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From the Outside In: Napoleon Sarony’s Portrait of Oscar Wilde, 1882

By Jane Robbins Mize

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows.

 

This image, one of a series of pictures of Oscar Wilde (1854–1900) taken by Napoleon Sarony (1821–1896), depicts the young Irishman in January 1882, shortly after he arrived in New York City to begin his 1882 tour of North America. During this year, the last year prior to his marriage to Constance Lloyd, Wilde strongly influenced the costume and style of the European Aesthetic movement, and his unique style quickly spread to the burgeoning Greenwich Village subculture.

 

Napoleon Sarony, famous for his publicity images of some of the most popular literary and cultural figures of the time, was aware of Wilde’s notoriety, and the photographs from this session helped propel both men in their professions. Wilde was heralded with sudden fame in America, and the Sarony photographs were used to advertise his speaking appearances throughout the country. His tour would take him across the United States and Canada to deliver an estimated 150 lectures. Although his opening lecture in New York City was poorly received, and his style was ridiculed in print by The New York Times and the Boston Evening Transcript, his eye-catching fashion choices, seen here in his velvet suit and knee breeches, were soon adopted by his fans. Among the highlights of his North American tour was a meeting with the aging poet Walt Whitman, brokered by the editor of Lippincott’s Magazine, J. M. Stoddart. Later during Wilde’s visit, Stoddart arranged a dinner party, where he convinced Wilde and Arthur Conan Doyle to submit stories to his magazine. This chance encounter would later result in Stoddart’s publication of Wilde’s controversial novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, which ultimately led to Wilde’s public fall from grace in Great Britain.

 

Sarony, a celebrated figure in New York photography, would soon file an 1883 copyright infringement suit against the Burrow-Giles Lithographic Company, spurred by their use of one of the prints from his sessions, Oscar Wilde No. 18, in an advertisement. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court, who, in 1884, established that Sarony was the author of “an original work of art” protected by copyright; in their unanimous decision, the Court extended copyright to photography, in line with the established protection for “all forms of writing, printing, engravings, etchings, etc., by which the ideas in the mind of the author are given visible expression.” Sarony later photographed the Supreme Court Justices who decided the case, as well as other Washington, D.C., political figures.

 

The Ransom Center holds extensive materials related to Wilde’s life and work, including drafts of many of his most important works, correspondence, and writings concerning Wilde by his friends. The Center also holds papers from Wilde’s companion, Lord Alfred Douglas (1870–1945), which include correspondence and versions of several works about Wilde. The collection of Frank Harris (1856–1931), Wilde’s friend and biographer, contains significant correspondence from Robbie Ross, one of Wilde’s most loyal friends, and Vyvyan Holland, Wilde’s youngest son, as well as notes and fragments from Harris’s biography of Wilde. Among materials that the Center holds by Canadian-born Napoleon Sarony are photographic images of Oscar Wilde, Walt Whitman, and Wilkie Collins.

 

Former Ransom Center volunteer Jessica Smith wrote this post.

Notes from the Undergrad: The Penguin Illustrated Collapse

By Alyssa O'connell

Alyssa O’Connell is an English Honors junior in Professor Janine Barchas’s seminar, “The Paperback,” in which students used the Ransom Center’s collections to research the history of paperbacks.

Among today’s reading public, the ubiquitous Penguin Books are nearly synonymous with the notion of mass-market paperbacks. The publishing house’s continual commercial triumphs since Allen Lane founded it in 1935 have provided inexpensive literary texts for readers of all ages. Despite its successes, however, Penguin has also faced failure, and one such misstep occurred only three years after the company’s inception.

On May 18, 1938, Allen Lane introduced a new paperback series, the Penguin Illustrated Classics. Ten out-of-copyright novels, short stories, and poetry collections were released simultaneously and sold at the low cost of six pence each, which is the equivalent of around $1 to $2 in modern currency. The titles were Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne, Some Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe, Walden by Henry David Thoreau, Selected Poems by Robert Browning, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (in two volumes), Typee by Herman Melville, The Story of My Heart by Richard Jefferies, and Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. Every book featured at least 12 woodcut illustrations by reputable wood-engravers of the twentieth century.

Penguin’s inspiration for the books came in part from a fellow member of the Lane family. Allen Lane’s uncle, John Lane, was co-founder of The Bodley Head publishing house. From the company’s beginnings in 1887 and into the 1920s and 1930s, The Bodley Head published elite illustrated hardbacks in small quantities at high prices. Because there was a woodcut revival in the 1930s, the nephew believed it was the perfect market to present such illustrated texts with wood engravings in the new, accessible, and inexpensive paperback format. To highlight the artists, each front cover featured the illustrator’s name in slightly smaller print than the author’s name. Also, while the front flap of the dust jacket provided information about the author, the back flap offered a biography of the wood engraver. Penguin, therefore, endorsed the artists nearly as strongly as it promoted the writers.

Despite its hopes and efforts, Penguin soon found the Illustrated Classics struggling in bookstores. World War II was approaching, and the refined series alienated consumers who sought simplicity and current information. The journalistic Penguin Specials, a different Allen Lane product that offered plain aesthetics and up-to-date intelligence, became extremely popular while the experimental Penguin Illustrated Classics failed to rouse much interest. Furthermore, as illustrated texts, the poor quality Classics did not impress customers. The cheap, thin paper could not support the rather bold art of the wood engravers, thus undermining Penguin’s venture to merge sophistication with an economical product.

Ultimately, the Penguin Illustrated Classics failed to secure a niche in the market, belonging neither with the expensive hardbacks that had inspired them nor among the pre-war softcovers associated with their publisher. Penguin Books could not transform The Bodley Head’s concept into one of mass production, and the series soon vanished from British bookstores. Allen Lane, who remained with Penguin Books from 1935 until his death in 1970, encountered a disappointing initial failure that forced him to abandon his idea of uniting sophisticated hardback trends with affordable paperbacks.

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