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.
Names like A.A. Milne and Z.Z. Top are not just at the opposite ends of the 20th century’s cultural and chronological spectrum, they are polar examples of another kind. I mean, of course, in the alphabetical use of two initials as a form of nomenclature, which, as a device, often makes for a memorable moniker.
Oscar Wilde, in his time, knew a few characters thus named, including two of the most celebrated: W. B. Yeats and H. G. Wells.
However, on this day I should like to focus on two similarly styled, but lesser known, artists in the Wilde story, for they share a bond more profound than the form of their familiar names:
On February 20, 1882 Wilde was in Cincinnati but not to lecture. It was a stopover on his way to Louisville, KY where he lectured on the following night. Wilde did return to Cincinnati to lecture, as he had planned to do on February 23.
But there was a special reason Wilde was in Cincinnati that day. He was there for the opera.
On St. Patrick’s Day 1882, during his lecture tour of north America, Oscar Wilde happened to be in St. Paul, Minnesota.
He had lectured the previous evening at the Opera House on The Decorative Arts, and, on the following evening, he returned to the same venue to attended a St.Patrick’s Day gathering. St. Paul was a city with a large Irish population and the event was one of several held that day to observe the occasion.
Despite inclement weather, the Opera House was full for a series of addresses on an Irish theme interspersed with vocal and instrumental selections. Towards the end of proceedings, Wilde was called upon to say a few impromptu words.
You have probably seen both of these photographs on separate occasions over the years, and, if you’re like me, thought you had been looking at the same one—perhaps because Oscar looks about same in each.
But when they are viewed together it becomes clear they are not the same photograph. Everyone has moved slightly, Oscar perhaps the least. It is clear these are different pictures.
The photo on the left can be found in Ellmann (1987)—and, as far as I can see, nowhere else. The one on the right is only slightly more common, and can be found occasionally online, but rarely, if ever, in books.
One could be forgiven for thinking that an article entitled Oscar Wilde in Sharon Springs is about Oscar Wilde in Sharon Springs, meaning his lecture there on August 11, 1882—not an unreasonable assumption.
But latterly such a conclusion would be only half right, because earlier this year the spirit of Oscar Wilde materialized once more in the small Catskills’ town.
I refer to the local Klinkhart Hall Arts Center’s celebratory event ‘The Oscar Wilde Memorial Lecture’.
So proud is this artistic community of its Wildean connection that the occasion has been added to their annual Poetry Festival—the brainchild of Paul Muldoon, the award-winning Irish professor of poetry—to which distinguished writers are invited to read, talk about their work, and conduct poetry workshops.
And so the privilege fell to me to recapture Wilde’s visit to Sharon Springs by being invited to present the inaugural lecture.
Sarony photograph #19 must have been a favorite of Wilde’s as it is almost certainly the one he was referring to when, in March 1882, he wrote to his tour promoter, Richard D’Oyly Carte, to suggest that a lithograph of himself would help business. He said: “The photograph of me with head looking over my shoulder would be the best – just the head and fur collar.”
It is not surprising, therefore, that one occasionally sees this photograph signed by Wilde as a gift for friends, and two such examples can be seen in the footnotes.
However, a third example, featured above, is of more interest because it is inscribed: “pour mon ami, Carroll Beckwith” which, even for most Wilde scholars, invites two questions: who was Carroll Beckwith, and why is Wilde’s inscription in French?
While Beardsley’s brief career was cut short aged 25 by his death from tuberculosis, he made an impact as a brilliant and daring innovator who often caused controversy by using satirical imagery to push gender and sexual boundaries.
On view at the Grolier Club in New York City from September 8 through November 12, 2022 is ‘Aubrey Beardsley, 150 Years Young’—an exhibition drawn from materials in the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection in the UD Library, Museums and Press.
The exhibition highlights the rebellious quality of his art and writing, celebrating the eternally young Beardsley, and exploring the meteoric rise of the 19th-century British artist, who became a monumental figure in book and magazine illustration, graphic arts and poster design, and the history of gender and sexuality.
The exhibition is assembled by a long-time Grolier Club member, Mark Samuels Lasner, and reflects both his own interests and expertise and those of his partner, Margaret D. Stetz, the Mae and Robert Carter Professor of Women’s Studies and Professor of Humanities at the University of Delaware.
Together they have curated this exhibition, and you can preview Margaret’s excellently assembled labels for project in an online version here: Grolier Club Online.
For those visiting the Exhibition Gallery in person the hours are Monday to Saturday, 10 AM—5 PM, and there will also be a printed catalogue coming later this Fall.
At the risk of being oxymoronic, Margaret Stetz is a most energetic decadent. Earlier this year we enjoyed her masked but still ‘in-person conversation’ on The Decadent Aubrey Beardsley at the Rosenbach in Philadelphia; and she also gave a talk in London at the recent conference AB 150: The Artist Resurgent organized by the Decadence Research Centre at Goldsmiths in association with the Aubrey Beardsley Society and Birkbeck Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies. There have probably been myriad other events in between.
Also speaking at the conference was another Oscar Wilde Society stalwart: Anne Anderson of Exeter University, who, in turn, will be giving her own impressions of the Beardsley style in ‘Aubrey Beardsley: Enfant Terrible of the 1890s’ as part of three-part series of online lectures in September and October entitled: The Wilde Years: 1870-1900.
And to complete a female triumvirate of expertise, no review of contributors to the Beardsley oeuvre would be complete without reference to the canonical and comprehensive Aubrey Beardsley: A Catalogue Raisonné, a two volume set by Linda Gertner Zatlin, representing the first complete presentation of the provocative, modernist, graphic works of Beardsley. It is an essential work for both serious scholars and occasional researchers.
You may recall a post I made a few years ago about a CBS-TV arts show called ‘Camera Three’ which aired at 11:00 AM EST on Sunday, March 12, 1967.
It took the form of an interview with Brian Reade, then curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and contained reference to the V&A’s Aubrey Beardsley exhibition which had transferred to New York’s (then-named) Gallery of Modern Art.
During that segment there occurred a rare TV appearance by Oscar Wilde’s son, Vyvyan Holland. Not long after my article appeared the clip disappeared from the Internet because the owner had closed their YouTube channel. However, I have found it again.
Take a look below: filmed just seven months before Vyvyan Holland died in October of that year, it provides a chance to see his unassuming manner as he reveals personal experiences such as shooting moose and witnessing the bedridden (and bearded) Beardsley.
The part containing Vyvyan Holland begins around minute number 20.
But never before I have replicated Oscar’s tour so closely as I shall on August 11, 2022, when, 140 years to the day that Oscar Wilde gave a talk in Sharon Springs, NY, as part of a Summer vacation in the Catskills, I shall be doing precisely the same. Or, more formally, I shall be delivering the Klinkhart Hall Arts Center’s inaugural Oscar Wilde Memorial Lecture.
The event is allied to the Arts Center’s wider Poetry Festival, an annual tradition established by Festival founder Paul Muldoon, the award-winning Irish poet and professor of poetry, at which distinguished poets are invited to read, talk about their work, and conduct poetry workshops, all free to the public.