The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1891

Description

In April 1891, Oscar Wilde’s first novel The Picture of Dorian Gray was published as a book by Ward, Lock and Co. The first edition was designed by Charles Ricketts, an emerging artist who has been suggested as an inspiration behind the character Basil Hallward, the painter of the Picture of the title. A thousand copies were made at this size – ‘octavo’ – with green levant morocco leather binding, gilt embossing, lettering and floral motifs in keeping with the flamboyance of the text. 

What is the story of the first inscription? 

Wilde sent copies to friends, including this one to Lionel Johnson, a young poet and student at New College, Oxford, whom he had met the previous February. Written opposite the title page, the inscription reads ‘Lionel/with the author’s compliments’. 

Johnson responded with a witty Latin poem, ‘In Honorem Doriani Creatorisque Eius’ (‘In Honour of Dorian and His Creator’). In translation, the poem begins

Bless you, Oscar,
For honouring me with this book
For friendship’s sake.
Casting in the Roman tongue
Praises that befit Dorian,
I thank you.
[…]

In English afterwards, Johnson sums up his point: ‘All this is Latin for a thousand thanks’. 

What is the meaning of the second inscription? 

Johnson lent his copy of the book to his 20-year-old cousin Lord Alfred Douglas, the youngest son of the Marquis of Queensbury. Lord Alfred, ‘Bosie’ for short, was then a student of Classics at Magdalen College, Oxford, as Wilde had been. ‘Passionately absorbed’ in the book, Douglas claimed in a letter to A J A Symons that he read it ‘14 times running’, and went with Johnson to meet Wilde at his home in Tite Street, Chelsea, probably in late June 1891. There, Wilde was captivated by Douglas’s beauty, gave him his own copy of a newer edition of the book, and offered to tutor him for his final university exams. A love affair had begun. 

Johnson, more repressed in his homosexuality, would later write a poem titled ‘To the Destroyer of a Soul’, apparently attacking Wilde’s relationship with his cousin. By 1895, this relationship had resulted in Wilde’s trial and imprisonment for ‘gross indecency’ (homosexual acts), during which Dorian Gray featured as evidence. In response, Johnson seems to have added a note to this book, just below Wilde’s: 

Amico meo scriptori miserere Domine! [Have mercy, O lord, on my friend, for he is a writer.] Lionel Johnson, 1895

After his release, Wilde sent Johnson a copy of his poem of prison life The Ballad of Reading Gaol (1898), with a very similar inscription: 

Lionel Johnson from Oscar Wilde: 1898 Miserere Deus scriptori amico meo

Full title:
The Picture of Dorian Gray
Published:
1891, London
Format:
Book
Creator:
Oscar Wilde
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library
Shelfmark:
Eccles 172.

Full catalogue details

Related articles

An introduction to The Hound of the Baskervilles

Article by:
Greg Buzwell
Themes:
The Gothic, London, Fin de siècle, Crime and crime fiction, Technology and science

The Hound of the Baskervilles merges two popular genres, the detective story and the Gothic tale. Here curator Greg Buzwell examines the novel’s depiction of scientific deduction, eerie landscapes and violent ancestry.

Gothic fiction in the Victorian fin de siècle: mutating bodies and disturbed minds

Article by:
Greg Buzwell
Themes:
Fin de siècle, London, The Gothic

The Victorian period saw Gothic fiction evolving and taking on new characteristics. With a focus on the late 19th century curator Greg Buzwell traces common themes and imagery found in Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Dracula and The Picture of Dorian Gray.

The Picture of Dorian Gray: art, ethics and the artist

Article by:
Greg Buzwell
Themes:
Fin de siècle, The Gothic, London

Dark desires and forbidden pleasure are at the centre of The Picture of Dorian Gray. Greg Buzwell examines the interplay between art and morality in Oscar Wilde’s novel, and considers its use of traditional Gothic motifs as well as the theories of the new aesthetic movement.

Related collection items

Related people

Related works

The Picture of Dorian Gray

Created by: Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde’s (1854-1900) Gothic tale first appeared in Lippincott’s Magazine in 1890. It was revised ...