Article · News


Restored by John Cooper © 2020
A Rediscovered Photograph of Oscar Wilde

In my last article I alluded to how that erstwhile sinner, Oscar Wilde, had achieved the exalted air of sainthood. Unfortunately, for collectors of Wildean memories, with that classification comes the saintly cliché that a good man is hard to find.

And nowhere is that maxim manifested more in Oscar Wilde’s case than in the promised land of lost pictures. On the artifact scale of hardness-to-find, the rarest commodities are gold dust, hen’s teeth, and, hardest of all, previously unseen photographs of Oscar Wilde.

At least that was the case until earlier this year when this late in Wilde’s long posthumous existence (what the Native American appropriately dubbed the happy hunting ground), unearthed a little-known, and even less seen, image of Oscar. That photo has now ascended to the canonical next life as Sarony 3A. For Wildeans, this one discovery would normally be rapture enough. However, now another rare photograph has appeared from the digital clouds.

It is worthy of investigation.

Novel Detective

In the traditional detective novel the clues usually precede the unveiling. But in detecting this photograph of Oscar Wilde, as might be expected for a man of contradictions, the reverse happened to be the case. It was only after the discovery that clues emerged hinting at its existence—thus making it, conversely, a novel detective story.

The revelation that launched the investigation is the featured image of Oscar Wilde, which evidently has not been published since its first appearance almost 130 years ago. Seemingly, it has not appeared in any newspaper, nor in any book, nor apparently could it be found anywhere else online before now…although that lack will no doubt soon be rectified.

The version I found was in the March 10, 1893 issue of the Westminster Budget, in an article about Oscar’s French work Salomé entitled “Mr. Wilde’s Forbidden Play”. It was featured in the article alongside an earlier photograph of Wilde from the Sarony series, in order to contrast the American and the fin de siècle ‘editions’ of Wilde’s portrait.

Being a scanned version of a halftone print in an old newspaper, the photograph is understandably blemished and somewhat blurred. I have restored it slightly, but the hope is that an original print lies somewhere uncategorized in a public or private Wilde collection.

However, for anyone who has studied Wilde’s iconography as much as I have, even a grainy image, if unfamiliar, can make a sharply defined impression: it was like instantly recognizing a stranger.

Here is the full page containing the picture.

W. & D. Downey

The picture is credited to W. & D. Downey, the famous royal photographer whose studio was in Ebury Street, London, S.W. [1], and there is no doubt it is one of a series taken by them of Wilde.

The best known of these is the one featured in Cassell’s 1890 publication The Cabinet Portrait Gallery showing a seated Oscar holding a pair gloves.

There is a similar, but much less common, variant from the same sitting where Oscar’s arms are parted and he is not holding gloves—this can be seen in The Wilde Album, p. 125.

There are also three Downey photographs of Oscar standing. Two were taken at the same time as the others, and a third, the sepia one below, which was perhaps taken a little later as the collar is different, there is no buttonhole nor handkerchief, and Oscar’s hair looks slightly longer.

The Clues

The rediscovered photograph will be new to most people, but it was not entirely unknown to one person: Oscar Wilde’s grandson and leading Wilde historian, Merlin Holland.

Merlin recalled (and provided a photostat of) a cutting of the same newspaper photograph that he had found some 30 years ago in a scrapbook at the Chelsea Town Hall. An annotation in the scrapbook stated that the photo had appeared in the Westminster Gazette. Actually, as we now know, it was the Westminster Budget, which was a weekly illustrated sister-paper.

Admittedly, this clue is rather esoteric, but there was another indication available to the lay person. I found the next clue by consulting Mason [2], the Wildean bibliographic bible.

As the article in the Westminster Budget that accompanied the photograph was about the play Salomé not being granted a licence [3], I wondered whether Mason had recorded it.

And there it was, hiding in plain sight on page 377: a footnote about the article, and, better still, a note about the Downey photograph.

While this note is valuable for establishing the date of the Downey photographs, there had been no way to tell which photograph it was; it could simply have been one of the day-to-day Downeys.

As it turned out, it was, in fact, a rediscovered Downey and, surprise though it was, I cannot now say I didn’t have a clue.

John Cooper © 2020

[1] Despite confusion to the contrary, W. & D. Downey, the photographers, had no connection to their namesake in the Wilde story: Ward & Downey, the publishers.

[2] MASON, Stuart. Bibliography of Oscar Wilde London, T. Werner Laurie Ltd, [1914].

[3] Lord Chamberlin refusing to grant a licence for Salomé on the grounds that Biblical characters were prohibited from being depicted on the stage.

10 thoughts on “Rediscovered

  1. At the moment I received this email, I discovered I am indeed in Rup’s book. And he spelt my name wrong!

    Sent from my iPhone



  2. Wow! Great find. When I was making my Wilde comic I was collecting every photo I could find for drawing reference and I really wish I had had this one: there are so few good 3/4 (or 3/4+) shots. And Stuart Mason: that guy was *really* was on the ball, eh?


  3. Nice John, I doubt Oscar ever shied from the camera. It seems to me there should be plenty more Wilde portraits — were there only a paparazzi such as we have today! As always thanks for being on the case.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. A wonderful find – you’ve solved a longstanding mystery for me. I had actually seen this picture before: there’s a scan of the paired photos from the Westminster Budget in the microfilm version of the Clark Library Wilde collection, which can be accessed at the British Library and elsewhere. But it gives no indication as to which publication the photos are from, and this is a much better scan than the printout I was able to glean!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s