Introduction to the Yellow Nineties

In April 1894 a young bookseller’s clerk, John Lewis May, assisted the manager of The Bodley Head in arranging the shop window. As he later recalled: “I filled the window of the little shop in Vigo Street—the original Bodley Head—with Yellow Books, and nothing but Yellow Books, creating such a mighty glow of yellow at the far end of Vigo Street that one might have been forgiven for imagining for a moment that some awful portent had happened, and that the sun had risen in the West” (74). The “mighty glow of yellow” emanating from this unnatural dawn continued long past the launch of the avant-garde magazine of art and literature, and indeed long past its final issue three years later in April 1897. In 1913, Holbrook Jackson, describing the impact of The Yellow Book, explained: “It was newness in excelsis: novelty naked and unashamed. People were puzzled and shocked and delighted, and yellow became the colour of the hour, the symbol of the time-spirit. It was associated with all that was bizarre and queer in art and life, with all that was outrageously modern” (46). A more recent commentator on the 1890s, Simon Houfe, echoes Jackson’s judgment, declaring that The Yellow Book and the 1890s are synonymous, the periodical functioning as “both a microcosm of the fin de siècle and an important trend-setter” (83).

An avant-garde magazine innovative in both form and content, The Yellow Book was the defining document of the decade it coloured as “the yellow nineties” (Jackson 32), and remains central to the study of fin-de-siècle art, literature, and society. The Yellow Nineties Online places The Yellow Book in the context of related fin-de-siècle aesthetic periodicals and the transatlantic reviewing mechanisms they generated. The site gives immediate open access to historical documents, while preserving, in a regularly updated virtual form, periodicals in danger of disintegration due to their crumbling, pulp-based and chemical-bleached paper. Most importantly, The Yellow Nineties Online opens the pages of The Yellow Book and related periodicals to new forms of reading and analysis by bringing the visualization technologies of our digital age to bear on the material objects of fin-de-siècle print culture.

From the turn of the twentieth century to the present day, it has been almost impossible to write about the period’s major figures, art, print technology, design innovations, or gender politics, without reference to The Yellow Book . Even studies of Oscar Wilde, who never published in The Yellow Book, inevitably discuss the writer in relation to its editorial practices and public reception. To date, other than useful content overviews, studies of The Yellow Book have generally focused on a key figure such as art editor Aubrey Beardsley , or on a single topical issue such as women’s writing or decadence. Much existing scholarship, however, recycles the same (sometimes erroneous) anecdotes about the magazine and refers to a limited handful of images and texts, usually taken from the first four volumes of The Yellow Book produced during Beardsley’s art editorship. While scholars such as Linda K. Hughes and Margaret Stetz have made concerted efforts to expand the scholarly community's awareness of later volumes and less famous contributors, issues of access to the periodical itself and the lack of a cohesive centre for aggregating scholarly commentary on The Yellow Book have curtailed efforts to engage fully with the complex interweavings of the people, texts, and technologies that define the yellow nineties.

The end of the nineteenth century and early years of the twentieth century have often been conceptualized as a period of transition between the Victorians and the moderns. Redefining persons and practices as “new”—New Women, New Journalism, new literature, neo-paganism, art nouveau—was the purview of print culture, and “print is, of course,” as Laurel Brake observes, “ always in transition” (xiv). One of Brake’s most influential insights is that serial and book publication were interdependent in the second half of the nineteenth century. Tellingly, the example she cites to support her claim is The Yellow Book, a magazine whose quarterly issues appeared in the form of a bound book and whose serial production was designed to promote The Bodley Head and its coterie of writers and book artists.

