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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
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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