interpretation of the work. This quotation reflects the exoticising and imperialist vision of Africa held by nineteenth-century Europeans. Africa was widely described as “The Dark Continent,” and, as part of imperialist messaging, was potrayed as rife with violence and disease.[9] The evocation of both monsters and the negative associations with Africa paint a striking contrast with docile, sleeping Beardsley. This contrast signalled to Victorian viewers that they should consider Beardsley as monstrous despite his depiction. According to Patricia Leighton, nineteenth-century political cartoonists regularly paired an image with contrasting text to avoid censorship and advance critique present in their work.[10] Beardsley does this here, indicating that the sleeping figure is a monster despite its gentle appearance. Symbols throughout the rest of the work function to elucidate how Beardsley is monstrous.

In Portrait of Himself in Bed, Beardsley’s head is no bigger than the surrounding blossoms. These blossoms appear to be hydrangeas, which, in Victorian flower language, signify that the recipient is frigid, heartless, or boastful.[11] Given that Lane is the first recipient of these images, and thus the flowers, we might read these flowers as indicating that Lane’s choice to dilute the journal’s substnace is frigid, heartless, and boastful, especially as the journal purported to be “the most interesting, unusual, and important publication of its kind that has ever been undertaken.”[12] Yet at the same time, Beardsley implicates himself. By rendering his own head the same size as the hydrangeas, Beardsley creates a strong visual link between himself and these ideas of coldness and heartlessness, suggesting the ideological compromise necessary in allowing his work to be censored.

In Beardsley’s eyes, the frigidity and heartlessness of compromise made him monstrous. Beardsley deeply identified with his work and the ideological movements in which he participated. This was increasingly the case as tuberculosis took his physical freedom. Brian Reade explains that towards the end of his life, Beardsley’s work became an outlet for desires and the site of “mental adventures” that were inaccesible to him physically.[13] This was the circumstance in which Beardsley worked during his time at The Yellow Book.

Figure 5. Aubrey Beardsley, vignette in Bon-Mots of Smith and Sheridan, 1892-94. Image Credit: Brian Reade. Aubrey Beardsley Mulgrave. Antique Collectors’ Club. Revised edition published 1987.

Not only did Beardsley identify with his work, but he frequently depicted himself within it. Beardsley repeatedly depicted himself as a grotesque, “diminutive monster” long before he was employed at The Yellow Book. This monster takes the form of a foetus in many of Beardsley’s previous drawings, including in decorations for Bon Mots (fig. 5), a collection of quotations by English wits.[14] Several of these foetuses are depicted as dandies, wearing suits and carrying walking sticks (fig. 6). Beardsley was well-recorded as identifying as a dandy. While the expression of this identication was often self-deprecating, Reade stresses that Beardsley “jealously nurtured” his reputation as a wit and a dandy, indicating that this identification was earnestly felt.[15]  This self-identification with the “diminutive monster” was likely deeply felt as well, even as he took a tongue-in-cheek approach to its representation. Reade explains this tension, writing that

as with introverted humorists, and in a limited sense he was a comic artist, Beardsley’s fantasies evolved from within a doubting, disturbed unconscious, and had to be justified as part of himself…And just as Beardsley belongs in a way to each of his inventions, so the foetus shapes belonged to him and were symbols perhaps of his own despair in the face of the future.[16]

In referencing Beardsley’s despair, Reade speaks to Beardsley’s affliction with tuberculosis, noting that Beardsley’s physical limitations necessitated self-expression through his work.[17]

Figure 6. Aubrey Beardsley, vignette in Bon-Mots of Lamb and Jerrold, 1892-94. Image Credit: Brian Reade. Aubrey Beardsley Mulgrave. Antique Collectors’ Club. Revised edition published 1987.

Beardsley’s self-rendering in Portrait of Himself in Bed parallels the Bon Mots foetus decorations. Beardsley’s head looks bulbous and enlarged in the turban while his face is strikingly small. The Bon Mots foetuses have the same bulbous head and tiny face, both grotesque and endearing. This parallel evokes the broader, Victorian perception of dandies as monstrous. In “The Drama of the Imposter: Dandyism and Its Double,” Christopher Lane explains that the idea of the dandy emerged in the nineteenth century to describe one who “held an imaginary po(i)se between social distance and intervention,” and observed rather than participated in culture.[18] Dandies’ self-positioning outside of society meant that they were seen both as declassé and displaying an “aristocratic ‘spirit’” by other Victorians, explains Lane. In line with this ambivalent reception, they were both monsterised and feminised. Lane explains the stakes of this monsetrisation for Beardsley, for whom artwork was the vehicle for social observation and commentary. To other Victorians, a dandy’s position on the fringes of society, as an observer but not participant, “represented a complex hinge between the fulfilment of a sublime ideal and the haunting embodiment of a reprehensible social failure.”[19] In depicting himself as a “diminutive monster,” both endearing and repulsive, Beardsley points to the idea of a dandy as both monstrous and feminine, declassé and aristocratic. In Beardsley’s self-representation as foetal, it is not hard to view the surrounding bedcovers as womblike. As the delicate foetus is protected in the womb, so is Beardsley protected by his steady employment with The Yellow Book, which brought him the most prosperity he experienced in his short life.

