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Grolier Club Exhibitions

Art Editor of The Yellow Book

Joseph Pennell. Autograph letter to Henry Harland, 16 April [1893].

Joseph Pennell performed two invaluable services: introducing Beardsley’s work to British audiences through his 1893 article for The Studio and, also in 1893, introducing Beardsley himself to Henry Harland (1861–1905) with this note. (Appended to it is the signature of the writer Elizabeth Robins Pennell, Joseph’s wife). Like Pennell, Harland was a transplanted American—a novelist from Brooklyn who fell in love with bohemian Paris and modeled French attitudes (and moral latitude) when in London. This first encounter led to further meetings in Summer 1893 at Ste. Marguerite, near Dieppe, that united Harland, Beardsley, and John Lane of the Bodley Head firm in a new venture. In the following months, they laid plans for a clothbound quarterly magazine that would eschew “illustrations,” treating works of art as independent contributions, not as mere adjuncts to texts. Harland would be The Yellow Book’s literary editor, while Beardsley would oversee the art.

Aubrey Beardsley. The Art Editor of The Yellow Book. Pencil, charcoal, and crayon on paper, [1894].

Beardsley found his own appearance fascinating, although he considered it wanting in beauty. He represented himself on multiple occasions in a variety of styles, each one reflecting a specific aspect of his character. Usually, his preferred medium was pen and ink, but on one occasion in 1894, he used charcoal and crayon—appropriately enough, as this portrait was to be reproduced in the journal The Sketch. The sketch-like quality of the drawing softened his features and dress, giving him, as numerous critics have observed, a distinctly feminine look. This may have been not merely a self-revelatory, but a strategic move, considering that the image was published with the title The Art Editor of the Yellow Book. He created a version of himself that seemed gentle and unthreatening—just the sort of person to whom talented, but timid, young artists would have no hesitation sending their work for possible publication.

Prospectus for The Yellow Book: An Illustrated Quarterly, Volume I, April 1894. London: Elkin Mathews and John Lane, 1894.

Rather than merely cooperating with the Bodley Head’s promotional campaign in advance of the release of the first number of The Yellow Book—a campaign in which the more forceful and business-savvy John Lane played a larger role than Elkin Mathews—Beardsley helped to lead the drive. If his advertising poster for the magazine presented an image of feminine sweetness and passivity, as though reassuring the public that this new quarterly would be closer to the ideals of now-familiar aestheticism than of avant-garde decadence, his cover for the prospectus offered something quite different. Here was an edgy, dynamic scene of a woman—a “New Woman,” presumably, clad all in black—out alone after dark, riffling through volumes on display in front of a bookshop improbably open at night. Beardsley gave free play to his mischievous side, too, making the ridiculous Pierrot bookseller a sour-faced caricature of Elkin Mathews.

Aubrey Beardsley. Poster for The Yellow Book: Contents of Vol. 1, April 1894. London: Elkin Mathews and John Lane, 1894. Color lithograph.

Beardsley did as much as any artist of the 1890s to blur distinctions between the fine and commercial arts. In Britain, at least, he had no rival. For many posters, he created images that were purely decorative, with little reference to the products they ostensibly were advertising. They appealed to spectators through allusion rather than through aggressive, literal marketing. Certainly, that was true of the romanticized, idyllic vision of modern femininity he used to bring attention to the first number of The Yellow Book. Beardsley must have had confidence in this strategy, for his own fate was bound up with the sales of the item he was promoting. Not only was he the new quarterly’s art editor but, as the “Pictures” list showed, he was a major contributor, responsible for four different visual works (a number that did not include front and back covers, decorative spines, and title-pages).

The Yellow Book: An Illustrated Quarterly. Volume I, April 1894. London: Elkin Mathews and John Lane, 1894.

Richard Le Gallienne’s copy.

Against the glare of yellow cloth, was that a bawd, laughing and masked, on the cover of the first number of the Bodley Head’s avant-garde quarterly, for which Beardsley served as art editor? What sinister, sloe-eyed figure was that, with its enormous hat creating a perversely black halo behind her? Reviewing the April 1894 Yellow Book, an anonymous critic for The Times of London decried the “repulsiveness and insolence” of Beardsley’s “New Art” as “a combination of English rowdyism with French lubricity.” Today, we would call his designs for the front and back covers breathtakingly modern and fearless. This copy belonged to the poet Richard Le Gallienne (1866­–1947). A close associate of John Lane, Le Gallienne remained with him after the Bodley Head partnership dissolved in 1894 and even after Lane fired Beardsley from The Yellow Book in a panicked purge following Oscar Wilde’s 1895 prosecution for “gross indecency.”

Aubrey Beardsley. The Slippers of Cinderella. Ink and watercolor over pencil on paper, [1894]. 

Signs of an artistic foot fetish were everywhere in Beardsley’s work. Some of the feet were hooflike and scarcely human; others were impossibly tiny and shod in narrow, pointed shoes. Here, the subject’s right foot floating in undifferentiated black space becomes a focal point, as do her fingers, positioned in a way to suggest female genitalia. Beardsley, who seemed averse to happy endings, intended this as an illustration for a new version of the Cinderella story in which the glass slippers—ground up and fed to the unsuspecting heroine—killed her. What is happy, however, is the artist’s command of color. While Beardsley was a pioneer in deploying black-and-white lines and spaces on paper, he could also use bold reds to great effect. Nonetheless, the feather sticking out of Cinderella’s head, turning her into a giant ink bottle, reminds viewers that his preferred instruments were not brushes, but pens.

