“How extraordinary! I thought they would care for nothing but your art.” Oscar Wilde
The fame and notoriety of Beardsley was soaring in the summer of 1894. His persistence was frequently requested at all of the grand affairs that were taking place in London. Little known to Beardsley, or anyone else for that matter, the summer of 1894 was to be the pinnacle of his fame. With the arrest of Oscar Wilde in April 1895, Beardsley discovered his life fearfully remade. From the ideal of what Beardsley had amassed his fame, would be also the substance to render his death as a prominent social figure.
Beardsley had begun his professional career as a clerk for a London based Insurance company. Coming from a middle class family it had become Beardsley’s obligation to seek employment to support his family. Two years earlier Beardsley had been diagnosed with Tuberculosis, which would over the following four years both exhaust him and challenge his life many times. Shortly after Beardsley had gained full-time employment as a clerk, his first severe attack of tuberculosis would keep him from work for a full year. While resting from this attack Beardsley began to work on short stories, almost entirely giving up the desire to draw, which had been present with him from his early school days. When he would often do caricatures of his classmates. During his time of rest Beardsley accomplished one publication of a short story. Upon the return of his good health one-year after his first attack of tuberculosis Beardsley returned to work as a clerk with the Insurance company. Beardsley also returned to his drawing, with a letter written to Arthur King “… I don’t think I put pencil to paper for a good year. In vain I tried to crush it out of me, but that drawing faculty would come uppermost. So I submit to the inevitable.” (Beardsley).
Beardsley often romanticized that he would gain both social and fiscal success in his life. The notion to return to drawing was equipped with this purpose, to take him from the monotonous tasks due to the clerk, and render enough income as an artist to support his family well and above their temporal needs. Upon meeting Edward Burne-Jones (a well accomplished artist) who immediately recognized Beardsley talent, enrolled Beardsley into night-classes studying art. These classes lasted for about a year, though within the first six months Beardsley had already begun to display the foundation of what would be known as the Beardsley style.
Beardsley unearthed a magnitude of inspiration from the popular Japanese prints that were circulating around England, due to the opening of trade with Japan after many years of isolation. Beardsley patterned his style after the Japanese prints, with a twist to mutilate the Japanese likeness into a never before seen style. With the concept to gain financially, Beardsley undoubtedly realised the simplex’s ability for reproduction of such a style.
Upon Beardsley’s acquisition with Frederick Evans, the proprietor of a local bookshop, Beardsley soon obtained his first illustrated commission. The undertaking was massive; as Beardsley said in a letter to his old headmaster “There will be 20 full page drawings… about 100 small drawings in the text, nearly 350 initial letters and the cover design.” (Beardsley). Upon this publication Beardsley was quickly rendered with success. Enabling Beardsley to quit his job as a clerk and completely turn his attention to art. It wasn’t long after this that Beardsley was asked to illustrate a soon to be published play by Oscar Wilde ‘Salome”.
With the controversy which surrounded ‘Salome’ Beardsley achieved the fame and notoriety he sought. With the financial reward inevitable. Personally Wilde disliked the drawing claiming “… they were Japanese (in style) whereas his play was ‘Byzantine’” (Reid 19). The critics didn’t receive Beardsley’s efforts with much affection; one review from The Times found them “…grotesque, unintelligible for the most part, and, so far as they are intelligible, repulsive”. Regardless of the reviews Beardsley gained the first firm step to what would be his crowning success.
Salome would mark the end of Beardsley’s early works, as during the creation of these drawings Beardsley was becoming a recognized figure in society. With his newly formed association with Wilde, Beardsley was often seen about London attending opera and theatre openings. Beardsley was often spotted dining at the Café Royal, an elegant establishment “…sprawled on a red plush banquette before a marble table”. Beardsley quickly became part of high society, accompanying fellow artists who considered themselves, intellectuals, and artists. None of them come from ‘high birth or noble lineage’ (Benkovitz). With these new acquisitions Beardsley secured new experiences. The early evidence of this is seen in the drawings of Salome. Beardsley begins to take a more provocative angle in his representations. Knowingly using erotic aspects in his work that would shock. Using this approach so strongly that Beardsley’s publisher had to insist that Beardsley cover the offensive parts of the slave boy in the drawing ‘Enter Herodias’ with a fig leaf. Beardsley was outraged, though complied, adding the fig leaf.
