This was the title of an essay by Charles C. Nickerson of Trinity College, Oxford, that was published in The Times Literary Supplement (no. 909) on the 14th August 1969.  With Dr Nickerson’s kind permission and verification of the text (retyped from the TLS), we republish this in its entirety, together with the subsequent correspondence, changing only double quotation marks for single ones and vice versa, and silently correcting two clear typographical errors.


The article was illustrated with a line drawing of Disraeli by the Irish painter Daniel Maclise.  This was Disraeli the young dandy, and might itself well serve as a portrait of Dorian Gray.




tudents of Oscar Wilde have been much puzzled about the origin of the idea of the ageing portrait in The Picture of Dorian Gray.  The principal sources that have been suggested are Balzac’s La Peau de Chagrin (1831), Poe’s ‘William Wilson’ (1839) and ‘The Oval Portrait’ (1842), Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820), Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) – and even an article on ‘The Philosophy of Yourself’ (1864) by George Augustus Sala.  All of these fall more or less into the Döppelganger tradition, but only ‘The Oval Portrait’, Melmoth the Wanderer and (to a lesser extent) the Sala piece make any significant use of the idea of portraiture. 


All such speculation about the pictorial element in Wilde’s Döppelganger, however, is idle if we accept the account of the novel’s genesis that has been current among Wilde’s biographers since 1938.  Here is Hesketh Pearson’s version, from his Life of Oscar Wilde.


In the year 1884 Wilde used often to drop in at the studio of a painter, Basil Ward, one of whose sitters was a young man of exceptional beauty.  Incidentally, Wilde must have been a godsend to many painters of the time, as his conversation kept their sitters perpetually entertained.  When the portrait was done and the youth had gone, Wilde happened to say ‘What a pity that such a glorious creature should ever grow old!’  The artist agreed, adding ‘How delightful it would be if he could remain exactly as he is, while the portrait aged and withered in his stead!’  Wilde expressed his obligation by naming the painter in his story ‘Basil Hallward’.


Pearson cites no authority for this agreeable story, but he must have taken it from Boris Brasol’s Oscar Wilde (1938), which gives substantially the same account.  The ‘true genesis of Dorian Gray’, Brasol writes, ‘was revealed by Mr. Basil Ward, the artist, in his preface to one of the later editions of the novel in book form’ (p.215).  Although he does not identify the edition, Brasol does quote (slightly inaccurately) a few lines from the preface.


The edition in question is an American piracy published in New York by the Charterhouse Press in 1904 and reissued by Brentano’s in 1906 and again in 1915.  The text appears to be the first American printing (with American spelling) of the expanded book-length version of the novel, previous editions having been based on the Lippincott text.  The preface, however, is not signed ‘Basil Ward’, as Brasol states, but ‘Basil Hallward’ – the name of the artist in the novel.  (No artist called ‘Basil Ward’ or ‘Basil Hallward’ is recorded by Bénézit or Thieme-Becker.)  Another curious feature of this edition is what the Brentano’s dust jacket (1906) describes as ‘a beautiful photogravure frontispiece showing the portrait which inspired the story’.  This is a full-length portrait of a nondescript young man enclosed in a decorated gilt frame, printed in sepia and apparently intended to resemble an oil painting though looking rather more like a watercolour.


The Charterhouse Press ‘Publisher’s Note’ introduces both portrait and preface with these observations:


It is with great pleasure that the following Preface is submitted, and also the first portrait of the original ‘Dorian Gray’.  Coming, as they do, from the brush and pen of an artist, famous the world over, himself a man of rare genius, and the inspiration of Mr. Wilde’s ‘Basil Hallward,’ they will both be particularly interesting to the admirers of ‘Dorian Gray’ – a work that has no equal in our generation, unless it be ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde.’


The preface itself read as follows:


The Artist’s Preface.