This comfort is paired with the idea of impeded vision, representing the censorship and subsequent hampering of Beardsley’s social observation through his work. In Portrait of Himself in Bed, Beardsley’s closed eyes prevent him from observing his surroundings. Atop his sleeping head, he sports a turban. As nineteenth-century Europeans consumed repelling messages about Africa, they were drawn to essentialist ideas about the continent. According to Calloway, an “exotic, North African subculture of Paris” framed Beardsley’s social and artistic life.[20] The University of Iowa’s Stanley Museum explains that Victorian Europeans wore turbans as a fashion statement appropriated from North African culture, and that artists, in particular, wore them as symbols of “mystical otherness.” The museum notes that Beardsley was particularly “fascinated by the occult and with imagery inspired by the subconscious.”[21] If Europeans employed turbans to convey mysticism and the social separation of “otherness,” then Beardsley’s pairing of the turban with his closed eyes underscores that while he, a dandy, may be able to see beyond what others can, he hampers this sight. He suggests that the monstrous act is not to be outside of society, as other Victorians might believe, but instead to pretend to not see or record the realities of society.

Beardsley’s surroundings in Portrait of Himself in Bed deepen the work’s symbolism, referencing a project that became the scene of many of Beardsley’s “mental adventures.” Beardsley had long wished to be known not only as an illustrator, but as a writer. He realised this desire in 1895, when the short-lived periodical The Savoy began to publish his pornographic reinterpretation of the legend of Venus and Tannhäuser, which he both wrote and illustrated. Under the Hill was a long-cherished project of Beardsley’s, and had been in the works for months before its publication in The Savoy.[22] It is likely that Beardsley was at work on the project while working on the third volume of The Yellow Book.

In the legend of Venus and Tannhäuser, themes of institutional power, desire, and choice converge, just as they did in Beardsley’s relationship to The Yellow Book. The legend recounts the story of a knight and poet who heretically worshipped the the Roman goddess Venus despite social rejection. In an early version of Under the Hill, Beardsley dubbed the main character not Tannhäuser, but “Abbé Aubrey.” Beardsley portrayed both himself and the character as a “spavin-legged dandy.”[23] In Portrait of Himself in Bed, Beardsley leverages his personal identification with Tannhäuser to illustrate the stakes of allowing his work to be censored.

In Portrait of Himself in Bed, a figurine of a woman, accompanied by a tassel, hovers above Beardsley’s sleeping head. The female figurine is not a modern, angular “Beardsley woman,” but a curvaceous one, akin to a classical woman.[24] Additional tassels adorn the curtains that surround the bed. As in Beardsley’s previous works, seemingly decorative elements serve deliberate symbolic purpose. Here, the figurine of Venus and the tassels reference the same symbols used to evoke institutiontal power, choice, and desire in Under the Hill. 

For Under the Hill, Beardsley illustrated the pivotal moment of choice in the legend Venus and Tannhäuser, when the knight momentarily repents his heresy after he worshiped the goddess Venus, and asks the pope to forgive him. The pope declines, saying that forgiveness was as likely has his papal staff blossoming. This statement leads Tannhäuser to give up and return to Venus. Miraculously, the pope’s staff does blossom, by which point Tannhäuser is gone forever.[25] This choice is highlighted when Tannhäuser pauses to fix the tassel on his walking stick before entering the Hill of Venus, paralleling the blossoming papal staff (fig. 7). For Under the Hill, Beardsley crafted a rich illustration depicting Tannhäuser fixing the walking stick tassel, a large lilly visible over his left shoulder, evoking the papal staff. In Portrait of Himself in Bed, the figurine of the woman emerges from the tassel like Venus rising from the sea amidst surrounding blossoms, linking these symbols of desire and choice.

Figure 7. Aubrey Beardsley, The Abbé; illustration for Under the Hill, 1895. Made, 1895. Published in the Savoy, No. 1, January 1896. Pen and ink. Image Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum.

