Wednesday, November 13, 2019

433. The Portrait(s) of W.H.

This week's blog is a guest blog written by Geoff Dibb, events secretary of the Oscar Wilde Society. In 2013, his study of Wilde's UK lectures was published by the Society: Oscar Wilde, A Vagabond with a Mission. Last week's blog contained the first online publication of Ricketts's sketch of Mr. W.H. In the text below, Dibb compares this sketch with Wilde's descriptions.

The Portrait(s) of Mr. W.H.

The Portrait of Mr. W.H. is an intriguing and delightful essay by Oscar Wilde, part fiction, part literary criticism of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Much detail was given about it in this blog in 2014 (153. The Portrait of Mr W.H.) However, here I intend to look in detail at Wilde's descriptions of the eponymous portrait(s) and the painting which Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon prepared for Wilde.

The Portrait of Mr. W.H. has been published in two forms: as an article in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine in July 1889 which Wilde then re-worked and extended to book length. He laboured over it for years but the book was not published and the manuscript disappeared after the chaos of his trials in 1895. A book length manuscript of Wilde's was found and published in 1921. I have serious doubts that this book contained Wilde's final efforts and will touch on this later.

Dedication in Shakespeare's Sonnets
(designed by Charles Ricketts, Vale Press, 1899)

In both the magazine and book editions the main characters are trying to prove the theory that the Mr. W.H. mentioned in the dedication to the 1609 volume of the Sonnets is a beautiful young actor called William Hughes (or any variant or spelling of this name). When they fail to find proof that there was an Elizabethan actor in Shakespeare's company of that name, the originator of this theory, Cyril Graham, then finds an Elizabethan portrait of 'Master Will. Hewes' in Warwickshire. Or, rather, he pretends to have done so because, eventually, this portrait of Mr. W.H. is found to be a forgery by an artist called Edward Merton. Despite this the un-named Narrator is inspired and continues to study the Sonnets and search for evidence. I am not going to describe the fascinating storyline but I am going to look carefully at this forged portrait and its various incarnations, literary and artistic.

This eponymous portrait is described in detail three times in the magazine article. Its first appearance is quite early in the text:

... a full-length portrait of a young man in late Sixteenth-century costume, standing by a table, with his right hand resting on an open book. He seemed about seventeen years of age… [he wears a] black velvet doublet with its fantastically gilded points, and … two masks of Tragedy and Comedy… hung somewhat formally from the marble pedestal ...
[the ellipses are mine]

The book on which his right hand rests is open at the dedicatory page in Shakespeare's Sonnets. The portrait is next described when we are told about it being supposedly 'found' by Cyril Graham:

Here was an authentic portrait of Mr. W.H., with his hand resting on the dedicatory page of the Sonnets, and on the frame itself could be faintly seen the name of the young man written in black uncial letters on a faded gold ground, "Master Will. Hews."

And lastly, in the magazine edition, Merton, who forged the portrait, is found and his preliminary sketch is discovered:

... a drawing of the picture of Mr. W.H. ... It was almost a facsimile - the only difference being that the two masks of Tragedy and Comedy were not suspended from the marble table as they are in the picture, but were lying on the floor at the young man's feet.

Soon after publication of the magazine, Wilde began to extend the article to book length and, in the autumn of 1889, he met Charles Ricketts and Charles Shannon for the first time. He told them about his theory of Mr. W.H. and invited Ricketts around to his home in Tite Street where he read the whole thing to him, presumably from an extended manuscript at this point. He then asked him to produce a portrait of Mr. W.H. - in the style of Clouet - which could be used as the frontispiece of the projected book. Wilde must have either written Ricketts a description of the portrait or given him the magazine article. Ricketts recalled:

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.

Wilde wrote the very next day:

It is not a forgery at all; it is an authentic Clouet of the highest artistic value. It is absurd of you and Shannon to try and take me in! 

Wilde was engrossed in this subject and continued to work on it but, when his trials began, it was dropped by his publisher who supposedly returned the manuscript to Tite Street. Shortly afterwards Wilde became bankrupt and a chaotic auction of his and his family's belongings took place in Tite Street. The auction catalogue includes no reference to this manuscript but does have:

125 An old oil painting of Will Hewes, framed

which was sold but eventually it, too, disappeared and has never re-appeared, which is a great pity. However, in November 1912 Ricketts did a thumbnail sketch of the portrait which we can now see:

Charles Ricketts, portrait sketch of Mr. W.H.
[image: William Andrews Clark Library, Los Angeles,
with permission of Leonie Sturge Moore and Charmian O'Neil]
[darkened and cropped by Geoff Dibb]

This is, undoubtedly, a very sketchy sketch of the oil painting and Ricketts drew it 23 years after he painted the original. Because of this passage of time it may not be a completely accurate reproduction but he did paint the original and his recollections are generally accurate. In any case, it is all we have.

We can make out some details which accord with Wilde's description of the portrait: it is a full length portrait of a man standing with his right leg advanced, his right arm is resting on a table or plinth (on which I can be persuaded is a book), his outfit (it looks to be sixteenth century) is darkly hatched to represent his 'black velvet doublet' and there is a rough indication of a worm-eaten frame. This is all fine but, top left, there is an object which looks to be an elaborate scroll or plaque which generally would have contained some details about the subject of the portrait. If sixteenth-century portraits include any information about the subject, it is a name and possibly age and date, usually written along the top of the picture or to the side of the portrait itself, or a coat of arms is painted. The use of a scroll to contain details, whilst known, is not common at this period. 

As I have already noted, in the magazine edition description of the portrait, Wilde writes that the sitter's name is on the frame:

... written in black uncial letters on a faded gold ground, "Master Will. Hews."