During the Spring of 1884 Oscar Wilde was often in the studio.  One of my sitters was a young gentleman of such peculiar beauty that his friends had nicknamed him ‘The Radiant Youth’.  Each afternoon Wilde watched the work advance, enchanting us, meanwhile, with brilliant talk, until, at last, the portrait was finished and its original had gone his ways – rejoicing, without doubt, to be at liberty.

Now, the beauty of ‘Dorian’ was of that kind which depends on color and expression for its charm.  His hair was bright and wavy; the ruddiness of health suffused his cheeks; his eyes sparkled with wholesome fun, good humor, and high thoughts.  He was the sort of boy who makes the world seem jolly even when the east wind blows.  Goodness and merriment radiated from him visibly; the darkest room appeared to glow and brighten when he entered it.

‘What a pity such a glorious creature should ever grow old,’ sighed Wilde.

‘Yes, it is indeed,’ said I.  ‘How delightful it would be if “Dorian” could remain exactly as he is, while the portrait aged and withered in his stead.  I wish it might be so!’

And that was all.  I occupied myself with the picture for perhaps a quarter of an hour, during which Wilde smoked reflectively, but uttered not one word.  He arose, presently, and sauntered to the door, merely nodding as he left the room.

Family affairs called me, by-and-bye, from London.  I saw no more of either Wilde or ‘Gray’.

One day, years afterwards this book fell into my hands.  I cannot remember where or how, although it startled me to find the germ, sown carelessly in idle talk, expanded by the writer’s art into ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’.  Wilde must have brooded long upon the theme.  ‘The Radiant Youth’ was, to be sure, the very opposite of Wilde’s bad hero; but such was the author’s love of paradox that this antithesis of character was just the thing to fascinate the poet’s mind, from which the following pages grew.

Basil Hallward.


Clearly it is time to cast aside this elaborate bit of publisher’s puffery.  Osbert Burdett warned against it (although without specifying the offending edition) in his introduction to the novel in 1925, but his words seem to have gone unheeded.  The idea of the novel, he adds, ‘is said to have been suggested by a comment made by Wilde himself while standing in front of a portrait that Miss Frances Richards, a Canadian artist, was painting of him in 1887: he wished that the portrait and not her sitter should grow old’.   Burdett’s source is presumably Mason’s Oscar Wilde: Art and Morality (1912).  The important point, of course, is that even if we accept this story – and there is no evidence to oblige us to do so – the idea of the ageing portrait originated with Wilde and not with the artist.  (There is a note addressed to Miss Richards in Rupert Hart-Davis’s The Letters of Oscar Wilde (1962), together with a letter introducing her to Whistler – both dated May 16, 1882.  No trace of Miss Richards’ portrait, if it exists, is known.)


The Limited Editions Club of New York reproduces the preface given above in its 1957 edition of the novel, which has five lurid watercolour illustrations showing the portrait in various stages of degeneration, and M. Philippe Jullian in his Oscar Wilde (tr. Violet Wyndham, 1969) substantially repeats Hesketh Pearson’s version of the story.


If, then, we are justified in speculating about Wilde’s sources for the pictorial ‘double’ in The Picture of Dorian Gray, one possibility in addition to those already mentioned suggests itself in Disraeli’s first novel, Vivian Grey.  Wilde’s title alone, as Robert Blake has noted in his Disraeli, is a clear echo of Disraeli’s – with perhaps the substitution of jeunesse dorée for Disraeli’s more robust conception of youth.  Nor is Sybil Vane, both in name and character, very far removed from Violet Fane who, like Wilde’s heroine, dies tragically before the end of the book.  Moreover, Wilde read Disraeli’s novels with enthusiasm in his early teens.  The social extravaganza, the dramatic settings, and especially the epigrammatic wit must all have appealed to him.


