In the Key of Yellow

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My Easter weekend was profitably spent watching True Detective again, a series I enjoyed even more the second time around. For the past year I’ve been pondering off and on the connections the series makes with the suite of weird tales that Robert Chambers published in 1895 as The King in Yellow, and also the relationship between Chambers’ book and the chromatic preoccupations of the 1890s. The influence of Chambers on later writers such as HP Lovecraft is well established; this post traces some of the less obvious connections and correspondences.

1: À Rebours (1884) by JK Huysmans

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It begins, as many things do, with the bible of the Decadence. Neither Huysmans’ novel nor its dissipated central character, Des Esseintes, have much to say about the colour yellow but the first edition came packaged in a yellow wrapper, a common feature of French novels of the period. This detail is significant in light of the following connection.

2: The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde

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The decade that came to be called the Yellow Nineties opened with the publication of Oscar Wilde’s only novel. The influence of À Rebours may be felt most strongly in the chapters where Dorian indulges his senses and a passion for precious stones. Then there’s this famous section describing the unnamed novel that Lord Henry gives him to read:

His eye fell on the yellow book that Lord Henry had sent him. What was it, he wondered. He went towards the little, pearl-coloured octagonal stand that had always looked to him like the work of some strange Egyptian bees that wrought in silver, and taking up the volume, flung himself into an arm-chair and began to turn over the leaves. After a few minutes he became absorbed. It was the strangest book that he had ever read. It seemed to him that in exquisite raiment, and to the delicate sound of flutes, the sins of the world were passing in dumb show before him. Things that he had dimly dreamed of were suddenly made real to him. Things of which he had never dreamed were gradually revealed.

It was a novel without a plot and with only one character, being, indeed, simply a psychological study of a certain young Parisian who spent his life trying to realize in the nineteenth century all the passions and modes of thought that belonged to every century except his own, and to sum up, as it were, in himself the various moods through which the world-spirit had ever passed, loving for their mere artificiality those renunciations that men have unwisely called virtue, as much as those natural rebellions that wise men still call sin. The style in which it was written was that curious jewelled style, vivid and obscure at once, full of argot and of archaisms, of technical expressions and of elaborate paraphrases, that characterizes the work of some of the finest artists of the French school of Symbolistes. There were in it metaphors as monstrous as orchids and as subtle in colour. The life of the senses was described in the terms of mystical philosophy. One hardly knew at times whether one was reading the spiritual ecstasies of some mediaeval saint or the morbid confessions of a modern sinner. It was a poisonous book. The heavy odour of incense seemed to cling about its pages and to trouble the brain. The mere cadence of the sentences, the subtle monotony of their music, so full as it was of complex refrains and movements elaborately repeated, produced in the mind of the lad, as he passed from chapter to chapter, a form of reverie, a malady of dreaming, that made him unconscious of the falling day and creeping shadows.

Two things are connected here that coalesce in Chambers’ stories: the colour yellow, and the idea of “a poisonous book”, compellingly readable and thrilling in its capacity to corrupt. The “repairer of reputations” in Chambers’ story of the same name (the first in the King in Yellow cycle) also happens to be a Mr Wilde. Yellow is still only a detail at this point, but not for long.

Continue reading “In the Key of Yellow”

Ads for The Yellow Book

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More Beardsley ephemera, and more from the recently upgraded NYPL Digital Collections. These US ads for The Yellow Book date from late 1894 to early 1895, a couple of months before Oscar Wilde was arrested and Aubrey Beardsley had to leave the magazine despite having no connection with Wilde’s activities.

What’s most interesting for me about these ads is the small vignettes, two of which I’m sure I haven’t seen before. This suggests that there’s still material in the pages of The Yellow Book which has been overlooked despite the many books which collect Beardsley’s art. The Internet Archive has several volumes of the magazine but I’ve been daunted in the past by its thousands of pages of not-so-interesting Victorian prose. (The Savoy was the superior publication where quality of writing was concerned.) Maybe it’s time to take a deep breath and dive in.

