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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.

Drawing parallels: Virginia Woolf’s “On Being Ill” and Julia Stephen’s “Notes from Sick Rooms”

By Richard Oram

Quentin Bell’s biography of Virginia Woolf begins with a famous sentence:  “Virginia Woolf was a Miss Stephen.” Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, was an eminent critic and editor of the Dictionary of National Biography; his first wife was W. M. Thackeray’s daughter Minny. The second Mrs. Stephen, Woolf’s mother, was Julia Prinsep Duckworth, celebrated as a model for the Pre-Raphaelite artist Sir Edward Burne-Jones and the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron.

 

Julia Stephen was a practicing nurse and the author of a single slim volume, Notes from Sick Rooms, published by Smith, Elder (her husband’s publisher) in 1885. No doubt it was published in a very small edition, most likely as a favor to the Stephens. The Ransom Center recently acquired a copy of this book, which is remarkable for a couple of reasons.  First, nearly all the surviving copies are found in medical or nursing libraries, not in special collections specializing in modern literature. Secondly, this copy was inscribed in July 1934 by Vanessa Bell, Virginia’s sister, to her lover Duncan Grant and was probably one of a handful of copies kept in family hands.

 

Stephen’s little book is not a nursing manual but rather a collection of practical advice on tending the sick (this task would have been an inescapable part of life for every Victorian).  The text is not without a sly, allusive wit worthy of Woolf:  “The origin of most things has been decided on [a reference to Darwin?], but the origin of crumbs in bed has never excited sufficient attention among the scientific world, though it is a problem which has tormented many a weary sufferer.” Based on the evidence of this book, Julia Stephen seems to have been ideally suited to the profession—a tireless caregiver with a great deal of compassion and consideration for the dignity of invalids.

 

The same compassion is palpable in Virginia Woolf’s essay “On Being Ill,” published in her friend T. S. Eliot’s New Criterion in 1926.  In this piece, she drew upon her own extensive personal experience of migraines, pneumonia, and a host of nervous complaints that often confined her to bed. The author wonders why illness is not more frequently written about in essays, since disease confers upon the sufferer a unique perspective on the world: “It is only the recumbent who know what, after all, Nature is at no pains to conceal—that she in the end will conquer.” Despite the seriousness of the subject matter and our knowledge of Virginia’s eventual suicide, the essay abounds with good humor and intellectual playfulness.

 

Woolf would be surprised to find that disease has become the subject of so many memoirs and that critics have identified a modern genre of “pathography.”  Like Woolf, quite a few of these memoirists struggle to find some hidden meaning in their illness— the so-called “gift” of depression, cancer, or what have you. Julia Stephen’s Notes from Sick Rooms, rooted in another era, simply accepts that illness and its “disagreeable circumstances” are part of life.

 

Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

Scholar explores rich collections of stage photographs

By Gabrielle Inhofe

David S. Shields, the McClintock Professor of Southern Letters at the University of South Carolina, visited the Ransom Center this year to research the history of theatrical photography in North America.

 

The Ransom Center houses large collections of stage photographs, such as the Ziegfeld photographs, the dance collection, the card photograph collection, and the minstrel show collection.  The collections showcased costumes between 1870 and 1910, the work of William Edward Elcha, Broadway’s only African-American photographer of the early twentieth century, and photographs from several women working in the theatrical portrait trade from 1920 to 1925.

 

Shields’s research at the Ransom Center was supported by the Marlene Nathan Meyerson Photography Fellowship in 2013.

 

Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

From the Outside In: Walker Evans’s Allie Mae Burroughs, 1936

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.

 

The haunting eyes of Allie Mae Burroughs look straight at us in this photograph taken by Walker Evans in the summer of 1936. Her gaze has a certain resignation, and her mouth doesn’t quite smile. This is the face of a woman old before her time, who has known not only hard work but the realization that her children have gone to bed hungry. Allie Mae Burroughs was 27, a mother of four and the wife of Alabama sharecropper Floyd Burroughs, when Walker Evans photographed her for what would become an iconic image of the Great Depression in the United States. The Burroughs family’s life was chronicled in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans.

 

James Agee was a journalist working for Fortune magazine in 1936 when he was given an assignment to document the lives of poor white Southern farmers. At Agee’s insistence, photographer Walker Evans, finishing up his assignments as a Farm Security Administration photographer, accompanied him to Hale County, Alabama, in July and August of that year. Agee and Evans happened upon three men who had just been told that even under the New Deal programs designed to aid the poor, their families did not qualify for help. The journalists ended up spending weeks documenting the everyday lives of these men and their families through photographs, detailed lists of the contents of their homes, and a text miscellany that includes poems, long reflections, bits of dialog, and a survey response to the Partisan Review.

 

Agee created a portrait of life in the Depression that was too comprehensive for Fortune to publish, and he considered the story too important to be cut and rewritten in a manner that would suit the magazine. It took until 1941 for Agee’s notes and Evans’s photographs to be compiled into a manuscript that was accepted for publication. By that time, however, the war in Europe was reigniting the American economy, and the Depression was no longer a story that interested the public. The first printing of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men sold little more than 500 copies. Interest in the text was renewed in the 1960s, however, and today the book is considered not only a great work about the Depression but also a masterpiece of photography and writing.

 

Evans is a celebrated photographer known for the straight-forward elegance of his style and for his study of American culture from the late 1920s to the 1970s. In Looking at Photographs (1973), John Szarkowski, Director of the Photography Department at the Museum of Modern Art, wrote: “Evans’s work… was puritanically economical, precisely measured, frontal, unemotional, dryly textured, insistently factual, qualities that seemed more appropriate to a bookkeeper’s ledger than to art. But in time it became clear that [his art] constitutes a personal survey of the interior resources of the American tradition, a survey based on a sensibility that found poetry and complexity where most earlier travelers had found only drab statistics or fairy tales.”

 

The Harry Ransom Center holds the James Agee collection, which includes an original typescript of the book and nearly 300 prints produced by Walker Evans over the course of this project.

 

Ransom Center volunteer Karen White wrote this post