Vivian Grey is full of references to pictures at least one of which might well have made an impression on Wilde’s young imagination.  While driving one morning with Mrs. Felix Lorraine (allegedly a caricature of Lady Caroline Lamb), Vivian admires the miniature of a young man which he finds her wearing.  ‘ “O, Mr. Grey! this is a fair work of art, but if you had but seen the prototype you would have gazed on this as on a dim and washed-out drawing.  There was one portrait, indeed, which did him more justice; but then that portrait was not the production of mortal pencil.” ’  She continues:


‘Max Rodenstein was the glory of his house.  A being so beautiful in body and in soul you cannot imagine, and I will not attempt to describe.  This miniature has given you some faint idea of his image, and yet this only the copy of a copy.  The only wish of the Baroness Rodenstein, which never could be accomplished, was the possession of a portrait of her youngest son, for no consideration could induce Max to allow his likeness to be taken.  His old nurse had always told him that the moment his portrait was taken he would die.  The condition upon which such a beautiful bring was allowed to remain in the world was, she always said, that his beauty should not be imitated.  About three months before the battle of Leipsic, when Max was absent at the University, which was nearly four hundred miles from Rodenstein Castle, there arrived one morning a large case directed to the Baroness.  On opening it it was found to contain a picture, the portrait of her son.  The colouring was so vivid, the general execution so miraculous, that for some moments they forgot to wonder at the incident in their admiration of the work of art.  In one corner of the picture, in small characters yet fresh, was an inscription, which on examining they found consisted of these words: “Painted last night.  Now, lady, thou hast thy wish.”  My aunt sank into the Baron’s arms.

‘In silence and in trembling the wonderful portrait was suspended over the fire-place of my aunt’s favourite apartment.  The next day they received letters from Max.  He was quite well, but mentioned nothing of the mysterious painting.

‘Three months afterwards, as a lady was sitting alone in the Baroness’s room,  and gazing on the portrait of him she loved right dearly, she suddenly started from her seat, and would have shrieked, had not an indefinable sensation prevented her.  The eyes of the portrait moved.  The lady stood leaning on a chair, pale, and trembling like an aspen, but gazing steadfastly at the animated portrait.  It was no illusion of a heated fancy; again the eyelids trembled, there was a melancholy smile, and then they closed.  The clock of Rodenstein Castle struck three.  Between astonishment and fear the lady was tearless.  Three days afterwards came the news of the battle of Leipsic, and at the very moment the eyes of the portrait closed Max Rodenstein had been pierced by a Polish Lancer.’

‘And who was this wonderful lady, the witness of this wonderful incident?’ asked Vivian.

‘That lady was myself.’


And later, after Mrs. Lorraine has attempted to poison him on their return from the drive, Vivian exclaims: ‘ “Can I believe my senses?  Or has some demon, as we read of in old tales, mocked me in a magic mirror?  I can believe anything.  Oh! my heart is very sick!  I once imagined that I was using this woman for my purpose.  Is it possible that aught of good can come to one who is forced to make use of such evil instruments as these?  A horrible thought sometimes comes over my spirit.  I fancy that in this mysterious foreigner, that in this woman, I have met a kind of double of myself.” ’


The description later in the same novel of Mr. Beckendorff’s collection of ‘animated pictures’ likewise touches on one of Wilde’s favourite themes – the superiority of the artificial to the natural.  It was a theme on which Wilde was to produce many variations – in his plays and essays as well as in The Picture of Dorian Gray.  And while he could certainly have drawn it from Huysmans’s A rebours, that novel was not published until 1884, when Wilde was thirty.  It is tempting to think that even as a boy the theme was running through his mind.


Dr Nickerson’s text ended there.  On the 21st August 1969, the TLS printed two letters on the subject, under the heading ‘Vivian Grey and Dorian Gray’, one from Karl Beckson, the other from myself.



Sir, – The discovery made by Mr. Charles C. Nickerson (August 14) that Vivian Grey provided Oscar Wilde with inspiration for The Picture of Dorian Gray comes somewhat late, for two months after the appearance of the first version of Dorian Gray in Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, July, 1890, Julian Hawthorne, son of the novelist, wrote a favourable review, which also appeared in Lippincott’s, in which he referred to the echoes from Disraeli’s novel.


