The Yellow Book Aubrey Beardsley Buy Art Prints Now
from Amazon

* As an Amazon Associate, and partner with Google Adsense and Ezoic, I earn from qualifying purchases.

Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
Email: [email protected] / Phone: +44 7429 011000

The Yellow Book ran for several years during the late 19th century and was a literary periodical that called upon the services of Aubrey Beardsley for illustrative assistance. It offered a wide range of topics and was considered successful at the time.

Introduction to The Yellow Book

Alongside the large amounts of literature, including poetry, short stories and even essays, The Yellow Book also featured artistic contributions from some famous names. Beardsley's assistance is well known, but they also printed paintings from other notable artists such as John Singer Sargent and Walter Sickert. The list of writers who contributed was also highly impressive for a small publication and it became particularly well known within the communities that it served. The yellow colour was chosen specifically because of its connection to edgy themes, and this related to how some French publications would be wrapped in yellow to alert customers to their potentially controversial topics. The Yellow Book would not go that far, but incorporated the colour into its brand and many understood this meaning. Beardsley's contributions to this publication would provide some of the biggest moments in his career, perhaps only surpassed by his work on the famous Salome series at around the same time.

"...The Yellow Book was certainly novel, even striking, but except for the drawings and decorations by Beardsley, which, seen thus for the first time, not unnaturally affected most people as at once startling, repellent, and fascinating, it is hard to realize why it should have seemed so shocking. But the public is an instinctive creature, not half so stupid as is usually taken for granted. It evidently scented something queer and rather alarming about the strange new quarterly, and thus it almost immediately regarded it as symbolic of new movements which it only partially represented..."

Richard Le Gallienne

Aubrey Beardsley's Involvement in The Yellow Book

The artist provided much of the content which provided The Yellow Book with its reputation for controversy. He worked alongside publisher John Lane on a number of projects and the latter often found himself attempting to rein in some of the illustrator's excessive whims. At the same time, though, he also loved and respected the innovation that Aubrey brought to the publication and so tried to strike a balance between unleashing his potential, whilst also avoiding turning the publication into something that the majority would just find too much to bear. The two worked together on other projects as well, including a printed portfolio of the artist's illustrations for Salome. Beardsley would ultimately lie behind the reputation built up by The Yellow Book, even though so many other notable artists and writers would also contribute to it during its run from 1894 to 1897. Lane wanted the publication to be suitable for all ages and so would have to check his colleagues work of any subtle messages that might be hidden within his illustrations.

Beardsley had a playful character and in one edition he would enter drawings under alternative names, and adopted different styles for them. This was an attempt to show how he could work in other ways, but simply chose not to. As he anticipated, these other drawings were well received, with the critics unaware that Beardsley himself had created them. The artist was also connected to Oscar Wilde, himself a controversial character, and eventually the criticism would force Beardsley to be removed from this project and later editions showed no signs of his involvement whatsoever. Sensitivities at the time were particularly conservative, and these attitudes would inevitably come up against the creative wishes of artists of the period. Even something as simple as the choice of yellow for the publication brought anger from some quarters, because of its connection to books of the same colour in France, and what that tended to represent at the time. The history of art is filled with examples similar to this where relatively contemporary artists come into conflict with more conservatively minded individuals or groups, and often these critics can be within the art industry itself.

Aubrey Beardsley and his friend Henry Harland first initiated this project, and held broadly similar ambitions for the publication. They wanted something that could provide relatively avant-garde ideas and immediately set about finding a publisher to work with. Beardsley became the art editor, Henry Harland was appointed literary editor and they called upon the services of John Lane who was a knowledgeable publisher who agreed to work withi them. James McNeill Whistler was also involved at this stage and the publication had the feel of a community project, in which artistic colleagues could each contribute their own ideas in a free and relaxed environment. The publisher's tastes were not quite as contemporary as their own, though, and so there became a constant battle over how the artist's intentions would translate into each published edition. These relationships could well have survived perfectly well were it not for the considerable pressure which came from external sources once the magazine was launched. Eventually Beardsley was sidelined, though only after he had already contributed some impressive illustrations which make up some of the highlights of his career.

Beardsley designed the front cover for the very first edition of The Yellow Book, a copy of which can be found today within the permanent collection of the Tate in the UK. This artwork drew criticism immediately, and this level of backlash continued throughout the publication's lifetime until Beardsley was eventually removed. The intention was to create something which drew on the exciting artistic innovations being found in France at the time, but then adding a British twist from their London base. Beardsley himself, originally from Brighton, had lived in Paris and taken many of these influences into his illustration style. He also counted many artists amongst his closest friends and would spend time in their company, exchanging ideas and socialising on a daily basis. This magazine then came out of those discussions and plenty of people were interested in contributing to it, both visual artists and also writers too. Sadly, one of the key men behind the project would eventually be deemed to controversial and so Beardsley was forced out over time, though his contributions to it still live on today, with many copies of the book still available.