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 John Austen  (1886 - 1948)

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Lived/Active: England      Known for: book illustrator-art nouveau style

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Ad Code: 4
AskART Artist
from Auction House Records.
The promenade; Night at the opera, a pair
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Please note: Artists not classified as American in our database may have limited biographical data compared to the extensive information about American artists.

John Austen was born in Kent, England in 1886. That's the same year as Kay Nielsen, and both share a fascination with a style of art made most popular by Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898).  As Impressionism and Art Nouveau were confronting and confusing the public, the "decadent" style of Beardsley was finding its own audience.  Harry Clarke, Nielsen, Alastair, and others were enamored with the strength of line and form and startling, solid blacks.

It wasn't until 1906 when Austen came to London, as a carpenter, that he was first exposed to Beardsley's work.  The effect it had on him was said to be overwhelming, and he began to study art - and Beardsley in particular.  It wasn't until 1921 that he had his first illustrations published. The book was The Little Ape, and despite being an obvious paean to his hero, the illustrations contain a seed of uniqueness that kept them being slavish copies.

My favorite book from this period is his 1922 Hamlet.  This project won him recognition and fame and signals the end of his total reliance on the decadent style.  While there is much to recommend this to appreciators of Beardsley and Clarke, there are also obvious indications of a new, more linear direction to his art.  To simply dismiss this as the work of a stylistic copyist is an indication that a critic has only glimpsed the surface of the work - and then only seen a few of the major plates.

For every texture-rich death image like the one at right, there is an elegant fine-line drawing as at left. It's a very eclectic combination of styles, but there is a consistency of artistic development often missed on first glance. Even the more complex compositions (as below) seem very derivative until really examined carefully. Then Austen's underlying approach is seen as obviously more curvilinear and subtle than his influences. His subsequent career would only emphasize those differences.

Images from some of his following books show this clearly.  The next year he illustrated, among others, The Adventures of Harlequin with a combination of flat color and fine line.  1923 also saw his illustrations for Perfection, with a creative use of gilt throughout.

Two samples from other contemporary books emphasize the new directions he was exploring.

The Five Black Cousins - 1924    Everyman & Other Plays - 1925
Both show his lingering fascination with patterns, but it's in the context of simpler designs and used as a tone or a texture rather than as a graphic design motif for the entire image. The Everyman images are some of the earliest color explorations I've seen by him and his use of the blue is more experimental than the gilt. The gilt fills space while the blue helps define it or emphasizes its boundaries.

He was part of an exhibition in 1925 with Harry Clarke and Alan Odle.

Throughout the '20s he illustrated dozens of books, continually refining and simplifying his style while practicing to be, as Dorothy Richardson says in her essential, John Austen and the Inseparables, "...the perfect aesthete, precious, even in appearance, to the finger-tips; and a trifle cynical." 

In 1927, he illustrated The Gods are Athirst, one of the Dodd-Mead series of Anatole France reprints, best typified by the volumes by Frank Papé. 

By 1930, he'd abandoned the pretenses of the London "artiste" and was back in Kent.  The style he had settled into was similar to the fine-line and cross-hatch texturing of the cherub from The Guardsman and Cupid's Daughter (1930).  Much of the decade of the '30s was devoted to books for the Heritage Press or the Illustrated Editions Club.

Some of the titles: Vanity Fair, Pickwick Papers, David Copperfield, Oliver Wakefield, and A Comedy of Errors.

He wrote a book titled The ABC of Pen and Ink Rendering in 1937.  He wrote and illustrated Persuasion in 1946.  He died in 1948.

Written & © 1999 by Jim Vadeboncoeur, Jr., who has granted permission for use.


John Austen and the Inseparables, Dorothy Richardson, William Jackson Ltd. 1930

The Dictionary of 20th Century British Book Illustrators, Alan Horne, Antique Collectors' Club, 1994


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