Aubrey Beardsley. Portrait of Himself, in The Yellow Book: An Illustrated Quarterly. Volume III, October 1894. London: Elkin Mathews and John Lane, 1894.

Richard Le Gallienne’s copy.

There were many ways to understand Beardsley’s Yellow Book self-portrait and even more ways to interpret the accompanying text. Given the disparity between the enormous bed and Beardsley’s tiny head, he appeared to be presenting himself as childlike. But the bedcurtains made that head seem to peek out from inside a woman’s skirt, while the hiding of hands beneath the covers raised the possibility of some very adult activity occurring there. The words in the upper left corner, which translate as “By the twin gods, not all the monsters are in Africa,” might have been a racist statement supporting xenophobic stereotypes; yet it also could have been a challenge to racist assumptions, suggesting that white English people like Beardsley were, on the contrary, the true “monsters.” Regardless of how viewers approached this image, it offered a vision of “Himself” that was likely to raise questions and possibly provoke outrage.

Edward Tennyson Reed. Britannia à la Beardsley. Ink and watercolor on paper, [1894].

As a humor magazine dedicated to conservative British values, Punch had long attacked Oscar Wilde, J. M. Whistler, and other representatives of the Aesthetic movement. In the 1890s, it deployed its arsenal of ridicule against the decadents. With the arrival of The Yellow Book (1894–1897), it had a prime target and, in the cartoonist E. T. Reed (1860–1933), a master gunner. “Britannia à la Beardsley (By Our ‘Yellow’ Decadent)” appeared in Punch’s Almanack, a yearly supplement, for 1895 (actually issued in December 1894). Reed’s satirical drawing offered standard elements from the iconic Britannia image—the woman warrior with spear and shield and an accompanying British lion—along with additions, such as an English bulldog. All, however, were “Beardsleyized” and rendered effete in ways that referenced the Yellow Book art editor’s characteristic style. Most amusingly, “Mr. Punch,” the magazine’s famous symbol, was feminized and turned into a Beardsleyan dwarf.

[Ada Leverson]. “From the Queer and Yellow Book I.–1894 (By Max Mereboom),” in Punch, or the London Charivari, 5 February 1895.

If Beardsley had an “opposite number” among women contemporaries, it was the novelist Ada Leverson (1862–1933). Like him, she was gifted, mischievous, and incapable of passing up a chance to satirize her contemporaries, even (or especially) her dearest friends. Posterity remembers her extraordinary kindness to Oscar Wilde, whom she sheltered in her house, both when he was in the middle of the trials that led to his conviction and sentence of two years at hard labor and immediately after his release from prison. But before those grim events, she engaged repeatedly in mockery of Wilde and other decadents, as in this Punch parody of Max Beerbohm’s faux-nostalgic way of treating the present as long past. Beardsley was among her good friends, but his art for the Yellow Book and his ungainly, androgynous appearance were butts of vicious jokes in the accompanying visual lampoon by E. T. (Edward Tennyson) Reed.

Mabel Beardsley. Autograph letter to Nellie [Helen] Syrett, 17 February [1895].

Although Beardsley enjoyed spectacular success early, his sister’s quest for theatrical stardom moved slowly. Here, she expresses frustration at being merely an understudy in Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, venting her feelings to Helen, a.k.a. “Nellie,” Syrett (1872–1970). She also mentions her brother’s plans to write a stage work with the playwright Brandon Thomas. (Nothing came of this). Nellie’s sister, Netta Syrett (1865­–1943), and Mabel became friends when both taught at the London Polytechnic School. Netta went on to be a “Keynotes Series” novelist and Yellow Book literary contributor, while Nellie was, like Beardsley, a precociously gifted visual artist. He encouraged Nellie, yet never recruited her for The Yellow Book. Following Beardsley’s dismissal as art editor, however, numerous images by women filled the magazine between 1895 and 1897, when it ceased publication, suggesting his role in excluding them. Indeed, Nellie supplied the cover for the October 1896 issue.

Prospectus for The Yellow Book: An Illustrated Quarterly, Volume V, April 1895. London: John Lane, 1895.

Before the April 1895 Yellow Book appeared, Oscar Wilde’s arrest and prosecution for “gross indecency” blew the top off the Bodley Head. In America during the crisis, John Lane sent frantic communications to his staff. Threatened by homophobic authors demanding a clean sweep of the premises and its publications, he ordered Beardsley to be removed from The Yellow Book, because his contributions as art editor were such magnets for controversy. Henry Harland, the magazine’s literary editor, was appalled, but remained loyal to Lane. Beardsley was stunned and dazed. He was part of Oscar Wilde’s circle, but not of the gay male underworld. Left stranded professionally, he found an unlikely savior: Leonard Smithers (1861–1907), known for selling pornography. Beardsley soon trumpeted his new freedom, taking this image drawn for Lane and adapting it for Smithers’s Catalogue of Rare Books, with the innocent-looking faun transformed into a satyr-like Pan.

Art Editor of The Yellow Book