Wednesday, July 2, 2014

153. The Portrait of Mr W.H.

Last week I was asked to write about the portrait of W.H. that Ricketts made for Oscar Wilde. In his Recollections of Oscar Wilde (1932), Ricketts remembered that Wilde had told him on his first visit to the Vale: 

I have found from evidence in the Sonnets that Mr. W.H. was a young actor named Willie Hughes - is that not a charming name? Now, I need a portrait, which I describe, as a frontispiece. You will see a great deal depends upon this. (p. 30)

And Wilde argued:

You are the man I have wanted; I wish you to paint a small Elizabethan picture - something in the manner of, shall we say, Clouet. I have written in narrative form an essay on Shakespeare's sonnets (p. 29).


Oscar Wilde, 'The Portrait of Mr. W.H.',
in Lord Arthur Savile's Crime and Other Prose Pieces (London, Methuen, 1908, p. 147)
The essay about the dedicatee of Shakespeare's sonnets was published in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine of July 1889, and Wilde invited Ricketts to visit him in Tite Street to hear him read the story. Ricketts remembered:

Within a fortnight I had painted the small portrait of Mr. W.H. upon a decaying piece of oak and framed it in a fragment of worm-eaten moulding, which my friend Shannon pieced together. (p. 35-36)

Wilde wrote back to state that the painting 'is not a forgery at all - it is an authentic Clouet of the highest artistic value'. In the story, the portrait is described as 'a small panel picture set in an old and somewhat tarnished Elizabethan frame', and the style is compared to that of 'François Clouet's later work' (1958 edition, p. 4). At the end of the story the painting is no longer attributed to Clouet, but to Ouvry. 


Léonard Gaultier, portrait of François Clouet (1515-1572)
Later, Ricketts was asked to design a title and initials for a new book edition of the story, which was announced repeatedly by the publishers at The Bodley Head as 'The incomparable and ingenious history of Mr. W.H., being the true secret of Shakespeare's sonnets now for the first time here fully set forth, with initial letters and cover design by Charles Ricketts. 500 copies. 10s. 6d. net. Also 50 copies large paper. 21s. net.' The book was said to be 'In preparation' in the List of Books in Belles Lettres (Including some Transfers) published by Elkin Mathews and John Lane, dated September 1893, but it was postponed, and in the end never materialized due to the break-up of Mathews and Lane.

On 24 April 1895, after Wilde was arrested, and had been declared bankrupt, his library was sold from his house. The sale catalogue listed Ricketts's painting as number 125: 'An old oil painting of Will Hewes, framed'. According to Wilde's bibliographer, Christopher Sclater Millard (Stuart Mason), the lot was purchased by Edwin Parsons, who later disposed of it, and in 1914, when Millard published his bibliography, he had to say that its present whereabouts were unknown. In 1958, Vyvyan Holland, in his introduction to the enlarged version of The Portrait of Mr W.H., again testified of that and the painting never surfaced. 


Stuart Mason, Bibliography of Oscar Wilde (1914, p. 7)
Millard contacted Ricketts and Shannon for information about their Oscar Wilde book designs, and he asked Ricketts to describe the 'Clouet' painting. Ricketts then made a thumbnail sketch for him. 

Millard died in November 1927. The sketch turned up in a lot of autograph cards from Ricketts to Robert Ross in Dulau's Catalogue 161. Oscar Wilde. Manuscripts, Autograph Letters, First Editions, published in 1928: 

'Ricketts (Charles). Three autograph cards, signed, and a small sketch. [...] (4) A tiny thumbnail sketch in pencil on a piece cut from one of Messrs. Sotheby's catalogues, intended to portray a rough idea of the Portrait of Mr. W.H. In the sale of effects at Tite Street there was a picture described as an old painting on a wood panel of Mr. Will Hews. This was actually the work of Ricketts, and this thumbnail sketch was made for Millard when he was preparing his bibliography.' (p. 91, no. 55).

Catalogue 161. Oscar Wilde. Manuscripts, Autograph Letters, First Editions (London, Dulau, 1928, p. 91)
This lot belonged to the ones that were bought by William Andrews Clark Jr., in 1929. His collection is now in the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library in Los Angeles. The catalogue description reads: 'Box 54, Folder 3 (Thumbnail sketch in pencil labe[l]led: "My W. H. drawn by C. Ricketts, 22 Nov., 1912." The sketch was jotted down for Christopher S. Millard. 1912 November 22. Physical Description: Slip of paper.' 

[By the way, Willie Hughes in the story became Will Hewes in Wilde's sale, and Will Hews in Dulau's catalogue; his name already circulated in several forms in eighteenth-century theories about the identity of W.H., and, of course, refers to several lines in the sonnets of Shakespeare.
'My W.H.' could be a mistake for 'Mr W.H.'] 

I have asked for a scan, but the request may take a while to be processed.


The end of The Portrait of Mr W.H. (London, Privately Printed, 1904, p. 48)