False Bottom

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.

Here we see an illustration from Frank Leslie’s newspaper showing Oscar Wilde in a pose reminiscent of those taken by Napoleon Sarony.

Scholars were never quite sure whether the caption to this sketch which says “From a Photograph by Sarony” 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.

One view favored was the former: i.e. that the whole illustration was an invention. One reason for this (apart from the fact that no photograph was known to exist) was that the bottom of the coat did not quite look right—it was too skirt-like. And further, the illustration shows Wilde wearing dress shoes, while in the photographs the only shoes we see are Oscar’s patent pumps. Indeed, all of the Sarony photographs of Wilde standing in an outer garment, are three-quarter length.

However, with the re-emergence of Sarony 3A, we now know the latter is the case, and the photograph has taken its place among the list of known Sarony photographs of Oscar Wilde. We can now see that the illustration and photograph are identical.

Identical, that is, apart from that lingering anomaly of the full-length sketch vs. the three-quarter length photograph. The question is: do these feet belong to Oscar or the illustrator? In other words, has the photograph been cropped or does the sketch have a false bottom?

A little more research can clear this up and it is almost certainly true that the lower portion of the illustration is an invention of the artist.

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.

Published by

John Cooper

John Cooper is a independent scholar who has spent 30 years in the study of Oscar Wilde. He is a long-standing member of the Oscar Wilde Society, a founding member of the Oscar Wilde Society of America, and a former manager of the Victorian Society In America. For the last 20 years Cooper has specialised in Wilde’s 1882 lecture tour becoming a consultant on Wilde’s American experience to biographers and the wider media. Cooper lectures on Wilde and has conducted new and unique research into Oscar Wilde visits to New York culminating in a guided walking tour. Online he is a popular blogger and the creator of the noncommercial archive 'Oscar Wilde in America’ which incorporates his work on the Sarony photographs, and a detailed documentary verification of Wilde’s American lecture tour. In 2012 Cooper rediscovered Wilde's essay The Philosophy Of Dress that forms the centerpiece to his book Oscar Wilde On Dress (2013).

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