False Bottom

Here we see an illustration and a photograph of Oscar Wilde in the same pose.

In a recent post I drew attention to the photograph (which is from the collections of the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin), as it has recently taken its place among the list of known Sarony photographs of Oscar Wilde.

The reason for the photograph’s belated addition to the canon is that it does not appear to have been previously published, nor was there any digital example online—so it is true to say that it had never been widely, if at all, circulated.

And yet, its existence should not come as a complete surprise to Wilde scholars. To understand why, we must consider the part played by the corresponding illustration.

License to print

This first New York photographs of Oscar Wilde were taken by Napoleon Sarony in January 1882, and were immediately distributed: Wilde’s manager and agents used them for promotional purposes; sketches were made from them by staff artists working for newspapers and journals; Wilde himself dispersed copies as he toured America, many of which he signed; and he sent some back home to friends and family; plus, of course, they were sold to the curious public much to the profit of both photographer and subject.

The Sarony company continued to produce copies of the photographs over the years from its various studios until eventually the commercial demand for them diminished—initially in step with the lecturer’s waning popularity in America, and then probably ceased permanently upon Wilde’s status as a social pariah following his imprisonment.

After this, and to the misfortune of history, the records of the Sarony studio and the thousands of his glass plate negatives have been presumed to be lost—possibly destroyed in the 1920s following a series of ill-fated business deals in which the Sarony company, inherited by his son Otto, changed branding and ownership.

This lack of first-hand documentation has meant that the latter-day cataloguing of the Wide photographs has been, by necessity, a back-formed project based on the extant prints. The good news is that these prints do contain one clue: all of the original set of photographs were numbered.

The numbers are sometimes handwritten on prints or there is, more often, a small numeral to be found as part of the photograph itself appearing white on prints—meaning they were made in dark ink on the original glass plate negatives.

Times Without Number

A note of caution for fellow inspectors should you wish to look for these enumerations in copies online: if the number is not visible, it has either been cropped out of view, or was never there having been erased over time from the plate negative when it was used to make later prints.

This effect can be seen in the following two examples of the groundbreaking Sarony exposure 18:

An original Sarony 18 produced from the Union Square studio. Note the small numeral to the lower right.

A print of Sarony 18 made later at Sarony’s new studio on Fifth Ave. but without the numeral. This image is also notable for showing more of the exposure than had been previously seen.

So where does the “new” photograph fit into this old numbering?

The original Sarony photographs were numbered 1—28 [see footnote] and because there was no gap in the sequence, the newly added photograph has been given the number 3A as it was clearly taken concurrently with the existing Sarony number 3. The main difference between the two is that in the existing Sarony number 3 Oscar is wearing his fur cap, and in the new 3A he is holding it.

Below is the full print of the newly recognized Sarony 3A.


Sarony 3A is anomaly—and not merely for being unnumbered.

First, it appears to be the only Sarony photograph without an example as a cabinet card—i.e. a framed print with the Sarony mount. Further, there is seemingly no print at all other than the one in the Ransom collection.

And yet, despite its rarity, this picture of Wilde does not come as a complete surprise to those who have studied the milieu of the Sarony images.

This is because there was already a suspicion that such a photograph could exist.

Back To The Drawing

A little over two weeks after the original photographs were taken, an illustration of Oscar appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper—the most popular graphic journal of the day, printed in New York City—the caption to which claimed that it was “From a Photograph by Sarony”.

Here is how the full page illustration looked:

Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, January 21, 1882. The caption to the full page reads: Oscar Wilde, the Apostle of Aestheticism—From a Photograph by Sarony, and Sketches by a Staff Artist.
First Impression

Until the re-emergence of the Sarony 3A, scholars could never be quite sure whether the caption meant that the illustration was from Sarony (in the sense of an artist’s impression of similar poses) or was a direct copy of an actual photograph of this particular pose.

We can now see that the illustration and photograph are identical.

Identical, that is, part from the fact that the illustration shows Wilde full height—indeed previous suspicion about the illustration was that the lower part was problematic.

First, there was a hint: that all the other Sarony photographs of Wilde standing in an outer garment are three-quarter length. But the more telling belief that this imitation of Wilde was not the sincerest form of O’Flahertie—at least to my eye—was that the bottom of the coat did not quite look right—it seemed too skirt-like. Finally, the illustration shows Wilde wearing dress shoes, while in the photographs the only shoes we see are his patent pumps.

So do these feet belong to Oscar or the illustrator? Now that the photograph has emerged it is time we undermined this suspicious substructure. In other words, has the photograph been cropped or does the sketch have a false bottom?

Surprisingly, perhaps, the latter is almost certainly true: that the lower portion of the illustration is an invention of the artist.

And what better way than photographic evidence to disprove the illustration.

For this we can take a look at Wilde’s coat in Sarony number 8, below: as you will see, it does not have a fur border at the hem as depicted in the sketch.

Mounted Sarony number 8 showing the coat without a fur hem.
Proof Positive

There is one more thing we can do. Combining our knowledge of the sketch with the evidence of the photograph we can also attempt to explain its rarity.

First, let us dismiss the idea common to artistic discoveries that Sarony 3A remained unknown because it was an outlier: in this case perhaps a lone, later print made from an unused negative. We know this is not the case because of the contemporaneous illustration (January 1882), so Sarony 3A must have been available at the time it was taken along with all the other photographs.

That being so, why was it not numbered along with all the others?

A clue to this may be in the print. On the border we see the manuscript annotation in blue pencil which attests to its being a Proof—meaning a version for approval before going to press. Its absence from the numbering raises the possibility that this photograph might have remained a proof and was removed from the commercial print-run.

If so, that would explain not only why Sarony 3A has no sequential number, but also why there is apparently no mounted commercial cabinet card. But why, then, would it be used at the time only for the purpose of an illustration in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper?

We can but speculate at this remove, but consider the recipient.

The proprietor of the publication, Mrs Frank Leslie, was a friend to the Wilde family, she helped to bring Wilde to America, promoted him during his tour, featured him in the journal on more than one occasion (e.g. this full page illustration), and she later married Oscar’s brother Willie Wilde.

The implication is that the photograph might have been given exclusively by Wilde to Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper as a personal favor for their use; an exclusivity that would explain everything about its rarity.

And if the Ransom and the Frank Leslie print are one and the same, it might well be the only copy. I wonder if another one exists? I muse wistfully, of course, and cannot prevent you from taking this is a challenge to find another one like it.

© John Cooper, 2020.

Etching Vs Engraving

Throughout this article I have referred to the illustration variously as a sketch or a drawing. While the skill of hand-drawing was required in its production, the illustration is technically an etching.

Here it is worth defining etching and distinguishing it from engraving, both which are raised surface processes on metal which gradually supplanted woodblock cutting as means of creating newsprint graphics prior to the development of halftone techniques.

Engraving is a physical process of incising a design onto a hard, usually flat surface by cutting grooves into it with a steel tool.

Etching is a chemical process. A metal plate (usually copper, zinc or steel) is covered with a waxy ground that is resistant to acid. The artist then scratches off the ground with a pointed etching needle where the lines are to appear in the finished piece, exposing the bare metal. The plate is then washed with or dipped into a bath of acid (or mordant —French for “biting”). The acid “bites” into the metal leaving behind the etched drawing that was skillfully carved into the wax on the plate.

Victorian Web: The Technologies of Nineteenth-Century Illustration.

[1] Numbered 1—28: but there are, in fact, a total of 32 Sarony photographs of Oscar Wilde because, erroneously, there are two different number 9s; the addition of the new Sarony 3A; plus three photographs of Wilde with short hair taken the following year.


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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).

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