Art Detective: The Peril of Yellow

The Yellow Book IV, on show at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery.

It’s one of those yarns that has gone down in art history folklore. When Oscar Wilde was arrested for gross indecency, at the Cadogan Hotel in Sloane Street on April 5, 1895, he was carrying a yellow book under his arm.

This spelled the end of Aubrey Beardsley’s career: Beardsley was the art director and prime motivating force behind The Yellow Book, a literary quarterly which bore his decadent illustrations on its cover and within its pages. The illustrator, whose career had been supercharged by his erotic pen-andink drawings for Wilde’s Salome in 1894, had been closely associated with the author. The yellow book was assumed to be The Yellow Book. Beardsley was doomed.

The tome in question was extremely unlikely to be The Yellow Book, though. Wilde had been shunned by Beardsley, his work excluded from the pages of the quarterly: he would hardly have been carrying it around with him, especially towards the end of its shelf life (the edition in question, Volume IV, had been published on January 16). Some versions of the yarn – including Matthew Sturgis’ eponymous 1998 Beardsley biography – have it that the book in question was, in fact, the French novel Aphrodite, by Pierre Louÿs, which was wrapped, like many French novels of that period, in a yellow dust jacket.

Nevertheless, a mob descended upon the Bodley Head Press in Vigo Street, where The Yellow Book was published, and stoned the building. The editor of the quarterly, John Lane, in New York at the time, had little choice but to sack Beardsley, by telegram. Beardsley, recognisably a dandy, if not necessarily a homosexual, was thus crushed by the landslide of homophobia aimed against Wilde. The financial security he had attained from his role in the publication was pulled from beneath his feet.

And yet… and yet. There are some bits of the story which don’t add up. For example: Louÿs’ novel wasn’t published until 1896, which somewhat stymies Sturgis’ argument. And if you check out reports of Wilde’s arrest in the newspapers of the day, you’ll find there is no mention of any book under his arm, yellow or otherwise.

According to the Press Association report in the next day’s papers, Wilde was followed to the Cadogan Hotel by two officers, one of whom, an Inspector Richards, informed him of his arrest, and escorted him directly to Bow Street Police Court. The author was ‘attired in a long black frock coat, dark trousers, and a silk coat’. Surely a yellow book would have been mentioned! And why, anyway, would Wilde have thought to pick up the book during the traumatic process of his arrest for gross indecency? To pass the time in his cell?

One can only assume The Yellow Book under the arm to be either an urban myth, or a Victorian-era case of wildfire wordof-mouth fake news. And, if the latter is the case, that the Bodley Head premises in Vigo Street was attacked because of Oscar Wilde’s association with the publisher (he was also on their books) and not Beardsley’s.

If anyone can find a newspaper report of Wilde carrying a yellow book under his arm at the time of his arrest, we would love to be proved wrong! In the meantime, if you fancy seeing an original copy of Volume IV of The Yellow Book, there’s one currently on display in Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, as well as a temporary show about Aubrey Beardsley’s connections with Brighton, marking the 150th anniversary of his birth. The artist, of course, is forever associated with the city, as it was his birthplace and he resided there for much of his youth.