Wilde about Oscar

By Monica Sanchidrian and Christoph Schmidt-Supprian, Collection Management Department

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Have you seen our online exhibition, Oscar Wilde: From Decadence to Despair? Making use of gorgeous images from rare photographs, trade cards, theatre programmes, and other printed works and manuscripts, it brings to life key moments in Wilde’s life. The Rosenthal collection of Wildeana, acquired in 2011 from the rare book dealer Julia Rosenthal, includes over 500 printed items by or about Oscar Wilde, his family and his friends. Many of them are first editions and/or inscribed copies, which makes them particularly valuable. Among these is a first edition of An ideal husband inscribed by Wilde to the book’s dedicatee, Frank Harris. Another rarity in the collection is a copy of the auction catalogue for the sale of Wilde’s possessions at his home in Tite Street at the time of his trial in 1895 – only four copies of this catalogue are known to survive.

Thanks to the Library’s Programme for Visibility of and Access to All Collections, emanating from the Library Strategy 2015-2020, we have recently completed the cataloguing of these books. To find them, go to our main online catalogue, Stella Search; type in, for example, the keywords “Julia Rosenthal Oscar Wilde”; and select the “Special Collections” facet in the left-hand panel. You can consult them in the reading room of the Department of Early Printed Books and Special Collections.

This collection will undoubtedly provide a further boost to Wildean scholarship in Trinity and beyond. Its scope is surprisingly wide. For example, while most of the books are in English, there are also many in other languages, specifically French (43), German (26), Italian (3), Polish (1) and Japanese (1). To whet your appetite, the rest of this post will highlight some of the riches that can be discovered.

The Happy Prince (shelfmark OLS X-4-193 no.1)

One of the most beautiful items in the collection is a bilingual edition of The Happy Prince, no. 32 of a limited edition of one hundred copies (shelfmark OLS X-4-193 no.1). The English text is illustrated with very striking etchings by Fernando Eandi, while the Italian translation is accompanied by Giacomo Soffiantino’s art.

A number of the books are by or about Aubrey Beardsley. Like Oscar Wilde, he was a leading figure of the Aesthetic movement, and he illustrated Wilde’s play Salomé. His erotic drawings have been used to decorate menu cards for events by the Oscar Wilde Society, such as that for the 2009 annual dinner, preserved at shelfmark OLS L-12-680 no.21. Beardsley was also the first art editor of The Yellow Book, an artistic magazine published in London in the 1890s, whose contributors included many of Wilde’s friends; and a complete set of which is in the collection.

Other books have beautiful bookplates and other copy-specific detail. For example, a copy of Masques and Phases by Robert Ross belonged to a Louise Salom (not identified) and contains a cutting of a Siegfried Sassoon poem dedicated to Ross.

It is fascinating to uncover several first editions with signatures of Wildean authors and scholars such as Matthew Sturgis, Tom Wright, and the only grandson of Oscar Wilde, Merlin Holland. Often it is the previous owners’ inscriptions that are found inside older editions which can transport us to other times and places. One such example is number 195 of a limited edition of The ballad of Reading Gaol, published in 1925 and signed by Kenneth Loveless from Alexandria in 1941.

OLSS X-4-192 no.2

Rarities such as a bound volume containing numbers 5, 6 and 7 of A selection of Irish melodies with symphonies and accompaniments by Sir John Stevenson, with words by Thomas Moore, often bear additional surprises. Inside, a beautiful note about the poem ‘When I first met Thee’ can be found pinned to the page.

OLS X-4-165

Two volumes of The Woman’s World are of interest in the light of the centenary commemorations of the suffragette movement. Edited by Oscar Wilde from 1887-89, this journal aimed to give equal voice to revolutionary (suffragette) and to conformist ideas. An article about the revival of the embroidery industry of Donegal, framed in the narrative of bringing progress to the area, resonates strongly in Trinity: it helped to popularise Book of Kells-inspired designs.

Catalogues of auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s are also part of the collection, documenting the provenance of some of Julia Rosenthal’s acquisitions. Similarly, Rosenthal made notes in the books about the purchases. For example, she wrote on the endpaper of a copy of Children in prison and other cruelties of prison life – one of Oscar Wilde’s lesser known works – that the London bookseller, J. Rider, had given her his word that this was the “original of first edition.”

The cataloguing of Julia Rosenthal’s Oscar Wilde book collection has been completed; however, in a research library such as this, the addition of new materials is never finished. Sometimes there are opportunities for new acquisitions, and other times there are re-discoveries of semi-forgotten books acquired long ago. Inspired by the Rosenthal collection, we are currently scouring old, paper-based catalogues to ensure all our Wildeana are findable in the online catalogue.