The advertising supplement at the back of each issue was dedicated to London publishers, with pride of place given to the Bodley Head’s List of Belles Lettres, including the printed Tables of Contents of previous Yellow Book volumes. Like all Belles Lettres from this publishing house, The Yellow Book was distinctive in design and typography as well as in contents. A significant instance of the interdependent connection between The Bodley Head’s Keynote series—titled after George Egerton’s short story collection of the same name—and Volume 1 of The Yellow Book emerges from its critically important paratextual materials of advertisements, format, and design. Published in December 1893, Egerton’s Keynotes appeared in pink wrappers embellished with a Beardsley design in dark blue. A daring and innovative study of sexuality and gender politics, Keynotes was an immediate success. John Lane recognized the role that material format played in its positive reception, and created a series branded by both the author’s title and the artist’s design. Four months after Keynotes appeared, the Bodley Head launched The Yellow Book, with its unique format and decadent Beardsley illustrations, and with a contributors’ list that included George Egerton and others associated with the publishing house of John Lane and Elkin Mathews.

If this kind of commoditization and image-branding was characteristic of the period’s competitive publishing industry as it sought new, and increasingly international, readerships, so too was the renewed interest in the quality of production. The 1890s ushered in a fine-printing revival invested in the materiality of the book as object. Charles Ricketts at the Vale Press, William Morris at the Kelmscott Press, and Lucien Pissarro at the Eragny Press produced the fin-de-siècle version of The Book Beautiful whose lineage reaches back through Dante Gabriel Rossetti to William Blake. Like Blake, these book artists were also writers and publishers of limited editions for relatively small coterie markets. However, the 1890s also witnessed the publication of beautifully designed editions for a large commercial market, and here the tradition lies more immediately with Rossetti.

Book artists for trade publishers such as Macmillan, Kegan Paul, and The Bodley Head designed books whose unique formats expressed their literary contents. Laurence Housman, who was also a controversial Yellow Book contributor, designed books for each of these publishers, including what may well be the period’s most beautiful edition: Macmillan’s 1893 version of Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market in its slim “saddle-book” format. Charles Ricketts, who is often credited with introducing this influential shape into the book world with his design for the Bodley Head’s edition of John Gray’s Silverpoints (also in 1893), was one of the period’s most brilliant designers. Ricketts’s commercial work for the Bodley Head included his successful redesign of Oscar Wilde’s Poems (1892) and his innovative experiment in two-colour printing for Wilde’s The Sphinx (1894). Aubrey Beardsley’s association with the Bodley Head extends beyond his art editorship of The Yellow Book and his designs for the Keynotes series to include his infamous illustrations for the English publication of Wilde’s Salome (1894), among other titles.

Notably, Beardsley and Ricketts each co-founded magazines of art and literature characterized by their beauty and brevity: The Yellow Book (1894-1897) and The Savoy (1896) by the former, and The Dial (1889-1897) by the latter. Housman attempted, but failed, to convince John Lane to sponsor a periodical publication under his editorship, to be called “The Caprice, a motley magazine of anonymous writings,” and issued in twelve numbers bound up into a complete volume at the end of the year (Laurence Housman to John Lane, Dec. 12, 1896). This innovative proposal came in late 1896, when literary editor Henry Harland and The Yellow Book staff (no longer under the art editorship of Beardsley) were preparing what were to be the magazine’s final two volumes, and Beardsley and Arthur Symons were getting out the last issue of their rival magazine, The Savoy. Ricketts’s The Dial appeared in 1889 and thereafter at irregular intervals until 1897. On seeing the first number, Oscar Wilde is reputed to have urged Ricketts not to bring out a second: “all perfect things should be unique” (qtd. in Nelson 304). In fact this first issue was unique, but Ricketts initiated a new series of four volumes in the 1890s. Inspired by The Century Guild Hobby Horse (1884-1894), which must be viewed as the first of the fin de siècle’s aesthetic periodicals, The Dial was distinguished by its use of Vale Press type and heavy paper, experimentation with offset reproduction, the artistic work of Charles H. Shannon (Rickett’s personal partner and the journal’s co-founder), Reginald Savage, and Lucien Pissarro, and the poetry of John Gray and T. Sturge Moore (Nelson 303-4). Like The Yellow Book, the Hobby Horse and The Dial were also associated with the Bodley Head, which published the last two years of the former’s print run and advertised and distributed the first two numbers of the latter’s second series (Nelson 304).

