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Dr Alex Tankard, Lecturer in the Department of English, was contacted by the production team needing background on controversial Victorian artist, Aubrey Beardsley, for a BBC4 documentary, Scandal and Beauty. What began as a brief chat grew into a filmed contribution with presenter Mark Gatiss and Alex joining commentators such as Stephen Fry.

The programme traced Beardsley’s life, from childhood and a meteoric rise to fame and notoriety to his early death aged just 25 from TB. Its focus happily chimed with Alex’s long-standing interest in artistic figures who had to cope not just with the challenges of illness or disability, but also society’s tendency to stereotype them. As a lecturer on disability studies approaches to literature and critical theory, Alex has a particular focus on how disabled artists are portrayed and how their illness or condition can sometimes be an important part of their identity as gifted individuals.

Alex said: “There is plenty of writing about TB in Victorian literature but ‘consumptives’ are often portrayed in clichéd terms that are quite flattering but also oppressive; all too often seen as long-suffering, refined and pious. Aubrey Beardsley smashed the stereotype of the tragic consumptive artist. He was, in addition to being long-suffering and pious, a ‘bad’ consumptive, who strongly believed in his own ability and had no qualms about promoting his genius to the greatest artists of his time, transcending the passive, self-effacing stereotype people tried to put on Victorian consumptive artists. His experience living with tuberculosis in a disabling society was as much a part of his identity as his artistic gifts.”

Through her research, Alex has explored the ableist, ‘tough guy’ legend of life in the Wild West and American frontier. Doc Holliday, for example, was consumptive, as were many contemporaries.

She added: “It is the same with all disability stereotypes. Even when we are made aware of the reality and the individual person, the cultural stereotypes are so powerful that there is still a danger of viewing people like Beardsley through the distorting lens of our own preconceptions and expectations. I was glad to contribute to a programme in which he came across as, yes, playful and rude but also deeply serious, with a burning desire to accomplish all he could before his illness overcame him.”

Alex is currently finalising an article on disability and eugenics in the Captain America movies and a number of screen adaptations.

Scandal and Beauty: Mark Gatiss on Aubrey Beardsley can be viewed on BBC iPlayer at https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000gx0d

Alex has published Tuberculosis and Disabled Identity in Nineteenth-Century Literature: Invalid Lives (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018) and posted the following Blogs:

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