This essay channeling the Decadents and Aesthetes in London when it was decadently yellow is included in my most recent book The Modern Salonnière. The 34 other essays in the book feature similar literary adventures and essays about traveling with intention.
When London Was Decadently Yellow
I’ve wandered the streets of London for several days, walking for hours from mid-morning into late afternoon to visit the homes and hangouts of some of my favorite British writers and artists from the explosive 1890s. My intent was simple: to pay homage to these decadents who made rebellion the focus of their lives and the foundation of their creative platforms. When fin de siècle London is mentioned, Oscar Wilde most often dominates the conversation, but there were so many others who set London’s literary scene on fire during that remarkable decade for literature and art.
During the plane ride over the Atlantic, I made my way through most of Katherine Lyon Mix’s book A Study in Yellow. In it, she wrote, “It is hard today to realize the impact of the Wilde trial on the London of the nineties.” This is because Wilde’s meltdown on the witness stand, and his subsequent conviction for indecent acts, caused doubt to fall on everyone with whom he had been associated. The names on this list are distinguished: from Aubrey Beardsley and Lionel Johnson to Arthur Symons and Max Beerbohm.
Johnson, who had introduced Wilde to Lord Alfred Douglas, was hit particularly hard, as it was Douglas’s affair with Wilde that resulted in his conviction. Beardsley’s association with Wilde through his drawings for the playwright’s Salomé caused John Lane, the publisher of The Yellow Book, which Beardsley was art directing, to give in to pressure and fire the artist. It was a knee-jerk reaction that Lane later regretted.
My first day of adventuring took me to Pimlico where Beardsley lived when he was beginning his career as an illustrator, artist, and art director. The first time I came across the name of this decadent was while reading The Cantos of Ezra Pound. Relating a conversation W.B. Yeats had with Beardsley, Pound used the phrase “beauty is difficult” as a refrain in a number of stanzas in The Pisan Cantos, quoting Beardsley as saying, “Beauty is difficult, Yeats.” Pound tells us that when Yeats asked Beardsley why he drew horrors, the artist admitted he knew he was dying; that he was aware he had to “make his hit quickly.” To illustrate just how swiftly he would have to succeed, Beardsley had only four years to live when he signed on with The Yellow Book; he would die of tuberculosis at the age of 25.
Beerbohm, who was making his mark as an essayist, parodist, and caricaturist as Beardsley was doing the same as a graphic artist, said Beardsley entered upon his new assignment with The Yellow Book with a kind of desperate courage and with a degree of enthusiasm that only a doomed man would feel. My next stop echoed the ill-fated theme that touched all of the decadents in differing degrees. Strolling past the neat rows of houses lining Tite Street, I stopped in front of the townhouse Wilde, the most cursed of these men, had called home. The neatly arranged residences were bathed in sunlight, the red brick cladding his building and the blue plaque noting it had been his address gleamed brilliantly. I thought about how he had unraveled so much, which, in my mind, was so unnecessary.
But I believe it is seriously important for writers exploring other eras to keep in mind we aren’t suffering through the restrictions of these earlier times, so there’s no way to understand why a young man with so much promise and living in a home that signaled privilege would melt it all down. As I often must when I explore the past, I remind myself of my mantra, “Do not judge prior times by the one in which I live.” Homage paid to Wilde, I reversed my steps and walked toward the Chelsea Embankment in search of a cab, my next stop an important one.
I gave the cabby the address 144 Cromwell Road, and we were on our way. It was my next stop because this is where The Yellow Book was born—a flat occupied by Henry Harland and his wife Aline. The “fearful afternoon,” as Harland describes it, when he and Beardsley came up with the idea to found the quarterly was so dreadful because one of the densest and soupiest of all of London’s yellow fogs had descended upon the city.
It was New Year’s Day 1894 and Harland set the scene: “Aubrey Beardsley and I sat together the whole afternoon before a beautiful, glowing, open coal fire and I assure you we could scarcely see our hands before our faces, with all the candles lighted, for the fog…” They were commiserating that so little of their creative work was being published, Beardsley calling it a public scandal. Harland added, “Then and there we decided to have a magazine of our own.” As the sole editorial staff, they agreed they would publish anyone they desired, including their own work. By the second day of January, they had an appointment with Lane, who agreed to serve as their publisher.
Beardsley came up with the name, which was inspired by the yellow coverings into which controversial French novels were slipped at the time. The pair decided the founding principles of the publication would be that literature and art would be treated independently and given equal status. Beardsley, whose illustrations would grace the covers and illuminate the literature between them, took the roll of art editor and Harland named himself editor-in-chief. Within half an hour of their first meeting with Lane, the trajectory was set and the three were on the phone with Henry James, who would contribute the publication’s first piece of fiction.
“Thus was The Yellow Book conceived in fog and darkness, but brought forth in sweetness, light and joy,” Harland wrote. The publication quickly became one of London’s most avant-garde magazines. From 1894 through 1897, 138 writers and 106 artists, many of them unknown before, had their works published. “Without its encouragement many a novice, ‘commencing author’ in the nineties, might have turned aside to some other profession in which a helping hand was not so necessary,” wrote Mix in A Study in Yellow. She added, “Even the friendships it fostered were valuable, for the way is often tedious to the solitary pilgrim, while companionship helps to strengthen the backbone.” I love this last statement about kinship, as I know how lonely the writing life can be and I have often longed for the types of relationships these creatives treasured.
