Aubrey Beardsley’s Yellow Book Illustrations


Front cover by Aubrey Beardsley. Woman figure plays piano outdoors.

Aubrey Beardsley was a prominent avant garde illustrator of the late 19th century, working in the style of Art Neauveu. His images in the Yellow Book stand alone on single pages, defending illustration as a worthy art form which could be tantamount to text. The editors of this little magazine claimed art would no longer be “the handmaid of literature,” which I had never consciously considered to be true until studying the Yellow Book and various other 1890s periodicals.

Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley. Female figure stands at a table in full dress.

In my own magazine page layout, the distinct separation between text and image is meant to harken back to Beardsley’s own illustrations and the idea that art would be revalued. Though the text and images both appear on a single page, the kind of text wrapping which is seen in popular periodicals such as

The Strand is forgone in favour of the more distinct “letterpress” and “picture” as seen in the Yellow Book.

What I find to be one of the most interesting features of Beardsley’s work is the way in which he pushes the boundaries of Victorian social codes with his decadent line block illustrations.    Beardsley’s controversial Yellow Book covers sparked debates in the press over the artistic merit and viability of this new quarterly. Reviews for the first issue range from perceiving the cover

Yellow Book cover volume IV by Aubrey Beardsley. Two young males are pictured next to one female figure, in profile. The setting is outdoors.

 as “artistically jaundiced” to viewing it as “bright and smart.” What I think this reveals is the growing influence of the illustrated periodical publication in that it could shape or challenge established values and artistic precedents, as the form weaved itself deeper and deeper into the social fabric of the period.

The intricate use of line, immediate visual impact of heavily contrasted black and white, and visual rendering of often taboo subject matter are, for me, what make these images striking artifacts of modernity and decadence. In order to further emphasize these features, I added strong black boarders around the images on this page to signal a Beardsley-eqsue style.

Also, the images I have chosen depict a range of his works. On the one hand, there are female figures portrayed in settings not typically reserved for their gender in the late Victorian period, or they may even be depicted in full nudity, pressing readers to imagine new possibilities for women. We also see figures that are fully clothed, placed indoors or viewed in profile, robbing them of the opportunity to assert agency through direct gaze. In Beardsley’s work, there seems to be a line between pleasing and obscuring a mass readership which I think is blurred, and there may not be a comfortable resolution.

Illustration by Aubrey Beardsley. Two figures stand in profile, one in dress one in full nudity. Flowered background behind the two figures,

These multiple potential readings are perplexing, and yet at the same time, demonstrate the experimental spirit of the periodical press, the idea of trying something new and being tactfully provocative in a way that elicits passionate response (whether that be pleasure, disgust or something in between). Beardsley’s work forces me to consider the idea that there may not be a need for a binary logic which distinguishes the purely artistic from the purely commercial, and periodical studies can be approached with this in mind.

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                                                                                                                                             Lauren Matera