But, in drafting his book edition, this is changed by Wilde to:

... on the corner of the picture could be faintly seen the name of the young man himself written in gold uncial letters on the faded bleu de paon ground, "Master Will. Hews."

The name has moved from being on the frame to on the corner of the picture. I do accept that there is no mention in the text of a scroll bearing his name, and indeed, Wilde has previously described the background of the portrait as being peacock-blue, so his conception is of the name on the painted background. However, for whatever reason, the Ricketts sketch does show a scroll in the corner of the picture.

The most significant other change is in the third occurrence of the portrait where Merton's preliminary drawing is discovered:

It was almost a facsimile, - the only difference being that the two masks of Tragedy and Comedy were not suspended from the marble table as they are in the picture, but were lying on the floor at the young man's feet

It was almost a facsimile, — the only difference being that the two masks of Tragedy and Comedy were not lying on the floor at the young man's feet, as they were in the picture, but were suspended by gilt ribands.

What can we make of this significant change, moving the masks of comedy and tragedy from being suspended to lying on the floor? If the masks were suspended from the table in Ricketts's sketch of his portrait, then they would be obvious and just a little below the table top. They definitely are not there. Has Ricketts omitted this key detail or could there possibly be a mask lying on the floor at the young man's feet indicated by a semi-circular shape alongside Will Hewes' right foot?

I have a photographic reproduction of the manuscript which was published as the book in 1921 and this page is interesting: Wilde has pasted page 9 of the magazine article onto a larger sheet and has made changes to the magazine text shown below (struck through text is where Wilde has crossed words out and bold text is Wilde's new insertion):

... and on the frame itself corner of the picture could be faintly seen the name of the young man ... 

When it comes to the two masks Wilde has made a first set of changes:

... the two masks of Tragedy and Comedy were not suspended from the marble table pedestal as they are in the picture, but were lying placed on the floor at the young man's feet.

So at this earliest stage of correction, Wilde is improving his text, not altering his description. But then, with a very different pen, he scores through five lines of the sentence after ... the two masks of Tragedy and Comedy and a new section is written at the top of the page and inserted:

were not lying on the floor at the young man's feet, as they are in the picture, but were suspended by gilt ribands

I think we are seeing different corrections at different times, here. The earlier insertions (pedestal and placed) may have been made by Wilde to improve his text but this wholesale change in the position of the two masks must have been made later, after he received Ricketts's portrait and realised its error.

I have to admit that the sketch by Ricketts is not unambiguous when it comes to details. But Wilde must have had a reason to change his descriptions and I conclude that, although Wilde was overjoyed with Ricketts's portrait, it must not have reproduced these particular details accurately and, rather than ask Ricketts to paint another - clearly an unacceptable option - he edited what he hoped to be the text of his book to match the painting. After all, the text and the painting had to correlate because it was planned to be the book's frontispiece. 

Whilst this 'two masks' text is changed at this point in the manuscript, Wilde did not make the same change to the text at the beginning of the story and, therefore, the book edition descriptions published in 1921 differ. It may be that at that point, Wilde felt he had increased his text sufficiently to have created the draft of his book and sent it to be typed. After that he then worked on this typescript. This is commonly how he did work, editing typescripts and sometimes producing several as he redrafted his text. Perhaps it was a later, more complete and corrected text which was submitted to his publishers and this was returned to Tite Street and lost in the chaos of 1895.


I believe Wilde did alter the text of The Portrait of Mr. W.H. to accord with Ricketts's painting. I also believe that the text of the book-length version Wilde submitted to his publisher - probably in typescript - was lost in 1895 and the manuscript which was published in 1921 is an earlier draft.

The intriguing portraits of Mr. W.H. are both literary and actual: eventually there were six in total. The magazine edition had both the portrait (masks suspended) and Merton's original drawing of it (masks on the floor); the book edition (the typescript that I speculate existed but is now lost) had a different portrait (masks on the floor) and a different original drawing by Merton (masks suspended); Ricketts actually painted a forgery of an imaginary forgery (with masks on the floor) and, eventually, because this was lost, he sketched the portrait we have before us now (masks not suspended.)


On page 9 of the manuscript, following the amended description of the portrait, Wilde inserted a sentence for his book edition which wonderfully encapsulates the fiction, forgery and facts that constitute The Portrait of Mr. W.H.: 

It is quite clear from Sonnet XLVII that Shakespeare had a portrait of Mr. W.H. in his possession, and it seemed to me more than probable that here we had the very 'painted banquet' on which he invited his eye to feast, the actual picture that awoke his heart 'to heart's and eye's delight'.

This is Wilde's chronologically impossible fancy: Shakespeare's sonnets worshipping the 'Fair Youth' could have been written at any date from 1585 to the end of the century, but the seventeen year-old boy of the portrait is pointing at the dedicatory page which did not exist until publication in 1609. The portrait had to be painted after the Sonnets were published and, therefore, this young man cannot be Mr. W.H. and Shakespeare cannot have feasted his eyes upon it. After 1609, the 'Fair Youth' would not have been seventeen but aged anywhere between twenty-seven and his early forties.
     Geoff Dibb

Oscar Wilde, 'The Portrait of Mr. W.H.', in: Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, vol. CXLVI (July-December 1889), pp. 1-21.
The Portrait of Mr. W.H. As Written by Oscar Wilde. New York, Mitchell Kennerley, 1921.
Jean Paul Raymond & Charles Ricketts, Oscar Wilde Recollections. [London], The Nonesuch Press, 1932, pp. 28, 35-36.