But in an era when associations could be precarious, these connections could turn dangerously negative. The fifth edition of The Yellow Book was Beardsley’s last, and the dismissal would hit him particularly hard, the stress giving the tuberculosis that had been ravaging his lungs a stronger hold. His mood was bitter as he brooded over the injustice he had suffered and he drank too much, which was dangerous to his health. Harland and Lane produced Volume 6, the first issue after Wilde’s conviction and Beardsley’s dismissal, in completely different territory. It was late to come out because the cover and four plates on the inside that were drawn by Beardsley had to be removed. Only one known copy of the original issue with all of the drawings remains, and in their haste to re-do the volume, Beardsley’s rear cover was missed altogether so his art was included in spite of efforts to squelch it.
During a break for lunch in Sloane Square, I followed Mix’s narrative as she covered the period after Wilde’s imprisonment: “London’s literary and artistic figures who had not vanished to the Continent stepped quietly and carefully. Artists behaved toward their public with anxious deference, essayists leaned heavily upon morality, pointing out the deplorable state of modern literature, and poets were suddenly dazzled by the beauties of nature, the lark and the chaffinch and the hedgerow.”
An anecdote in her book led me to choose Fountain Court as my next stop. I hopped on the tube and exited the train at the Temple stop, following Beardsley’s trail during that painful period. By the time he was let go as art director, he had moved to this part of town, agonized by the struggle to retain his artistic respect. It is from Yeats that we learn just how much, as he was also living at Fountain Court when Beardsley moved in after being forced to sell his home in Pimlico.
Yeats wrote of Beardsley’s unhappiness in his autobiography The Trembling of the Veil, sharing this memory of a morning when Beardsley was just coming home. “Beardsley arrived at Fountain Court a little after breakfast with a young woman…He is a little drunk and his mind has been running upon his dismissal from The Yellow Book, for he puts his hand upon the wall and stares into a mirror. He mutters ‘Yes, yes, I look like a Sodomite,’ which he certainly did not. ‘But no, I am not that,’ and then begins railing.” Mix explains that Beardsley wasn’t merely hurt and angry, he was frightened, as he had seen what could happen to one who lived by an independent code of morals, and his own desire to thumb his nose at public opinion had been severely shaken by Wilde’s conviction and incarceration.
He couldn’t know it then but a break was coming. It wasn’t long before he would be hired by Leonard Smithers, a new publisher on the scene, to art-direct a publication he wanted to produce as competition to The Yellow Book. Beardsley and Smithers were introduced by Arthur Symons, who would be the magazine’s editor. Despite Beardsley’s continued poor health he flung himself into the work. The first issue of the new quarterly, dubbed The Savoy, was published on January 11, 1896. Though its impact was not comparable to that of The Yellow Book, as the latter had been the first to sail into uncharted decadent waters, critics deemed The Savoy more original and less dependent upon established names.
Symons was a more incisive and discriminating editor than Harland, and Beardsley was now at the height of his powers, which made them a remarkable team. Mix notes a drastic change in the artist’s attitude: “Beardsley’s haggard face brightened amazingly. He was full of ideas and promised eagerly to devote himself to drawings for the new quarterly, to be called, at his suggestion, The Savoy, after the famous hotel between the Strand and the Embankment.” My last stop of the day was the tony five-star hotel where the rebels were known to congregate
Wilde was known for taking a table at the Savoy Grill, one of his favorite restaurants, but it was a glass of wine I was after so I decided to make my way to the American Bar where drinks have been served since 1893. This means the decadents determined to turn London into a cosmopolitan city would likely have had a libation at the bar at some point. I ordered my drink and pulled Mix’s book out of my bag to finish the story. I’d reached the point in the narrative where she is comparing The Yellow Book to The Savoy, noting how the former grew stale and humdrum, while the latter had an interesting air and an attractive newness about it.
Though successful once again, Beardsley’s delicate health forced him to retire to Mentone, France, before he could fully hit his stride with the new publication. There he languished on the brink of death for months. “With fingers almost too feeble to hold the pen,” Mix notes, “he wrote the unheeded command to Smithers to destroy his ‘obscene drawings.’” In the letter, postmarked March 7, 1898, he begs, “Dear Friend, I implore you to destroy all copies of Lysistrata and bad drawings.” He then begged that The Savoy publisher to show this request to his friend Jerome Pollitt and ask him to do the same. “By all that is holy all obscene drawings,” he added, signing his name before adding the postscript “In my death agony.”
At least one of his compatriots ignored his pleas. The illustrations he completed for Lysistrata still exist, several of them included in the collection at the Victoria & Albert Museum. I believe this serves as a warning to all writers and artists—if you have written or produced something you don’t want to survive, destroy it yourself. Regardless how close you are to friends, family, publishers and/or cohorts, the desire to preserve whatever you’ve created may be too much for them to resist when you are gone. It’s clear that Beardsley’s friends and associates felt a great affection for him, one that must have contributed to their desire to see as much of his work survive as possible.
Symons wrote three poems in memory of Beardsley that emphasized the artist’s zest for living, even in the midst of his chronic illness and protracted dying. This stanza is an example of his compassion for his friend:
Or this poor inch of pavement,
Where you and I walk without knowing
What life meant, and so what the grave meant,
To him in his coming and going:
It was only life that he wanted!
I had covered untold inches of pavement during my time in London, none of my experiences walking them poor because reading Mix’s exploration and Beardsley’s letters while doing so had brought depth to the experiences. The books also reaffirmed how much courage it must have required to rebel as these young men had. But this literary adventure had also brought up a question that persisted: could it be that, as they were going about their machinations, the decadents didn’t understand how their brand of rebellion was going to bring upon them so much venom? It all started cheerfully. Their M.O. of poking fun at themselves created an early lightheartedness that they believed made them a witty cadre of creatives. But this couldn’t possibly have been understood at the time. Did they overestimate their ability to amuse society with their brash behavior? Or did they underestimate the power that society had to cripple them? With history as testimony, I would say both questions would be answered with a resounding yes.
A Decadently Yellow London © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns.