Rediscovered II

Oscar Wilde, 1889. One of series by W & D Downey, Ebury Street, London, S.W.

You will recall the rediscovered photograph of Oscar Wilde (similar to the one above) that I featured in this post — where it was effectively published for the first time in almost 130 years.

The photograph had originally appeared in the March 10, 1893 issue of the Westminster Budget, in an article entitled “Mr. Wilde’s Forbidden Play” about Oscar’s French work Salomé.

At the time of that earlier post I expressed the hope is that an original print might come to light, but one has not done so yet. However, what has emerged is another copy of the newspaper, this time with a better quality image—now shown above.

So who do we have thank for this improved print?

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Rediscovered

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.

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One By One

Oscar-1

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.


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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.

Sarony 3A

New Sarony Photograph Identified

A rarely seen image of Oscar Wilde has recently been added to the series of photographs taken by Napoleon Sarony on January 5th, 1882.

Its rarity is evidenced by the fact that it does not appear to have been been published in any publicly available print medium to date, nor anywhere else previously online.

However, a proof print of it has lain dormant in the extensive Wilde holdings of the Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin—in the James McNeill Whistler collection to be precise—and their copy might be the only extant print.

Let us see how this photograph re-emerged and how it affects the total count of known Sarony images of Oscar Wilde, let’s start the ball rolling.

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