One By One


In a recent post I highlighted the difference between an illustration and a photograph of Oscar Wilde in the same pose—the result being that the photograph was the more authentic.

But what happens when there are differences between two versions of the same photograph?

In this case the image is Sarony No. 1—the famous iconic headshot of Wilde. The one on the right is the more familiar, but they do not quite look the same.

Which one is a good egg, and which one is a Wilde goose chase? Let us take a gander.

Cabinet card of Sarony No. 1. Source: Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

This is the famous Sarony No. 1 photograph of Oscar Wilde—presented in a rare example as a cabinet card with the Sarony mount.

Oscar’s iconic bearing has become familiar to Wildeans for his shining face, leonine mane, and heavy fur coat around his shoulder. But is all as it has always seemed?

For one thing, Wilde’s sideburn seems to betray some photographic processing, although this is difficult to demonstrate when comparing it to the other Sarony photographs. One thing we do know—it is the one originally presented version of the photograph from 1882.

Having said that, now what do you make of this?

This is another version of Sarony No. 1 which can be found opposite the title page of Brentano’s reprinting of Wilde’s collection of essays, Intentions, 1905, (absent the tissue paper). [1]

In this version we see to the right that Wilde’s ear, sideburn, and, particularly, his hair, are all different from the familiar image. Which is the original? In its favor, the hair in this picture recalls its characteristic shape seen in the other Sarony photographs, for which I suspect Wilde had his hair waved in preparation for the session. But against it, the hair does look a little unnatural, and the collar of the fur coat appears to have been tidied up.

The most striking difference, however, is in the facial shading which gives the impression of its being a different photograph, perhaps also made narrower, despite being derived from the same exposure. The darkening is a function of the reproduction process which was almost certainly by photogravure—probably an aquatint photogravure which was widely used by the time of the Brentano’s edition. Similarly, the frontispieces in other Brentano’s editions of Wilde’s works at the time are tonally different from their previously published counterparts.

Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

There is a tendency to believe that the Oscar of the first shoot would be the correct one, because any manipulation of a photograph would normally require the negative. But that consideration doesn’t help us, as another negative may have been produced later for the 1905 book, and it was that one which was manipulated.

Question is: why would they do that? We might never know. And, in the absence of Sarony’s original glass plates negatives we might also ask which image shows the authentic Oscar? We might never know that either, particularly as both photographs may have been manipulated.

Still, the later photograph remains of interest to Wildeans, and not just because of the mysterious differences—but also because of one more consideration: excluding sketches, is the 1905 Brentano version the first example of a Sarony photograph of Wilde ever to appear in print?

John Cooper, © 2020.

* In the preparation of the article I am grateful to Michael Seeney for sharing his wide knowledge of all things Wildean and historical.


[1] Michael Seeney also writes: The Brentano 1905 edition is not in Mason [the Wilde bibliography], but he must have known about it. As you will know, Brentano’s did other Wilde works in uniform bindings, although not at the same time so not usually considered a set. There are only two which Mason describes: item 642 is The Wisdom of Oscar Wilde, 1906, and item 646 is Decorative Art in America. In describing a copy of Dorian Gray elsewhere he mentions the Brentano’s edition of that book in passing.

Author note: The Brentano image was also used as the cover of a modern reprint of Intentions published in 2004 by Prometheus Books.

2 thoughts on “One By One

  1. John, I can’t tell you how enchanting is the intrigue you unwrap in your latest post. You make me embarrassed to own up to my naive and ohso properly philological treatment of William Sharp/Fiona Macleod, lo, half a century ago. I wish I could start again just to explore all those lovely unregenerate romances. And all those great great women.

    That self-portrait by Alice Pike Barney is enough to unlock my lockdown.

    Q: Do a couple of South Jersey poetry-aficionados named Janvier ever come up in your Rolodex of Wildean American connections?

    Thanks again…


    Flavia Alaya 55 West Commerce Street Bridgeton, NJ 08302 856-221-3276 201-321-3813



    1. Hi Flavia,

      Thank you for your kind comments.

      Janvier (French for January!) — no I’m afraid have come across no connection with Oscar Wilde. But the chances are he knew of them: featured in same journals etc.


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