New exhibition: “Colours More Than Sentences”: illustrated editions of ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’

Text by Michael Seeney, abridged and adapted with additional text by Fiona Melhuish, UMASCS Librarian.

“I wish I could draw like you, for I like lines better than words and colours more than sentences”.

–  Oscar Wilde to W Graham Robertson in 1888

In 1895, Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years of imprisonment with hard labour for “acts of gross indecency with another male person”. He spent most of those two years in Reading Prison. On his release, he entered a self-imposed exile in France. Broken in health, and declared bankrupt, he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, a love-poem and an impassioned plea for prison reform. It was his last work.

For our new exhibition, we are very fortunate to have the opportunity to show a selection of illustrated editions of the Ballad lent from the collection of Michael Seeney. The editions on show include the first published illustrated edition of the Ballad and recent editions produced by small presses such as Reading’s Two Rivers Press. This exhibition has been organised by the University’s Department of English in collaboration with Michael Seeney, and was on show at the Berkshire Record Office last year.

Image from ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ by Oscar Wilde ; afterword by Peter Stoneley ; illustrated by Peter Hay. 3rd edn. Two Rivers Press, 2011. Reproduced by kind permission of Two Rivers Press.

The following text is an abridged version of an introduction to the exhibition by Michael Seeney examining the history of the writing, publication and illustration of the Ballad. A leaflet which features the full version of the introduction is available free of charge to visitors to the exhibition.

“Oscar Wilde was released from prison in May 1897. The same night he and his friend More Adey took the night boat from Newhaven to Dieppe. The British in Dieppe were, with few exceptions, unfriendly and, before the end of the month, Wilde moved a few miles along the coast to Berneval-sur-Mer. There he rented a small house – the Chalet Bourgeat. Here he intended writing three essays, two of which would describe the prison system. They were never written, but in June he began writing his last work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. In the words of a later High Court judge, “He owed his inspiration to Her Majesty’s Government”.

Wilde’s intention was to write a poem which combined propaganda for prison reform with a Romanticism in part drawn from Coleridge. In doing so he claimed to “out-Kipling Henley”. Wilde’s poem accurately reflects the conditions in prison. The central narrative of the poem is the execution by hanging of Charles Thomas Wooldridge at Reading on 7 July 1896.

Wilde sent an almost complete manuscript to the publisher Leonard Smithers who approached Aubrey Beardsley with a proposal for an illustrated edition. Beardsley expressed great interest and, as Smithers told Wilde, “I showed it to Aubrey and he seemed to be much struck by it. He promised at once to do a frontispiece for it – in a manner which immediately convinced me that he will never do it.” Wilde thought that if Beardsley “will do it, it will be a great thing” but, if he would not give a commitment, Smithers should “try some of the jeunes Belges – Khnoppf for example.” In the same letter Wilde spelled out in detail his ideas for illustrations and decorations:

I want something curious – a design of Death and Sin walking hand in hand, very severe, and mediaeval. Also, for the divisions between the separate parts of each canto of the ballad, I want not asterisks, nor lines, but a little design of three flowers or some decorative motive, simple and severe: then there are five or six initial letters – H: F: I: I: T.

In December Wilde made clear that for illustrations he was looking for something non-representational; in writing to Smithers about his American agent, Elizabeth Marbury, he said that:

Her suggestion of illustration is of course out of the question. Pray tell her from me that it would entirely spoil any beauty the poem has, and not add anything to its psychological revelations. The horror of prison-life is the contrast between the grotesqueness of one’s aspect and the tragedy in one’s soul. Illustrations would emphasise the former, and conceal the latter. Of course I refer to realistic illustration.

When the book was published on 13 February 1898 there were no illustrations; and instead of Wilde’s “three flowers” there were single standard printers’ fleurons.

Smithers and Wilde had agreed that the author’s name would not appear on the book, and that the title page would say it was by C.3.3. (the number of Wilde’s cell in Reading Gaol). However, the authorship was an open secret; on the day of publication Reynold’s Newspaper carried news of the book under the heading “New Poem by Oscar Wilde” and printed eighteen verses.

The first edition consisted of 800 copies, with a further 30 printed on Japanese vellum. The entire edition sold out within a few days. A second edition followed and then, at Wilde’s request, a third edition, limited to 99 copies signed by Wilde (thus removing any last doubts about its authorship) was issued in March. Another four editions were issued bringing the total number of copies in circulation to over 5000, meaning it was commercially by far the most successful of his works. Having said to Wilde that he thought it time Wilde “owned” the Ballad, Smithers added Wilde’s name to the title page of the seventh edition following “C.3.3.”. This was the last edition published during Wilde’s lifetime, although Smithers continued to produce what were effectively pirated editions for some years after Wilde’s death in November 1900.

Although the Ballad was issued by a number of publishers abroad, there was no attempt to illustrate the book until 1907. The first fully illustrated edition appeared in New York, illustrated by Latimer J Wilson.

The first European illustrated edition appeared in German in 1916 and was followed by French, Czech and Hungarian editions. Several fully illustrated editions appeared in America in the late twenties and thirties. There was no illustrated edition published in Britain until 1948. Arthur Wragg, the illustrator, was, as far as is known, the only illustrator up to that time who had actually visited Reading Gaol. Britain still lags behind in the number of illustrated editions, although in recent years there have been notable sets of illustrations by Garrick Palmer, Peter Forster and Peter Hay, as well as the abstract illustrations of Jeremy Mason.

In accordance with Wilde’s views expressed to Smithers, each of the illustrated editions examined has been interpretive rather than realistic. We cannot know what Wilde envisaged as an ideal illustration but he would certainly have been delighted to see that so many artists have taken the poem as an inspiration”.

The exhibition will be on display in the staircase hall at the Special Collections Service until 31 July 2019, and is available to view during The Museum of English Rural Life opening hours.

We are also delighted to announce that to coincide with the exhibition, Michael Seeney will give a talk about building a collection on Oscar Wilde. In addition to books, Michael’s collection also extends to anything related to Wilde, from letters and autograph material to mugs and t-shirts. As well as talking about his own collection, Michael will also look at important collectors of the past and what has become of their collections, and the role of private collectors in academic research.

The talk, entitled Collecting Oscar Wilde: Public and Private Good, will take place at The Museum of English Rural Life on Thursday 30 May 2019, 6:30 pm – 8:00 pm. The event is free but booking is advisable – you can book tickets here.
This event takes place during our monthly Late Opening Night, so the museum, shop, cafe, garden and reading room are all open until 9pm.

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