Tag Archives: Oscar Wilde

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]


“Life is infinitely stranger…” – Irregular Observations

Arthur and George, by Julian Barnes“Life is infinitely stranger than anything which the mind of man could invent”
That was what Sherlock Holmes said to Dr. Watson in “A Case of Identity”.  The line between fact and fiction can become a little blurred at times, a phenomenon that has been dubbed “faction”. It can leave you wondering where one ends and the other starts.

A good example is the novel Arthur and George by Julian Barnes, adapted for television with Martin Clunes as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself.  Basing his novel on the true story of George Edalji, which was indeed investigated by Conan Doyle, Barnes produced a readable and very approachable account of the shameful treatment of an innocent man by police who were either incompetent, prejudiced or frankly corrupt.

Outrage, by Roger OldfieldTurning fact into fiction, especially for television, usually entails adding some extra excitement and drama – sinister outlines of cloaked figures, a good chase or two, that sort of thing.  If you want to read an account less tinged with romanticism, as Holmes would have said, try Outrage: The Edalji five and the shadow of Sherlock Holmes by Roger Oldfield.

Then there are other elements to the drama that might pique your interest. What about Conan Doyle’s own Watson figure – Woodie?  His secretary was indeed Major Alfred Wood, whose handwriting is thought to appear at one point in the manuscript of The Dying Detective.  Interestingly, he is played by Charles Edwards, who himself played the young Arthur Conan Doyle to Ian Richardson’s Joseph Bell in Murder Rooms, dramatizations and novels by David Pirie.

Conan Doyle by Andrew LycettThen there is the interesting Miss Jean Leckie, who did indeed become his second wife. Conan Doyle’s sister was married to E W Hornung, creator of Raffles, and they did fall out over Miss Leckie.

You can read all about this in the Conan Doyle biographies – try those by Andrew Lycett or Georgina Doyle.

George Edalji was not an isolated case.  The biographies will tell of other cases investigated by Conan Doyle, including that of another outsider falsely accused, this time of murder – Oscar Slater.  You can get a more detailed account of that from Oscar Slater: the great suspect by Peter Hunt or Thomas Toughill’s Oscar Slater. If true crime is your interest, Peter Costello’s The Real World of Sherlock Holmes gives an overview of many cases which interested Conan Doyle, including those of Jack the Ripper and Dr Crippen. Conan Doyle and the Crimes Club: the creator of Sherlock Holmes and his criminological friends by Stephen Wade discusses his involvement with The Crimes Club, a group of gentlemen who formed the club to share their interest in criminology.

Conan Doyle and the Crimes Club, by Stephen Wade  Oscar Wilde murder mysteries by Gyles Brandreth  Winter at Death's Hotel by Kenneth Cameron

So much for fact.  If you fancy something a little lighter, Sir Arthur appears as a character in a number of novels other than those of Pirie mentioned above. Gyles Brandreth makes Oscar Wilde his detective, with Conan Doyle appearing as a semi-Watson figure in his series of Victorian murder mysteries, while Winter at Death’s Hotel by Kenneth M Cameron has his first wife Louisa as the detective. Finally, there are a number of novelizations of real crimes where Sherlock Holmes investigates – try Sherlock Holmes versus Jack the Ripper by Ellery Queen.


Irregular Observations is an occasional series of musings from the Sherlock Holmes Collection in Westminster Libraries.  The Collection started life in 1951 and is now one of the most comprehensive in the world. If you enjoy Sherlock Holmes and want to learn more, have a look at our website or get in touch.

The Green Carnation

Far from the tree, by Andrew SolomonAmongst the wealth of famous book prizes (Man Booker, Costa etc) which receive mass media publicity, one announced toward the end of the year that is relatively unknown is the Green Carnation Prize, awarded for LGBT (lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender) literature.

First awarded in 2010 as an award for a work of fiction or memoirs by gay men, it now celebrates the best fiction and memoirs by LGBT writers worldwide.

The name of the award is derived from the green carnation historically sometimes worn as an emblem of homosexuality and is a tribute to Oscar Wilde who often carried one on his lapel. It was also the title of a book by Robert Hichens originally published anonymously in 1894 which based its main characters on Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas. The book was cited in the successful prosecution of Oscar Wilde for Gross Indecency for which he was sentenced to two years hard labour.

Paperboy by Christopher FowlerThe first winner of the prize (in 2010) was Christopher Fowler with Paperboy. The winner for 2013 was announced in November and is Far from the tree: a dozen kinds of love by Andrew Solomon.

Chair of the judges for 2013, Uli Lenart of Gays the Word bookshop, described the book as

“A work of extraordinary humanity. Life affirming, insightful and profoundly moving. Andrew Solomon continuously makes you reassess what you think. An opus of diversity, resilience and acceptance; Far From The Tree is a book that has the power to make the World a better place.”

A number of copies of Andrew Solomon’s book can be found in Westminster Libraries. Details of previous winners and 2013’s shortlist can be found on the Green Carnation Prize website.