“The colour of The Yellow Book was an appropriate reflection of the ‘Yellow Nineties’ a decade in which Victorianism was giving way among the fashionable to Regency attitudes and French influences; For yellow was not only the décor of the notorious and dandified pre-Victorian Regency, but also of the allegedly wicked and decadent French novel.”
(S. Weintraub, The Yellow Book, Quintessence of the Nineties, 1964)
In its three years of production thirteen volumes of The Yellow Book were published quarterly from April 1894 until April 1897. The creators of the periodical, Aubrey Beardsley and Henry Harland, set out to produce an innovative periodical, one which would treat the visual and literary arts separately. In its conception The Yellow Book creators aimed to produce a periodical featuring otherwise unpublished works which championed the transition from Victorian attitudes to the new age of the literary and artistic era. The illustrated quarterly which came to be certainly achieved this and more, helping to pioneer the genre of the short story and the work of emerging writers, both male and female.
Each edition featured a striking and unique frontispiece produced by different artists including the original chief illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, and with later contributions from Ethel Reed and David Young Cameron, to name just a few. The aesthetic qualities of the bindings, however, mask an iconography not necessarily recognisable to today’s reader and an element of notoriety exists behind the glowing yellow cover.
Perhaps the most infamous of the decadent works in 19th century France was Joris-Karl Huysmans novel A Rebours (Against Nature), the novel which is most commonly believed to be the yellow bound book given to Dorian Gray by Lord Henry in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. In Wilde’s novel, the yellow book certainly contributes to the corruption of Gray and upon his arrest in April 1895 Wilde is said to have had a yellow book on his person. Several newspapers at the time falsely reported that it was The Yellow Book. Following this, not only were the premises of the publishers, the Bodley Head, vandalised, but there was an outcry for Beardsley to be dismissed due to his association with Wilde. With pressure from the public and even fellow contributors to the magazine, the editor John Lane had no choice but to fire Beardsley in order to save the reputation of the publication.
Beardsley’s contributions to the magazine up until this time had received much criticism despite the magazine’s popularity. During my research of the publication, I learned of Beardsley’s response to the critics in Volume III – a clever hoax which saw him publish two images of differing style under the pseudonyms Phillip Broughton and Albert Foschter. He eventually claimed the works as his own, but not before critics had reviewed them as “a clever study” and “a drawing of merit”. The two works were published alongside four of Beardsley’s drawings making him the major contributor of artwork to Volume III.
Following his dismissal, all evidence of Beardsley’s contribution to the distinctive designs were removed from the bindings. Volume VI saw the introduction of Patten Wilson’s medieval ship motif in the head piece of the back cover which remained until the magazine’s final edition in 1897.
Though The Yellow Book continued to publish works from noted writers and artists (including HG Wells and John Lavery), the unfortunate circumstances and misunderstandings which led to the dismissal of Beardsley certainly damaged the popularity of the magazine.
However, there is so much more to The Yellow Book than the image it was branded with; it is a real showcase of acclaimed authors and artists, and together the thirteen volumes make an impressive compendium of those working in Britain at the time.
The Yellow Nineties is a fantastic online source dedicated to avant garde periodicals of the nineteenth century, all thirteen editions of The Yellow Book can be viewed in digital format as well as reviews from the magazines contemporaries and promotional material prior to the first publication in April 1894.
Categories: Special Collections