The quote “by twin gods, not all monsters live in Africa” elucidates the stakes of Beardsley and Tannhäuser’s diverging choices. There is no explicit information on what “twin gods” Beardsley references in Portrait of Himself in Bed, but Venus’s twin children seem to be the most logical referent. These twin gods, Timor and Metus, personify fear and terror, respectively. For the intended frontispiece for Under the Hill, Beardsley drew Venus between Terminal Gods (fig. 8), in which Venus is flanked by Timor and Metus. In line with Venus’s position as the goddess of beauty, sex, and sex work,[26] the twins are depicted wearing a type of kimono distinctive of oiran,[27] high-status Japanese sex workers of the 19th century.[28] In Venus between Terminal Gods, the gods affront Victorian sensibility while guarding Venus, the fulfilment of a sublime ideal. In this transitional position, they represent a similar “hinge” between the “fulfilment of a sublime ideal and the haunting embodiment of a reprehensible social failure” that characterises dandyism according to Christopher Lane.[29] Coming full-circle, this reference recalls both the dandy’s liminal social position and Beardsley’s compromise of it. Where Tannhäuser accepts social rejection as a consequence of reaching the sublime ideal, the journal seeks out social acceptance through the rejection of its ideals. It was this very compromise that led to the downfall of The Yellow Book. Not long after Portrait of Himself in Bed was published, Lane fired Beardsley over his association with homosexual writer Oscar Wilde, speculating that Beardsley shared his orientation.[30] The journal quickly lost its cult following after Beardsley was ousted, and closed not long after.[31] Robert Ross, Beardsley’s friend and literary executor,[32] said that “The Yellow Book perished in the odour of sanctity,”[33] — the same pitfall that Beardsley examines in Portrait of Himself in Bed.

Figure 8. Aubrey Beardsley, Venus Between Terminal Gods, frontispiece intended for Venus and Tannhäuser, 1895, India ink with white (line block made). Image Credit: The Higgins Bedford via ARTUK.

Emily Ferro Sortor is a freelance writer and artist based in Wilmington, Delaware. She holds a Master of Arts in Art History from the University of Delaware and a Bachelor of Arts in French Language and Literature from Grinnell College. She has a decade of experience in the fine art world, having worked with prominent museums, practicing artists, and community development organisations. She can be found on Instagram and on LinkedIn.

Notes & references

[1] Stephen Calloway, Aubrey Beardsley (New York: Harry N. Abrams 1998), 98.

[2] Calloway, Aubrey Beardsley, 98.

[3] Calloway, Aubrey Beardsley, 39.

[4] “Aesthetic Movement,” Tate, accessed December 18, 2020,

[5] “Aesthetic Movement,” Tate, accessed December 18, 2020,

[6] Calloway, Aubrey Beardsley, 105.

[7] Alice Insley, “Aubrey Beardsley: infant terrible of the 1890s,” Art UK, March 27, 2020,

[8] Calloway, Aubrey Beardsley, 70 – 80.

[9] “Art of the Day,” Stanley Museum of Art, October 16, 2020,

[10] Patricia Leighton, “The World Turned Upside Down: Modernism and Anarchist Strategies of Inversion in L’Assiette au Beurre,” The Journal of Modern Periodical Studies 4, no. 2 (Special Issue Anarchist Modernism in Print, 2014): 134-135.

[11] “Flowers and Their Meanings: The Language of Flowers,” Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, accessed May 16, 2024,

[12] Calloway, Aubrey Beardsley, 105.

[13] Brian Reade, Aubrey Beardsley (Mulgrave: Antique Collectors’ Club, revised edition published 1987): 19.

[14] Reade, Aubrey Beardsley, 21.

[15] Calloway, Aubrey Beardsley, 83.

[16] Reade, Aubrey Beardsley, 22.

[17] Reade does not speak directly about Portait of Himself in Bed. Calloway references it only briefly, saying “In a curious piece of self-analysis, Beardsley pictured himself as a febrile Aesthete, be-turbaned and all but engulfed in the opulent splendours of a sumptuously hung Baroque bed. He cherished the idea of himself as ‘monstrous’ and alluded to this in the enigmatic inscription.”

[18] Christopher Lane, “The Drama of the Imposter: Dandyism and Its Double,” Cultural Critique no. 28 (Autumn, 1994): 34.

[19] Lane, The Drama of the Imposter: Dandyism and Its Double,” 38.

[20] Calloway, Aubrey Beardsley, 170.

[21] Stanley Museum of Art, “Art of the Day.”

[22] Calloway, Aubrey Beardsley, 134.

[23] Reade, Aubrey Beardsley, 21.

[24] Calloway, Aubrey Beardsley, 107.

[25] Tim Ashley, “Wagner’s Tannhäuser,” The Guardian, December 10, 2010,

[26] “Venus,” Ancient History Encyclopaedia, accessed December 18, 2020,,%2C%20fertility%2C%20and%20even%20prostitution.

[27] My classmate, Yoo Jin Choi, identified the kimonos as those worn by oiran.

[28] Makiko Itoh, “What’s the Difference Between an Oiran and a Geisha?” Slate, December 20, 2013.

[29] Lane, The Drama of the Imposter: Dandyism and Its Double,” 38.

[30] Calloway, Aubrey Beardsley, 123-124.

[31] Calloway, Aubrey Beardsley, 100.

[32] Calloway, Aubrey Beardsley, 38.

[33] Calloway, Aubrey Beardsley, 126.

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