Picturing Dorian Gray

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It’s taken a while but here at last are some of the pages from my series of illustrations based on The Picture of Dorian Gray, as featured in volume 2 of The Graphic Canon (“The World’s Great Literature as Comics and Visuals”) edited by Russ Kick. I agreed with Russ not to run everything so there’s some incentive to buy the book (or books…there are three volumes altogether). Now I’ve seen the printed edition the whole project seems even more remarkable: 500 large illustrated pages in a variety of media and art styles. Volume 2 runs through the 19th century and ends with my contribution; I opted to do this story in black-and-white but there’s colour used throughout the books. I especially like the Moby-Dick sequence by Matt Kish, a very different take on a very familiar tale.

As with many of the things I’ve been doing recently I opted for adapting materials of the period. Since I have a lot of Oscar Wilde-related reference material I was able to go further and incorporate details that relate directly to the book and Wilde’s life. All the text is taken from a scan of the first printing of the novel at the Internet Archive, the title lettering being drawn originally by Wilde’s friend, publisher and illustrator Charles Ricketts. A heavy black square on each page provides some continuity as well as resembling the frames of comic pages. (Or a picture frame.) The silhouette on the opening page is another of Wilde’s friends, the writer Max Beerbohm, taken from a drawing by William Rothenstein. The pair were dandyish Café Royal regulars throughout the 1890s.

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This is my favourite page. I liked the way the composition came together and also enjoyed being able to use John Singer Sargent’s portrait of W. Graham Robertson as the picture of Dorian. I’ve noted in an earlier post the similarity between this painting and the portrait seen in the BBC’s adaptation of the novel by John Osborne. Robertson was a theatre designer and illustrator who Wilde consulted when planning stage designs for what would have been the London debut of Salomé. Robertson was also (so far as we know) homosexual which adds an extra resonance.

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The Sibyl Vane page: a combination of details from The Studio, The Strand and The Magazine of Art. The motif at the foot of the page is by Walter Crane. Nothing of Wilde’s appeared in The Strand but that magazine’s most popular writer, Arthur Conan Doyle, had his second Sherlock Holmes adventure, The Sign of Four, commissioned at the same dinner that saw the commissioning of Dorian Gray, both novels being published by Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine in 1890.

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A page depicting Dorian’s distracting obsession with jewels and luxurious goods. This chapter can seem somewhat superfluous unless seen in the light of Wilde’s intention to write something like Huysmans’ À rebours (1884).

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The “Love that dare not speak its name” page. This makes explicit the subtext of the book although if you read the two paragraphs I selected it’s evident enough why Dorian is causing a problem for so many young men. The blindfolded Eros was a drawing by Walter Crane which I doubled then re-drew slightly so the pair were holding hands. The boy below is a picture from The Strand of the young Edward VII, a robust heterosexual in later years but with a son, Prince Albert Victoria, who became linked to the notorious Cleveland Street Scandal which involved a male brothel catering to aristocrats. The two young men in the picture frame are described as a pair of “panthers” in Neil McKenna’s The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (2003), by which he means that they were fin de siècle rent boys (as in Oscar’s remark about “feasting with panthers”); McKenna doesn’t give any further details about the photo but it suited the picture.

In addition to this series of illustrations, volume 2 of The Graphic Canon includes two of my Lewis Carroll illustrations in a section by different artists based on the Alice books. I’d be recommending The Graphic Canon even if I wasn’t a contributor, as I said above it’s a remarkable achievement. Watch out for it.

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The Oscar Wilde archive

The Savoy magazine

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Further retrievals from the depths of the Internet Archive (and thanks to Lord Cornelius Plum for the tip) come in the form of three bound editions of The Savoy magazine, a British art and literary periodical which ran for eight issues from January to December 1896. Aubrey Beardsley was art editor and chief illustrator, Arthur Symons the literary editor and the publisher was the heroic and duplicitous London pornographer Leonard Smithers whose patronage and, it should be noted, exploitation of Beardsley’s work kept the artist solvent during his last two years.

A thesis could be written (and no doubt has been) exploring the curious symbiosis between pornography publishers and the artistic avant garde. Smithers was a proud purveyor of what he called “smut” but he also complained about all the money he lost supporting poets and down-at-heel writers. Posterity can thank him for publishing Teleny, the classic early work of gay fiction attributed to Oscar Wilde, as well as Beardsley’s Lysistrata illustrations and The Savoy, a magazine founded in the fallout of the Wilde scandal when The Yellow Book dropped Beardsley from its staff in order to appease its more conservative contributors. The magazine’s run was short due to poor sales after WH Smith’s refused to stock it, worried again about the controversial nature of Beardsley’s art. (Speculative fiction magazine New Worlds faced similar problems with Smith’s in the late Sixties.) This seems astonishing to us now when looking at the world-class roster of contributors to the first issue, a list which included two future Nobel winners—George Bernard Shaw and WB Yeats—as well as Max Beerbohm, Ernest Dowson, Havelock Ellis, JM Whistler, Charles Shannon, William Rothenstein, and Beardsley writing and illustrating the first part of his erotic caprice, Under the Hill.

Beardsley’s illustrations are very familiar from book reproduction but it’s good to see them in the context in which they first appeared, and to be able to read some of the features. The later issues include pages of adverts which always fascinate for their contemporary detail.

The Savoy: Volume 1 | Volume 2 | Volume 3

Elsewhere on { feuilleton }
The illustrators archive

Previously on { feuilleton }
Jugend, 1897
Deutsche Kunst und Dekoration
Jugend, 1896
Jugend Magazine revisited
Teleny, Or the Reverse of the Medal
Beardsley at the V&A
Merely fanciful or grotesque
The Great God Pan
Jugend Magazine
Aubrey Beardsley’s musical afterlife
Aubrey by John Selwyn Gilbert
“Weirdsley Daubery”: Beardsley and Punch
Alla Nazimova’s Salomé

Strange cargo: things found in books

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The Secret Oral Teachings in Tibetan Buddhist Sects by Alexandra David-Neel & Lama Yongden, City Lights Books (1972).

One of the additional pleasures of buying old books besides finding something out-of-print (or, it has to be said, something cheap) occurs when those books still possess traces of their previous owners. A recent posting on The Other Andrew’s page concerned book inscriptions, something any book collector will be used to seeing. Less common are the objects which slip from the pages when you’ve returned home. There are several categories of these.

1: Bookmarks

I have a substantial collection of bookmarks proper, from embossed strips of leather to the more mundane pieces of card of the type that bookshops frequently give away. But I also make a habit of using odd inserts to mark a place as did the previous owners of these volumes. The City Lights book (above) came with a very fragile leaf inside it which may well be as old as the book. Another City Lights book I own, the Artaud Anthology from 1965, included a newspaper article about Artaud. Newspaper clipping inserts are discussed below.

Continue reading “Strange cargo: things found in books”