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Previously on { feuilleton }
Beardsley and His Work
Further echoes of Aubrey
A Wilde Night
Echoes of Aubrey
After Beardsley by Chris James
Illustrating Poe #1: Aubrey Beardsley
Beardsley’s Rape of the Lock
The Savoy magazine
Beardsley at the V&A
Merely fanciful or grotesque
Aubrey Beardsley’s musical afterlife
Aubrey by John Selwyn Gilbert
“Weirdsley Daubery”: Beardsley and Punch
Alla Nazimova’s Salomé

A Wilde Night

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A couple more pieces from yesterday’s Posters in Miniature. The drawing above is entitled A Wilde Night and credited to Claude Fayette Bragdon (1866–1946) whose design work has appeared here before. Bragdon was an acquaintance of Will Bradley’s, and like Bradley was a man of many talents being variously employed as an architect, writer and stage designer. Bragdon and Bradley both worked together on The Chap-Book, Herbert Stone’s Chicago periodical which commenced publication in 1894, the same year as The Yellow Book, a magazine whose style and light-hearted content Stone and co. seemed keen to emulate. Bragdon’s small drawings for The Chap-Book are less Beardsley-like than Bradley’s designs which is why this very overt homage appears as a surprise.

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Bragdon’s picture is undated but the female figure is taken from Beardsley’s cover for the first issue of The Yellow Book which would place it in around 1894; the satyr-like male is an odd blend of bits of Beardsley’s male and female figures. Aubrey, however, would never have drawn bats like Bragdon’s, or a sleeping policeman…too gauche, my dear. As for the Wildeness, 1894 was only a year away from Oscar’s trial, a time when London was buzzing with scandalous rumours, none of which appear to have reached Chicago.

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Also in Posters in Miniature is this piece by another American, Orlando Giannini (1860–1928), a glass designer and another Chicagoan who worked for a while with Frank Lloyd Wright. This design is dated 1895 and struck me with its radical appearance, so very different from the evolving Art Nouveau styles of the time. Giannini’s work as a glass designer evidently brought a different sensibility to graphic design, one which would have still looked bold and original ten years later.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive
The Oscar Wilde archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Echoes of Aubrey
After Beardsley by Chris James
Illustrating Poe #1: Aubrey Beardsley
Beardsley’s Rape of the Lock
The Savoy magazine
Beardsley at the V&A
Merely fanciful or grotesque
The art of Claude Fayette Bragdon, 1866–1946
Aubrey Beardsley’s musical afterlife
Aubrey by John Selwyn Gilbert
“Weirdsley Daubery”: Beardsley and Punch
Alla Nazimova’s Salomé

The Happy Hypocrite by Max Beerbohm

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The spirit of the 1890s persists in this 1915 edition of a story the splendid Max wrote originally for The Yellow Book in 1896. Originally subtitled “A Fairy Tale for Tired Men”, The Happy Hypocrite is a typically light-hearted affair concerning the misadventures of one Lord George Hell. The setting is the Regency era so beloved of many of the London Decadents, Aubrey Beardsley included, and the rather fine illustrations are by George Sheringham whose style was distinctive enough to avoid any Beardsley pastiche. The copy preserved at the Internet Archive includes a number of full-colour plates but time and the vicissitudes of reproduction haven’t done them any favours, hence the concentration here on the monochrome drawings.

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Continue reading “The Happy Hypocrite by Max Beerbohm”

Illustrating Poe #1: Aubrey Beardsley

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The Black Cat.

Halloween approaches, as if you needed reminding. In honour of that event it’s Poe Week here at {feuilleton}, and we’ll be skating through some favourite depictions of stories and poems by the Boston genius.

Aubrey Beardsley’s four Poe illustrations were commissioned by Herbert S. Stone and Company, Chicago, in 1894 as embellishment for a multi-volume collection of the author’s works. The Black Cat is justifiably the most reproduced of these. The other drawings are fine in themselves but not very successful illustrations of Poe’s tales. Aubrey wasn’t really suited to this kind of horror atmosphere; looking at his ear-ringed orangutan and the spotless furnishings surrounding it you’d never guess the scene of murderous simian frenzy which lies at the heart of the story.

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The Murders in the Rue Morgue.

Herbert Stone’s company had begun publishing The Chap-Book in the same year, a witty American equivalent of British periodicals like The Yellow Book, and Beardsley’s work was featured in the early issues. Looking through some of these at the Internet Archive I was surprised to see the following illustration in a short appraisal of Beardsley’s art. If this is by the artist, as the credit implies, it’s a drawing I haven’t seen in any books of his work. If anyone can confirm this is a genuine Aubrey then please leave a comment. The other Poe illustrations follow.

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From The Chap-Book, May 15th, 1894.
Continue reading “Illustrating Poe #1: Aubrey Beardsley”