Art Book of the Month, June 2016

The Yellow Book

The Yellow Book: An Illustrated Quarterly
London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, Vigo Street
Boston: Copeland & Day
Holdings – chronological 1894-97


On 16 April 1894, John Lane and Charles Elkin Matthews’ Bodley Head in Vigo Street (just behind the Royal Academy) published the first issue of The Yellow Book, the most commercially successful of the many ephemeral arts magazines of the 1890s. It carried a broad spectrum of material, including Henry James’s short story ‘The Death of the Lion’ and poems by Richard le Gallienne ‘Tree Worship’ and Arthur Symons ‘Stella Maris’.  Max Beerbohm contributed ‘A Defence of Cosmetics’ and Arthur Waugh (father of authors Alec and Evelyn) an anti-avant-garde essay ‘Reticence in Literature’. Illustrations included a study of draped female forms by Sir Frederic Leighton, work by William Rothenstein, Laurence Housman and Walter Sickert and three plates by Aubrey Beardsley, who also designed the cover showing a leering plump masked woman, possibly a prostitute.

The daring new publication was greeted with a barrage of critical hostility, unusual even for the Victorian press.  The most notorious review, in the Westminster Gazette, demanded an ‘Act of Parliament to make this kind of thing illegal’, citing in particular Beardsley’s plates with their ‘excesses hitherto undreamt of’. Ironically, this adverse criticism helped make The Yellow Book a succès de scandale.  Despite the rather expensive cover price of five shillings the entire first edition of seven thousand sold out in five days; lending libraries and book clubs had waiting lists.

George the Fourth, by Max Beerbohm in The Yellow Book

George the Fourth, by Max Beerbohm in The Yellow Book

Subsequent issues featured the literary work of Arnold Bennett, Baron Corvo, Ernest Dowson, George Gissing, H G Wells, W B Yeats and John Buchan and illustrations by Charles Conder, Philip Wilson Steer and John Singer Sargent.

Despite the fact that he never wrote for the periodical, during the Oscar Wilde trials, which commenced in April 1895 (while the fifth volume of The Yellow Book was in preparation) it was widely reported that Wilde was carrying a ‘yellow book’ (a French novel, Aphrodite by Pierre Louys, with a yellow cover, not The Yellow Book) when he was arrested. This was to have serious consequences for Lane and for Beardsley.  An angry mob gathered in peaceful Vigo Street and began pelting the offices of the Bodley Head with mud, resulting in some broken windows. Lane, in New York at the time, panicked and withdrew Wilde’s books from his list, but it was too late. Beardsley was popularly regarded as being a close friend of Wilde, even though they had become estranged. On his return, Lane realised that his whole enterprise had been tarnished by association with Wilde, even though the disgraced author had never been asked to contribute to The Yellow Book. Beardsley was sacked and his drawings excluded from the forthcoming issueFollowing Beardsley’s ignominious departure from The Yellow Book, it struggled on until 1897 but, bereft of its decadent aura, became a more conventional literary journal.

A defence of cosmetics by Max Beerbohm, in The Yellow Book

A prospectus was issued in March that contained a list of contributors in order to whet the appetite of the public and entice possible distributors. The cover depicted a lady without a chaperone, a typically confident ‘Beardsley Woman’, looking over the books displayed outside a second hand shop, whose proprietor, a caricature of Elkin Mathews in absurd Pierrot’s garb [,] regards her with a quizzical gaze.  Inside, the prospectus proclaimed that the aim of The Yellow Book was,

“to depart as far as may be from the bad old traditions of periodical literature and to provide an Illustrated Magazine which shall be beautiful as a piece of bookmaking, modern and distinguished in its letter-press and pictures, and withal popular in the better sense of the word”

and concluding that,

“it is expected that THE YELLOW BOOK will prove the most interesting, unusual, and important publication of its kind that has ever been undertaken.”

The journal’s appearance was based on the popular and often ‘naughty’ French novels of the day, with their simple yellow wrappers; it resembled a hardback book more than a magazine and was instantly recognisable.

Study, by Sir Frederic Leighton, in The Yellow Book

Study, by Sir Frederic Leighton, in The Yellow Book

The Bodley Head continued to champion challenging and talented writers.  In June 1894 Dostoyevsky’s The Poor Folk appeared, with an introduction by George Moore.  Unfortunately, the personal and business relationship between Lane and Mathews had deteriorated to such an extent that, in October 1894, the influential partnership was dissolved.  The frequently humiliated Mathews was too staid and retiring to continue working with the thrusting, risk-taking Lane.  Their parting of the ways was, according to Lane at least, “of a perfectly cordial character”, although Mathews was left feeling bitter and rancorous.

The Bodley Head’s new premises were more like a club than a publisher’s office; the ‘teas’ held at G1 from four to six o’clock were famous in their day.  Lane was fond of inviting distinguished and beautiful women to these soirées, so fond indeed that one wit christened him ‘Petticoat Lane’.  Among this company might be found poet, novelist and children’s author Edith Nesbit, Olive Custance (later Lady Alfred Douglas) and, wrapped in furs, Lady Randolph Churchill.  He also entertained the ‘New Woman’ authors he published such as Mary Chavelita Dunne (who wrote as George Egerton), Ella D’Arcy, Evelyn Sharp, Netta Syrett and Gertrude Dix.  In the evenings his gatherings were exclusively masculine and included not only artists and writers, but also connoisseurs of the objets d’art, old china and glass, which Lane collected assiduously.

The Yellow Book at Westminster Reference Library

Each Art Book of the Month is on display for one month in the 1st floor art reading room, where it may be viewed freely (and handled with care). The rest of the time these treasures go back to the art stacks and may be viewed only upon request.

[Antony Clayton]

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