Little Oscar and the Art of the Illustrated Letter

Have you noticed how most of Victorian life appears to correspond? Everyone seems to know everyone else, and one thing usually leads to another. Well it’s the same with Victorian studies,

On my agenda last week were two pieces of business:

First was research into a parody of Wilde and Walt Whitman written by Helen Gray Cone entitled “Narcissus in Camden” which casts the two poets as ancient Greek poseurs, and needless to say, Wilde is Narcissus. It appeared in the November 1882 issue of the Century magazine. Incidentally, the reason for my Wilde/Whitman pursuit relates to the need to counter some juvenile online speculation about their famous meetings in Camden, New Jersey.

Second was a periodic pilgrimage to the Mark Samuels Lasner collection at the University of Delaware, one of the country’s foremost collections of books, manuscripts, letters, and artworks by British cultural figures who flourished between 1850 and 1900, One such figure was Edward Carpenter, and the ostensible purpose of my visit was to accompany an Edward-expert friend to see Carpenter’s inscribed books and Rothenstein’s chalk sketch. of the man.

These two diversions came together, in a roundabout way in a pleasing piece of Victorian correspondence.

Circular Letter

You might recall in my recent post about Patti in Cincinnati I alluded briefly to a visit Wilde made, while in the city, to the now famous Rookwood Pottery Company.

Well, coincidently, last week Rookwood again chimed with my research into the aforementioned “Narcissus in Camden”—for I discovered a charming letter written by a Rookwood artist named Henry Joseph Breuer (1860–1932). Wilde met Breuer during his visit to the studio and had admired his work. So that was harmonious.

Breuer’s correspondence is an example of a lost art: the illustrated letter.

It consists of three sheets, 8 by 10 inches, in ink and watercolor, and there are two holes punched at the top tied with a pink ribbon,

Breuer’s Letter From New York. November 12, 1882.

Evidently, sometime after Wilde and Breuer’s meeting at Rookwood in February, Breuer moved to New York City [1] (where Oscar was then living), to begin work as a lithographer. He again became friendly with Wilde, and so was able to record him firsthand.

In this November 12 letter to his friend (My dear Jerome), Breuer writes,

“I believe I told you that I meet Oscar Wilde quite often now. Yes! he told me how d— mad he was about the last article in the Century magazine and a good deal more, I may tell you sometime.”

Alongside the passage about Wilde is a marginal sketch of him (featured image). And, correspondingly, in the text of the letter, Breuer’s account of Oscar’s reaction to the Century magazine can only refer to Helen Gray Cone’s November 1882 “Narcissus in Camden,” the skit about Wilde and Whitman that I had been researching in the first place. It all made for a neatly circular story. But it doesn’t end there; naturally, I was curious about the letter.

A search took me to an Oregon book dealer whose site revealed that the letter had recently been sold to an unnamed buyer. But I had no time to research the letter further, nor its whereabouts, because, as you know, the next day I was leaving for the Mark Samuels Lasner collection—yes, that fine repository of charming late Victorian ephemera. And, yes, I think you can guess what happened next.

Question Mark

The question was: did mine host and collector extraordinaire Mark Samuels Lasner know anything about the letter.

And, of course, the somewhat predictable answer was that not only did he know of it, but the letter itself now resided in his collection—just over there, in fact, a few feet away. It was duly produced.

So the item which I had learned about only the previous evening I now held in my hands the next morning, proving again how Victoriana co-responds and one thing always leads to another. And mulling this over, we both agreed that this piece of correspondence is an interesting curiosity in the Wilde story and a delightful object of virtu in itself.

Here it is reproduced below with little Oscar on page 3:

© John Cooper, 2023

* Images courtesy of the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection, with thanks.

{1] After a few years in New York, Breuer went to California where he finally found success as an artist. He married one of his students, Fannie Palmer, joined the Bohemian Club, and became one of Adolphus Busch’s favorite painters. A few months after he died, in 1932, a memorial exhibition of his work was mounted at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, in San Francisco. [].

10 thoughts on “Correspondence

  1. This is absolutely terrific, John. I had a mare trying to track down Breuer for my interviews books because his name was spelt differently in almost every interview in which Wilde mentioned him (p.195, n.1). I suspected that he and Wilde must have socialised outside of any brief meeting at Rookwood, purely because Wilde seems to have been more likely to repeatedly praise artists he liked as people (Donoghue, Fawcett, Whitman).

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I see now–you did a good job of conflating the variants.

        And you’re right: people under-appreciate that Wilde often praised or criticized depending on friendship or like-mindedness.


      2. I was glad I was able to find the correct spelling of Breuer’s surname, but I couldn’t find what his initials stood for. Without his full name, my searches on Ancestry yielded nothing. So it’s good I can now add some more info to my Updates sheet. By the way, am I right that Breuer’s drawing is the only image-based clue to the colour of Wilde’s coat and hair from 1882? There are loads of descriptions but no other images I can think of.


      3. I had not thought of that. No color photos, obviously. It would have to a colored illustration or cartoon, and there are a few of those; but are any of them accurate?

        Oscar Wilde Color Cartoon


      4. I think some of the colour images from after 1882 ~ including the Spy cartoon, the Pennington portrait, the Toulouse-Latrec and others ~ are probably fairly accurate. But I can’t think of any reliable image from 1882. And I can’t think of any, regardless of date, that show the fur coat.

        Liked by 1 person

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