Department of English, Brooklyn College, The City University of New York, U.S.A.


Sir, – Amongst the sources for the portrait of Dorian Gray, Mr Nickerson (August 14) has neglected your own columns, wherein you very kindly printed a letter from me on June 13, 1968, suggesting that the story may have sprung from the anecdote of the ageing of the portrait of Sir Thomas Blacket by Sir Joshua Reynolds, recounted by Ralph Nevill.  I asked at the time whether this was known to Wilde scholars; the answer, a year later, is apparently ‘No’!

D.C. Rose.

87 Avenue Road, London, N.W.8.


[Ralph Nevill was the son of Lady Dorothy Nevill, a hostess who ‘collected’ Wilde for a time. The anecdote appears in his book Sporting Days and Sporting Ways.] 


Charles Nickerson responded on the 28th August 1969:


Sir, – I am sorry if any of your readers should have received the impression that my article (August 14) was an attempt to compile an exhaustive list of possible sources for The Picture of Dorian Gray.  On the contrary, I deliberately confined myself to the ‘principal’ contenders – i.e., those which, on the basis of what we know of his reading, might reasonably be assumed to have come to Wilde’s notice.  I was well aware of Mr. Rose’s interesting letter – though he infers otherwise (August 21) – but ‘neglected’ it, because there seemed to be no evidence to connect the anecdote from Ralph Nevill’s Sporting Days and Sporting Ways (1910) with Wilde.  It is possible, of course, that Wilde heard the story in conversation – but then, many things are possible.

Professor Beckson’s suggestion (August 21) that there is nothing new in the linking of the two novels, the titles of which so readily invite comparison, has my full assent.  Indeed, my original typescript (as you, Sir, can verify) included a reference to Richard Aldington’s remarks, in 1946, on the Max Rodenstein story in his Oscar Wilde: Selected Works.  Certainly anyone acquainted with The Picture of Dorian Gray who took the trouble to read Vivian Grey could not have failed to notice the connexion between the two books: the trouble is that few now read Vivian Grey.  Yet it may be doubted whether Julian Hawthorne’s observations are particularly informative:

The general aspect of the characters, and the tenor of their conversation, remind one a little of ‘Vivian Gray’ [sic] and a little of ‘Pelham’; but the resemblance does not go far: Mr. Wilde’s objects and philosophy are different from those of either Disraeli or Bulwer.  Meanwhile, his talent for aphorisms and epigrams may fairly be compared with theirs: some of his clever sayings are more than clever, – they show real insight and a comprehensive grasp.

(Lippincott’s Monthly Magazine, September, 1890, p. 413)

The purpose of my article (apart from disposing of the ‘Basil Ward’ legend) was not to tot up possible sources, but to suggest how Vivian Grey, with its allusions to the permutations of art and nature, might have been the starting point for one of Wilde’s most insistent themes.  The Beckendorff episode (pages 344-345 of the Longmans edition, 1971), which limitations of space did not permit me to quote, is especially illuminating in this respect.  May I add that the curious reader will find additional matter bearing on this point in Disraeli’s Popanilla (e.g. pages 378-379, 398-399, 408, 431, 462-263, Hughenden Edition, Vol. IV, 1881)?

When a literary biography of Wilde comparable in scholarship to Sir Rupert Hart-Davis’s edition of the Letters finally comes to be written, perhaps the significance of Wilde’s early readings in Disraeli’s novels will be recognized.


Trinity College, Oxford.


