Classic Authors Illustrated: Oscar Wilde

Of all classic authors, possibly few are remembered for being as unique and as colorful as Oscar Wilde. From his flamboyant wardrobe, to his flowery conversationalism, to his education and his rich life, he is the embodiment of color and panache.

For this reason, his work probably lends itself better to illustration than most classic authors, so he's a natural choice for the beginning of this series of blog entries, in which we'll be exploring various illustrated works of classic authors, as well as the illustrators behind them.

For this article, I'll be focusing on three of his works: The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1888, illustrated by Charles Robinson in 1913), Salome (1893, illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley), and The Picture of Dorian Gray, (1890, illustrated by Eugène Dété and Paul Thiriat in 1908).

The Happy Prince and Other Tales (1913)

Charles Robinson (1870-1937) was born in Islington, London, to a family of illustrators. Both his brothers, William Heath Robinson and Thomas Heath Robinson, would become illustrators like himself, and his father, Thomas Robinson, was also an illustrator.

By the 1910s, when gift editions were a major source of revenue for book publishers, and illustrators such as Edmund Dulac and Howard Chandler Christy were illustrating classic works for these editions, Charles Robinson was also adding to the slew of gift editions with such works as Alice in Wonderland, The Secret Garden, and this one.

I find these illustrations to be very fanciful, and for this reason well suited to a book of fairy tales such as this. While, stylistically, it is right on point, I find it invites too much comparison to Edmund Dulac, and for this reason I don't think his work is very original. Yet, both artists being more or less equal, there's no style better suited to this particular book than this one. So either way, we're happy with the way it turned out.

Salome (1893)

Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) was very much like Wilde in many ways. He too was eccentric and stylistically odd, and although the details of his sexuality are unclear, it is believed by some that, also like Wilde, he may have been homosexual. (Wilde himself was tried and convicted for homosexual activity, and this led to his ruin and early death.)

Beardsley's drawings are known for their grotesque, sensual, and erotic subject matter, and for a long time he considered it an integral part of his identity. "If I am not grotesque, I am nothing," he would say of his style. But, interestingly, he converted to Catholicism in 1897, and in a beseeching letter to his publishers, said "I implore you to destroy all copies of Lysistrata and bad drawings … By all that is holy, all obscene drawings." His publishers did not honor this request.

Given the lewd nature of his drawings, it comes as no surprise that he would be chosen to illustrate Oscar Wilde's Salome in 1893. Salome is his own take on the Biblical story of the execution of John the Baptist, which heavily involves the themes of lust and perverted desire. (These themes are only implied in its original version, whereas Wilde makes them a bit more salient.)

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1908)

This Gothic novel, the only novel that Wilde ever published, explores the meaning of beauty through its narrative. In it, Dorian Gray has a portrait painted of him, but, fearing that it would remain beautiful while he himself aged, he makes a deal with the Devil, and as a result, the portrait ages while he retains his youth and beauty.

His publishers, afraid that it might be morally offensive, censored it without his knowledge, but, even so, the British literary critics still denounced it as immoral, some even suggesting that Wilde should be prosecuted for public indecency.

While it was not easy for me to find many of these illustrations from Dorian Gray, it was even more difficult for me to find much information on the illustrators, Eugène Dété (1848-1922) and Paul Thiriat, except that they were both French engravers. The edition in which these illustrations can be found was published in 1908.

And that's it for this article. Which illustration from Oscar Wilde did you like the best? Were there any you wish I included? What other classic author do you want me to write about next? As always, I welcome your comments.

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