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.
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’.
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