Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Height of 1890's Decadence: Aubrey Beardsley, The Yellow Book, and the Fall of Oscar Wilde

Since I've had my nose in these gorgeous little collections for the past week or two [trying to properly balance my blogging with my library research...not easy], I thought I would share a bit about what I have been researching for my dissertation. I fell in love with the Yellow Book series a few years back when I learned it was the publication that brought artist Aubrey Beardsley much of his fame, as well as his controversial reputation. I am probably annoyingly transparent about my obsession with Beardsley, and the Yellow Book is like art-crack to me. And to add to the attraction, many of the writers featured in the Yellow Book have become some of my favorites: George Egerton, Henry James, George Gissing, Max Beerbohm, Charlotte Mew, Arthur Symons, and W.B. Yeats, to name a few.

Here is a bit about The infamous Yellow Book -- considered to be representative of the height of 1890's decadence in art and literature [all images are by Beardsley]:

According to Stanley Weintraub, "The color 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 decor of the notorious and dandified pre-Victorian Regency, but also of the allegedly wicked and decadent French novel" (Weintraub, 99).

The Victorian Web notes, "The first volume, published by the Bodley Head on 16 April 1894, was highly anticipated, and went through three printings to satisfy demand. The critics, however, vilified both the text and the artwork, especially Beardsley's. More biting than the straightforward criticism, though, were the parodies of Beardsley's work and the magazine in Punch, a British political/social comic weekly.

To put the critics in their place, Beardsley published in Volume III two drawings by him in differing styles under the names Phillip Brouqhton and Albert Foschter. The Saturday Review exemplified the general reaction by finding Beardsley's work "as freakish as ever," but found Broughton's "a drawing of merit," and Foschter's "a clever study." Once he had fooled enough critics, Beardsley admitted the hoax.

The Yellow Book was successful, despite the critics, until Oscar Wilde's arrest in April 1895. When Wilde (who openly despised the publication) was arrested, he was seen clutching a book with a yellow cover. It was assumed to be The Yellow Book, or at least was reported as such in the newspapers. Contributors such as William Watson demanded that Beardsley be fired as art editor because of his association with Wilde (he had illustrated Wilde's Salome the year before) and the Bodley Head's premises were set upon by a mob who broke every window. Under pressure, Lane sacked Beardsley and removed all traces of the artist -- but the back cover and the spine, which were overlooked -- from Volume V, then in the final stages of production.

Wilde was actually carrying a French novel with a yellow cover when he was arrested; but no doubt he was satisfied with the difficulties he caused to the magazine that denied him. The Yellow Book continued publication until 1897, its pages open to a wide vareity of writers and artists, particularly women and relative newcomers such as Arnold Bennett, Charlotte Mew, Maurice Baring, who would make their reputations in the coming decades. "

If you're interested further in the Yellow Book, many large universities and libraries carry copies in their archives. I also recently ran across a few copies on Ebay [which are going on my wish list!]


Awkward Author's Annotated Guide to Life said...

Fabulous post! I learned so much; I, too, am a Beardsley fan. Excellent! Thanks!!!

Sam said...

Oh Tara! This is too lovely for words! One of my top ten faves: Mr. Beardsley! I was planning to do a post on him but I think you did it so much more elegantly than I could ever come close to!

Sepulture said...

hello, my dear one! actually, it's my first post. of course you do know how your blog is marvellous etc. but after this post i've felt an urge to comment!
right at this moment i'm writing my paper work about aubrey beardsley in art noveau times. something we have in common:D
actually, i thought maybe you did notice that after beardsley's resurrection in 1960s there was a huge boom: cecil beaton dressed and designed the ascot scene in my fair lady in black and white, luchino visconti did a production of la traviata in beardsley manner,even hitchcock admitted that he felt influence on beardsley's illustrations for poe works.

so, maybe next time you'd recommend to your readers to watch my fair lady ;)

have a good day!

Mary-Laure said...

As usual, your post is dazzling. I adore Beardsley too, his very personal universe.
Where did you find these volumes - at a library? I'd love to leaf through some of them.

{Tara} said...

Andy -- Thanks so very much; glad you enjoyed!!

Sam -- You should definitely still do a post on him; there is so much more to say!!

Sepulture -- I haven't seen that film in ages, I need to watch it again! I agree that Beardsley was quite influential and made a comeback in the 60's, particularly with psychedelic art styles.

Mary-Laure -- Thanks dear! Yes, they are in the archives at my library here at the university of tulsa, but many libraries keep copies, as well.