Upon the completion of Salome Beardsley understood his limitations as an artist as long as he remained in the watchful eye of conservative painting houses. Beardsley also understood the limitations to his success as an artist as long as he remained under the shadow of the fame of the writers that he was commissioned to illustrate for. On New Years day 1893 began discussion upon an idea he had for a new publication. What Beardsley related to Lane was absorbed from a concept that had been discussed in the summer of 1893 while Beardsley was attending a gathering at Ste. Marguerite in France. Established at this time in Ste Marguerite, a small alliance of artists would spend their days pursuing with liberty the expression of their artistic minds. Using elements of writing, drawing and painting to express themselves. It was at this summer gathering that the conversation concerning the idea of a publication that would be “made up of fiction, poetry, essays and drawings unrelated to each other” (Benkovitz 91) happened. All the artists involved in the discussion welcomed the idea of such a publication. Though, no direct action was made to bring the idea to reality. Upon New Year’s day Beardsley related this concept to Lane. Lane at this time was pursuing the idea of beginning his own publication. Beardsley reinforced the idea that work would be singular rather than joined. The result of this would bring to Beardsley the standing that his images no longer would be illustrations to text, but rather would be viewed as art with no overshadowing figures. Like Wilde had been within the first edition of “The Studio” when the drawing “The Climax” had served as the cover page. To which illustrations Beardsley’s drawings would always have limitations as to meet with the meaning of the text that he was commissioned to illustrate. Beardsley found in himself a desire to present people, as their reality would have them, rather than by the image of their façade. The type of images that he was referring to was considered to be risqué for the conventional publication of the time. Upon the end of the discussion on New Years day between Beardsley and Lane both men agreed to begin their own publication.
Three days later Beardsley and Lane met for their first meeting. Beardsley had displayed a more than curious interest with the French nation in the short span of his life. When bringing together the idea for the publication with Lane that would reward Beardsley his crowding fame, he drew from the France printing houses the form of their popular novels. France had for some time relished in the simple yellow paper bond books surfacing from the printing houses. Beardsley read mostly only French novels and discovered much of his inspired artistic assembly from them. Beardsley verified to establish in London a publication that would assemble a modern English viewpoint while bestowing a France impression. While furnishing presumptuous elites by titling his publication “The Yellow Book”.
With the publication of The Yellow Book, Beardsley opens an entire new avenue to which the people of England were not used to. In subject matter Beardsley has been compared to Toulouse Lautrec. Beardsley had forsaken the task of illustrating the characters of medievalism and mythology to seize the opportunity to be inspired by the lower characters of society with whom he was well acquainted. The drawings in The Yellow Book were derived from the events that Beardsley perceived from such places as the dance halls, operas, late night cafes and bars. The Yellow Book on a whole remained a conventional publication with the exception of the drawings by Beardsley. With the first edition in the stores and against grave reviews it sold very well. The critics found the book hideous, referring to reviews such as “…we do not think that anything would meet the case except a short Act of Parliament to make this kind of thing illegal”.
It is hard to imagine in this day and age how the cover page could be found offensive. Though, at the time, the caricature of a well actress Miss Patrick Campbell, roaming the dark streets of London alone was enough to imply the elements of Miss Campbell’s character. Such women were known for their domain in the opera, bars, dance halls and cafes. That these characters of Beardsley were referred to as the “corruption of the youth” (Slessor 54).
The success of The Yellow Book is partly due to the efforts and planning of Beardsley and Lane in advertising the book severely prior to its publication. As many periodical publications in Beardsley’s time period came and went quite unnoticed. Beardsley and Lane had already suffixed a set success by maintaining people’s curiosity with the use of poster size copies of the front cover exhibited across bookshop windows. The first edition quickly sold, regardless of intensely unfavorable reviews. The first edition went to print two more times to accommodate its huge success and higher demand than first projected by Beardsley or Lane. The Yellow Book soon had published its second edition, with graver reviews and comparable sales as the first edition. Beardsley’s success quickly migrated to levels he could not have earlier contrived. Upon the publication of the fifth edition Beardsley’s use of bizarre images were beginning to become commonplace. His use of hermaphrodite characters, the virginal bodies of young girls, the well-to-do old ladies escorted by young males, the mixture of dwarfs and lesbian dancers. The repulsive images of sexually aroused fetus-like kinsmen, bathed in sinister illumination. All of these had become commonplace among the readers of The Yellow Book. The book, which was originally inspired by the French novel, would become the removal of Beardsley from high society. Upon the latter part of April Oscar Wilde was arrested for charges of indecency. Beardsley had absolutely no corrections to the charges presented to Wilde; Beardsley was simply a pawn dragged into the swirl of salacious interest surrounding Wilde’s arrest. The morning following Wild’s arrest the headlines read “Arrest of Wilde, Yellow Book under his arm” (Beardsley 25). Ironically, the book that Wilde has was a yellow-bound French novel and not The Yellow Book that Beardsley was associated with. Though, the headlines were enough to have Beardsley removed from his job as art editor for The Yellow Book, and to secure his removal from the society that had welcomed him so snugly less than a year earlier. With this dismissal Beardsley relocated to France for what would be the last three years of his life. Beardsley continued to work as an artist and produced possibly his greatest pieces of work in this time period. Though the public never returned to him the fame that he had gained when his first publication of The Yellow Book hit the streets of London in April 1894.
If Beardsley had chosen any other title to his publication he would have surely been spared this disgrace.
Written by Gary Crossey (2000)