Oscar Wilde was one of the first and unquestionably one of the greatest self-publicists ever. "I awoke the imagination of my century so that it created myth and legend around me," he wrote in De Profundis, his long letter from prison, and he fed greedily on all the publicity, good and bad, that the press was prepared to give him. Above all, and with that exceptional streak of modernity which characterises much of Wilde’s life and works, he understood the power of the image in his campaign of promoting himself. As early as his Oxford days he had himself photographed with his contemporaries in loud check suites of the latest fashion. Later, when he toured America to lecture on aesthetics in 1882, almost as soon as he landed he commissioned Napoleon Sarony, the best portraitist in New York, to photograph him in fur coast and velvet suite; and in not one or two poses but at least twenty-seven.
The American tour also spawned several dozen caricatures, mostly on Oscar the Effete, a theme which was take up by Punch on his return to England. The Wilde Album now publishes more of these images of Oscar than have ever been seen together before, as well as later photographs (some previously unpublished) from the family archive, showing Oscar, his family and his friends. There are also rare snapshots of Oscar in his last years in Italy, taken most probably by a friend using Oscar’s own camera, which we know he owned from a letter of 1900, in which he writes: "My photographs are now so good that in my moments of mental depression I think that I was intended to be a photographer. But I shake off the mood, and know that I was made for more terrible things of which colour is an element.
MERLIN HOLLAND, Oscar's only grandson, has written the text that accompanies this unprecedented collection of images. Far from being just another scissors-and-paste gallop through Oscar's life, it examines the relationships between himself and his mother, his wife, his children and Alfred Douglas, as well as the profound influence of his Irish background. It also investigates the reasons for Oscar's apparently suicidal insistence on prosecuting Queensberry and then staying in England to face the consequences--his own prosecution for homosexuality by the Crown. This is placed in the context of the adverse public opinion which The Picture of Dorian Gray and Salome had engendered and the government's need for a scapegoat in an election year, both of which Merlin Holland shows to have played a considerable part in Oscar's downfall.
Merlin Holland spent a fragmented life in industry, publishing and commerce before starting to write professionally at the age of forty-seven. For the last twenty years he has been researching his grandfather's life and works, and now lectures and broadcasts regularly on Wilde. He is a journalist and lives in London with his wife and son.
After Wilde's conviction, his wife, Constance, and their sons were forced to change their name to Holland after being refused accommodation at a Swiss hotel. The family has never reverted to the name Wilde.
Henry Holt and Company, Inc
Printed in Great BritainFront jacket photograph: Oscar Wildc, 1882
Back jacket photograph: Oscar aged 2
collection of Merlin Holland
Jacket design: Tracey Winwood
C Fourth Estate 1997