If Blake and Rossetti define the artistic lineage of the expressive book design of the 1890s, The Germ (1850)—the Pre-Raphaelite magazine devoted to art and literature—constitutes the founding document for the flowering of the period’s aesthetic magazines. Like The Germ, the aesthetic magazines that characterize the yellow nineties tend to be of short duration but significant artistic impact; to provide a publishing organ for new literary and artistic ideas, styles, and forms; and to be headed by idealistic, but not necessarily businesslike, artists. Unlike The Germ, however, these periodicals were generally commercial ventures published, advertised, and marketed by enterprising publishers such as John Lane ( The Yellow Book ), Leonard Smithers ( The Savoy), and Patrick Geddes ( The Evergreen). Reviewers recognized the family resemblance even when magazines were published in Edinburgh rather than London. The Bookman, for instance, reviewed Volume 5 of The Yellow Book together with the first issue of the Scottish Evergreen, declaring “It is impossible to keep from grouping these two ‘seasonals’ together, and yet green is not nearly so unlike yellow as these northern and southern cousins are unlike each other” (“The Yellow Book [and] The Evergreen: A Northern Seasonal, 1895”). The reviewer went on to link The Yellow Book—and its colour—with decadence and the avant-garde, while connecting The Evergreen—and its colour—with wholesomeness and dullness. The Evergreen is also associated with the Celtic Revival and “a purer, more spiritual literature” (ibid.). Notably, William Sharp’s earlier Pagan Review (1892), which saw only one number, combined decadence with Celtic spirituality in an innovative expression of what he named “the new paganism” (2).

As an innovative periodical of art, literature, and design, The Yellow Book inspired one of America’s most creative book artists, Gelett Burgess, to produce Le Petit Journal des Refusées in San Francisco in 1896. Described by Johanna Drucker as a “unique work of art that presents itself as a periodical publication,” Le Petit Journal “is an unusual shape, printed on wall-paper, hand-drawn throughout, with striking graphic borders and typesetting that would not be found in a conventional journal” (140). If it offers, as Drucker insists, “a highly self-conscious insight into the workings of the world of which it is a part,” this too might be said of the innovative magazine that spawned it: The Yellow Book. For both of these fin-de-siècle productions—one in cosmopolitan London, the other in west-coast United States—“that world is absolutely modern—networked, with publicity machines and transatlantic culture industries of literary, lifestyle, and artistic publication working at full tilt and in active exchange with each other” (148).

On both sides of the Atlantic, The Yellow Book became the defining object for all that characterized the yellow nineties—from Aestheticism and Decadence to the rise of the “little magazine” to new notions of gender and sexuality. Its highly self-conscious expression of the more avant-garde aspects of the age were deliberately tempered by practical considerations of design, marketing, and audience—considerations not unlike those we have had to take into account in building our own serially published and collaboratively produced digital site. In this respect, we have taken our cue from publisher John Lane himself. In the year he and Elkin Mathews launched the periodical that was to define the decade, Lane declared himself uncertain whether “the writing of a great book or the capacity to appreciate it were the finest thing in the world,” but was confident that “next in importance” is “the publishing of it” (iii-iv). Inspired by The Yellow Book we too recognize the act of publishing as one of the finest aspects of our relationships with texts. As editors of The Yellow Nineties Online we have turned to digital technology in an homage to the innovative publishing spirit of the 1890s, making the period’s remediated aesthetic periodicals available to students, scholars, and readers around the world.

© 2012 Lorraine Janzen Kooistra and Dennis Denisoff

Works Cited


 MLA citation:
 Kooistra, Lorraine Janzen and Dennis Denisoff. "Introduction to the Yellow Nineties." The Yellow Nineties Online . Ed. Dennis Denisoff and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra. Ryerson University, 2012. Web. [Date of access].