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Aubrey Beardsley – Never Judge a Book by its (Yellow) Cover

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On 5 April 1895, writer Oscar Wilde was arrested, charged with gross indecency. The ripple effect was felt by many, including Brighton-born artist Aubrey Beardsley

The Yellow Book, Volume II, 1894

Beardsley was born in 1872 to an upper middle class family, although his father had lost his inheritance shortly after marriage. Aubrey and his sister Mabel grew up well aware of the need to work for a living. At the age of seven he was diagnosed with tuberculosis and consequently faced a rather uncertain future. In spite of this, he managed to develop his artistic talent enough to break free from his position as a London insurance clerk and become a full time professional artist at the age of twenty. His career spanned a mere six years and yet his highly original work made a significant contribution to the history of art.

Filled with an urgency to make his name, Beardsley took on various commissions which proved successful in bringing him to the attention of the wider public. However, it soon became clear that Beardsley was not just following in the footsteps of other artists he admired, but was forging a path in a style of his own. He was inspired by a variety of influences and gained a reputation for being part of the Decadent movement. Despite his success, many people felt his art had a distinctly ‘unwholesome’ air about it.

Although Beardsley and Wilde moved in the same social circle, their relationship was somewhat strained, due to rivalry in celebrity status. Beardsley had recently collaborated on a project, his first and only with Wilde. The English edition of Salome, Wilde’s play originally written in French, was published in February 1894. Beardsley had been commissioned by Wilde to produce a series of drawings to illustrate the biblical story. Rather than taking the traditionally supporting role of the illustrator, Beardsley used this opportunity to upstage Wilde, and created pictures which would elevate him to equal status with the author. Daring and sexually suggestive, they incorporated design elements from Japanese art and a number featured caricatures of Wilde himself. The overall nature of the publication ensured that the book was a sensational triumph with the public, even if the critics disapproved. This was just the excitement Beardsley wanted to drum up as he prepared to unveil his next venture.

The Yellow Book was founded in 1894 by Beardsley and his friend Henry Harland. The concept was to produce a new quarterly journal that would feature both art and literature on an equal basis. The difference was that, instead of merely illustrating the text, the art would consist of stand-alone pieces, serving as a showcase for the artists. Harland would take care of the literary side, while Beardsley was appointed as principal artist and art editor.

This was of course the perfect opportunity to showcase himself. The first four volumes of The Yellow Book all bear striking cover pictures by Beardsley, designed to draw attention in both style and moral tone. The colour yellow was also chosen to be provocative. It aimed to imitate the yellow covers of contemporary French novels, considered by many to be ‘risqué’ and therefore entirely unsuitable reading for the British public.

1894 was Beardsley’s peak year. The Yellow Book was launched in April with great success, and sales of the following issues continued well. It was not without critics, and Punch magazine delighted in spoofing Beardsley’s latest offerings. Nonetheless, at least it meant that The Yellow Book was being talked about. The contributors were a mix of established and new names but both Harland and Beardsley insisted on the exclusion of Wilde. 

The fourth issue was published in January 1895 and it looked to be another good year for the controversial journal. The eye-catching covers had raised it to an iconic status, and Beardsley became synonymous with the colour yellow in the public’s mind. Happily, work commenced on the fifth issue, the staff and contributors unaware of what was about to unfold.

Cover design for The Yellow Book, Volume V, 1895. FA100365

All was not well with Oscar Wilde. The Marquess of Queensbury, father of Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas, was on the warpath. He had long disapproved of his son having any kind of friendship with Wilde. By making a public statement regarding Wilde’s perceived sexuality, the Marquess goaded Wilde into initiating a libel suit against him. The trial was held and Queensbury was acquitted when Wilde could not prove the statement to be libellous. Furthermore, this now meant that Wilde found himself as the accused, when the Marquess turned the tables and Wilde was charged under the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, forbidding all sexual acts between men.

On the evening of 5 April, two detectives arrived at the Cadogan Hotel where Wilde was staying and arrested him. Wilde prepared to leave with them and happened to pick up a book to take along. The next morning the news was out, as well as the headline which proclaimed ‘Arrest of Oscar Wilde – Yellow Book under his arm’. It is generally understood that the book he carried was in fact a French novel. However, the British public were more likely to identify it as The Yellow Book and they immediately took the headline at face value.

Angry crowds gathered outside the offices of The Bodley Head, publishers of The Yellow Book, and of Wilde. They threw mud and stones, smashing the windows. On top of this, prominent writers threatened to leave The Bodley Head unless Wilde’s name was removed from the catalogue and Beardsley was dismissed from his post as art editor. Publisher John Lane could not afford to lose them and felt he had no choice but to sack Beardsley.

As a result of Wilde’s simple action, the course of Beardsley’s life was changed forever. He never regained the success he once enjoyed and often struggled financially. He completed some further commissions, with the help of publisher Leonard Smithers. He even set up another journal The Savoy to rival The Yellow Book but was unable to sustain it for more than a year.

Beardsley’s health became poorer as he gradually succumbed to the effects of tuberculosis. He travelled down through France in search of a suitable climate, settling in Menton on the south coast. He barely survived the winter there and on 16 March 1898, Aubrey Beardsley died, aged just 25.

Following his trials, Wilde was found guilty and sentenced to two years’ hard labour. He continued to write in prison and published some works with Smithers after his release in 1897. But he was shunned by society, even needing to adopt an alias. Wilde didn’t survive much longer than Beardsley. He was 46 when he died of cerebral meningitis on 30 November 1900.

And what of the drawing? It was never re-used by John Lane as a cover design, although Beardsley later drew a similar scene as the cover of a catalogue for Smithers. Lane bequeathed it to Brighton Museum and Art Gallery in 1926. It shows a satyr reading to an eager young woman on the bank of a river, an idyllic and tranquil scene. Every picture tells a story, so the saying goes, but often you must look beyond the picture to find the full story…

A copy of The Yellow Book, Volume IV, 1895 and Beardsley’s good conduct medal from Brighton Grammar School

Discover More

  • A copy of The Yellow Book, Volume IV, 1895 and Beardsley’s good conduct medal from Brighton Grammar School are featured in the Queer The Pier display, Brighton Museum.
  • The original drawing ‘Cover Design for The Yellow Book, Volume V 1895’ is currently on loan to Tate Britain for the exhibition Aubrey Beardsley. You can read more about Beardsley in the Tate exhibition guide.

Alexia Lazou, Collections Assistant