CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — IN 1893, a group of artists and literary figures hatched the idea for a magazine that would eventually become the most notorious and important British magazine of the 1890s.
It was called the ``Yellow Book,'' and it made its debut in April 1894. Over the next three years this hardcover publication would feature the work of writers and artists from many schools and philosophies, shape the genre of the short story, and give women opportunities to speak for and about themselves.
``The Yellow Book: A Centenary Exhibition'' is on display at Harvard University's Houghton Library through April 8. Material for the exhibit comes from Harvard's holdings as well as from five academic institutions and private collectors. It was curated by Margaret Stetz, associate professor of English and Women's Studies at Georgetown University (Washington, D.C.) and Mark Samuels Lasner, a bibliographer.
The exhibit features letters, original drawings, manuscripts, posters, photographs, and other material from many of the authors and artists whose work appeared on its pages, including Henry James, John Singer Sargent, Paul Verlaine, Ada Leverson, and ``George Egerton'' (a woman writer). It tells the fascinating, behind-the-scenes story of how this publication got started and gives a good flavor for the cultural climate of the times.
One aim of this exhibit is to show that the Yellow Book was not for an elite class of English decadents, as some suggest.
The idea for it was born when Henry Harland, a US expatriate in London; Aubrey Beardsley, a young unknown artist; and other members of ``the Saint Marguerite set'' informally discussed the need for a new English periodical. Unlike conventional Victorian periodicals, theirs would feature art as prominently as literature.
The Yellow Book, a quarterly, was actually a book, with yellow and black covers that presented different cover designs by a number of artists.
``It was an alluring and stylish journal, something fresh and different'' at the time, says Roger Stoddard, curator of rare books at the Houghton Library. In the first issue, Harland, who became the literary editor, wrote to readers that he hoped they would appreciate it as being ``beautiful as a piece of bookmaking, modern and distinguished in its letter-press and pictures.''
The publication was a jolt to many members of the middle class, who regarded some of its art and literature as straying beyond what was morally acceptable. Much of the controversy centered around the erotic, sensual drawings by Beardsley, the art editor for the first four issues, as well as certain works of fiction.
After Beardsley was dismissed in April, 1895, the most dramatic change was an opening up of opportunities for women artists and writers. While in the beginning, The Yellow Book featured images of women created by men, it evolved into the only High Art periodical that allowed women to define the concept of ``women'' for themselves. Women artists created four of its five final covers, and two served as subeditors.
The Yellow Book featured not only English authors and artists, but also welcomed the work of Americans, Scandinavians, and the French. People could buy it in newspaper kiosks and railway stalls in England and the US, where it was issued by Boston publisher Copeland and Day.
Though the Yellow Book stopped publication in 1897 after only three years, the exhibit suggests that ``it played a pivotal role in cultural history as much through its concrete editorial practices and production as through its avant-garde image.''