Sarony 3A

New Sarony Photograph Identified

A rarely seen image of Oscar Wilde has recently been added to the series of photographs taken by Napoleon Sarony on January 5th, 1882.

Its rarity is evidenced by the fact that it does not appear to have been been published in any publicly available print medium to date, nor anywhere else previously online.

However, a proof print of it has lain dormant in the extensive Wilde holdings of the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin—in the James McNeill Whistler collection to be precise—and their copy might be the only extant print.

To see how this photograph re-emerged and how it affects the total count of known Sarony images of Oscar Wilde, let’s start the ball rolling.

The First Set

The photograph came to the notice of the Oscar Wilde Society further to an article I had written about all aspects of the Sarony Photographs for the Society’s academic journal The Wildean, [No. 55 July 2019].

In the article one of the key questions I addressed was the number of images in the first set of Sarony photographs taken in 1882 (i.e. not counting the 3 others taken in 1883). I had noted how the total had long stood at twenty-seven—which was also the number illustrated in that excellent little volume The Wilde Album produced by Oscar Wilde’s grandson Merlin’s Holland.

But in my article I took a stance away from this baseline with the approach that there are, in fact, “not twenty-seven photographs of Wilde from 1882: there are twenty-eight”—pointing out that there are two different photographs bearing the number 9.

Mixed Doubles

Wilde’s poses in the two number 9s are so extremely similar that they could easily be mistaken for each other when not viewed together, but when juxtaposed there is one glaring difference: in one photograph Wilde is holding his book of Poems (1881) and in the other he is not (9A and 9B below).

And any suspicion that one is a doctored version of the other can be dispelled by a close examination of minor details.

The Umpire Strikes back

At this vital point the score of twenty-seven photographs taken by Sarony in 1882 had risen to twenty-eight.

But Merlin Holland knew better. In response to my article, Merlin wrote to reveal that he had viewed the long-lost photograph at the Ransom Center a few years ago and identified it as a Sarony variant—which it certainly is. This is not only corroborated by the details in the picture, but also because a magazine etching of Wilde adopting the identical pose depicted in this photograph had appeared around the time it was taken in 1882. [1]

However, an actual photograph had remained a mystery—and perhaps this was because it was not included in the original run of cabinet cards offered to the public by Sarony. This suspicion is suggested because the Ransom proof print does not have a commercial Sarony mount; and it is unnumbered when clearly it was taken concurrently with the known photo number 3 and there is no gap in the series’ enumeration.

Consequently the photograph will be known as 3A.

View the full photograph
oscarwildeinamerica.org

Double Fault

To be fair, Merlin had long foreseen such a faulty numbers game about the photographs because he had qualified the original count with the caveat that there were “at least” twenty-seven. Cognizant of his own experience that “fate has a nasty habit of contradicting” those who dare to be definitive, and with Sarony 3A in his locker, he returned my approach of twenty-eight with the admirably backhanded riposte that there were now “at least twenty-nine.” Advantage Holland.

Love 30

The tiebreaker now is whether that the fatalistic Wilde card “at least” may yet rally? Point being that Sarony 3A brings the total of known photographs taken in 1882 again to an odd number.

Twenty-nine, pah! Surely thirty would make more sense? If only there were some indication of that.

By a slice of luck the Newport Mercury provided such an indication on January 28, 1882 (the same month the photographs were taken) with this intriguing, but as yet unsubstantiated, news item:


© John Cooper, 2020


[1] More on the magazine etching in the foot fault article False Bottom.

Sarony 3A courtesy of the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin, used with permission.

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John Cooper

John Cooper is a researcher, author, blogger and documentary historian. As a long-standing member of the Oscar Wilde Society in London, a founding member of the Oscar Wilde Society of America, and a former manager of the Victorian Society In America, he has spent 30 years in the study of Oscar Wilde, having lectured on Wilde, and contributing to TV, film, and academic journals including The Wildean and Oscholars. Online he is the designer, author and editor of this noncommercial archive Oscar Wilde in America, blogger, and moderator of the Oscar Wilde Internet discussion groups at Yahoo and Google. For the last 14 years he has specialized in new and unique research into Oscar Wilde in New York, where he conducts guided walking tours based on the visits of Oscar Wilde. In 2012 John rediscovered Oscar Wilde's essay The Philosophy Of Dress that forms the centerpiece to his recent book Oscar Wilde On Dress (2013).

3 thoughts on “Sarony 3A”

  1. Wonderful research here! Successful research into any topic with unknown or hidden materials is a mixture of dogged determination, sometimes luck, and imaginative exploration based on intuitive insights. Of course it also requires intellectual integrity of the highest degree. This contribution to Wilde scholarship exhibits all those qualities

    Like

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