Aubrey Beardsley, Ali Baba, 1897 Cover design for The Forty Thieves.

The Yellow  Book’s first art editor  was Aubrey Beardsley, who was relatively unknown until …

Its first volume was published by the Bodley Head on 16 April 1894 – the illustrated quarterly was highly anticipated and went through three printings to satisfy demand.

The concept for The Yellow Book’s artistic  and literary content was created by Beardsley and Henry Harland,  its literary editor. Both were part of an avante-garde group of writers and artists who criticized and satirized Victorian society.

According to Harland the two met  “in one of the densest and soupiest and yellowest of all London’s infernalest fogs, sat together the whole afternoon … declared to each other that we thought it quite a pity and a shame that London publishers should feel themselves longer under any obligation to refuse any of our good manuscripts…”

"The Peacock Skirt" by Aubrey Beardsley for "Salomé", Oscar Wilde 1907 ed.

The Yellow Book was successful, despite the critics, until Oscar Wilde’s arrest for homosexuality in April 1895. When Wilde was arrested, the newspapers reported he was clutching  a copy of The Yellow Book, even though Wilde  openly despised the publication.

Contributors 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. The Yellow Book continued publication until 1897.

Soon after he was let go from The Yellow Book, Beardsley went to The Savoy – a rival periodical of Leonard Smithers, who was known for publishing pornography and erotica.  Beardsley found in The Savoy an outlet for his writings as well as art. “Under the Hill” (his version of the Tannhauser legend) and “The Ballad of a Barber” both appeared in numbers of The Savoy. When publication ceased in December 1896, Beardsley continued to illustrate other authors’ works for Smithers.

"The Climax", by Aubrey Beardsley for "Salomé", Oscar Wilde 1907 ed.

Among these volumes were editions of Pope’s “The Rape of the Lock,” Ben Jonson’s “Volpone, and The Lysistrata of Aristophanes). Smithers also issued Beardsley’s own A Book of Fifty Drawings, the first collected album of his work.

Beardsley was a public character as well as a private eccentric.  He was meticulous about his attire: dove-grey suits, hats, ties; yellow gloves. He would appear at his publisher’s in a morning coat and patent leather pumps.

Through his entire career, Beardsley had recurrent attacks of the disease that would end it. He suffered frequent lung hemorrhages and was often unable to work or leave his home. He converted to Catholicism in March 1897, and begged Smither’s to destroy his obscene drawings. His publisher  ignored Beardsley’s wishes and actually continued to sell reproductions as well as forgeries of Beardsley’s work.

Aubrey Beardsley died of tuberculosis at the age of 25 on 16 March 1898 in Menton, France.

Aristophanes' Lysistrata, illustrations for a privately printed edition


Despite the brevity of his career, Beardsley’s contribution to the development of the intricately-stylized Art Nouveau style was significant. The Art Nouveau movement broke away from the traditional Academic art of the period.  In criticizing Victorian society, Beardsley’s witty and fantastic style focused on the sexual sphere.  Through his bizarre and symbolic style, Beardsley’s drawings blur gender lines and mock male superiority. They also play on Victorian anxieties about sexual expression and men’s fear of female superiority.

I have one aim—the grotesque. If I am not grotesque I am nothing. — Beardsley

Beardsley was the most controversial artist of the Art Nouveau era, renowned for his dark and perverse images and the grotesque erotica, which were the main themes of his later work. Some of his drawings, inspired by Japanese shunga, featured enormous genitalia. His most famous erotic illustrations were on themes of history and mythology; these include his illustrations for a privately printed edition of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, and his drawings for Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, which eventually premiered in Paris in 1896.



Brown University’s  The Victorian Web: Literature, history and culture in the age of Victoria ~~ British and European Aesthetes, Decadents and Symbolists.

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