I replied to this in a private letter (1st September 1969), reiterating that Wilde was a guest at Lady Dorothy Nevill’s Saturday luncheon parties, and apologising for ‘neglecting’. Mr Nickerson replied in turn (9th September 1969), saying that


… I suppose the truth of the matter is that Wilde encountered the changing portrait-Döppelganger in a number of places at different stages in his career.  I can’t see the Blacket anecdote as the genesis of Dorian Gray – though that doesn’t mean it wasn’t related (especially, as you point out, in view of his presence at Lady Dorothy’s luncheons) to him at some point.  Equally, his reading of the Poe stories and the Balzac and Maturin novels is as close to a certainty as anything that isn’t specifically documented can be.  So he must have noted the idea in several places – only it was in Vivian Grey that he struck it first, at an impressionable age, and then too with all the art vs. nature business …


On 11th September 1969, a further letter, under the heading ‘Dorian Gray’, was published in the TLS, this time from Isobel Murray, whose edition of The Picture of Dorian Gray was to appear in 1974.


Sir, – Authors cited at various times as sources for Dorian Gray include Balzac, Baudelaire, Disraeli, Flaubert, Gautier, Goethe, Huysmans, Maturin, de Musset, Poe, Stevenson, Swinburne and Zola.  If each of these had any considerable influence it would be hard to say that Wilde contributed much to the novel himself.  In fact, the very number of influences cited seems to imply that Wilde is not copying but writing in a well-established tradition, or combining two well-defined genres.  The essentials of the plot are foreshadowed more or less vividly in books as dissimilar as Faust, The Oval Portrait, La Peau de chagrin and Melmoth the Wanderer, for example.  As Ojala points out (Æstheticism and Oscar Wilde, Helsinki, 1954) the book might be said to derive its plot from such as these (not excluding Vivian Grey) and its atmosphere (and, I would add, its theories) from novels of the decadence such as Mademoiselle de Maupin, A Rebours and Marius the Epicurean.

I would differ from Mr. Nickerson (August 28) in his suggestion that Wilde’s theme of the superiority of art to nature is gathered from hints in Vivian Grey.  There was no need to interpret hints.  Much of Lord Henry’s doctrine is a close paraphrase of Pater’s doctrine in the suppressed Conclusion to The Renaissance; and behind the late but obvious influence of Huysmans stands his and Swinburne’s master, Baudelaire, and even de Sade, with denunciations of nature as evil and virtue, as well as art, as being artificial.  In L’Art romantique Baudelaire declares: ‘Review, analyse all that is natural, you will find nothing that is not horrible.  Everything fine and noble is the result of reason and calculation.’

Wilde’s interest in Pater, Swinburne, Huysmans and Baudelaire is better established and more lasting than his admiration for Disraeli, and their utterances on art and nature are more than hints of what he was to say.  Baudelaire’s influence was recognized by Ernst Bendz as early as 1913, when he wrote: ‘Probably few things in literature did as subtly modify Wilde’s outlook on life and the imaginative colouring of his work as these “Flowers of Evil” whose “poisoned honey” he delighted to feed upon.’

Isobel Murray.

Department of English, University of Aberdeen.


[Despite her letter, Murray went on to identify more ‘sources’ for the novel, including William Sharp's ‘Children of Tomorrow’, Louisa M Alcott's ‘A Modern Mephistopheles’ and the intriguingly named novel by Wilde's friend Edward Heron-Allen, ‘Ashes of the Future (A Study of mere Human
Nature): The Suicide of Sylvester Gray’.   I am most grateful to Professor Murray for allowing me to reproduce her letter, and for the additional note just given for the first time (Isobel Murray to D.C. Rose, e-mail, 18th April 2007).


For more on Wilde and Baudelaire see Walter Nelson: Oscar Wilde's Allusions and References to Baudelaire, An Essay.  Published by the author, Lund 2001.


This brought a final letter to the TLS, published on 9th October 1969, under the heading ‘Oscar Wilde’.


Sir, – While agreeing with Miss Murray (September 11) that Wilde was open to a great many literary influences, both French and English, may I trouble you for the hospitality of your columns in order to set the record straight on Wilde’s reading of Disraeli?

Wilde’s acquaintance with Disraeli’s novels is not difficult to establish.  In the Letters he twice likens George Curzon to Coningsby – ‘you brilliant young Coningsby!’ (July 20, 1885); ‘Though I believe I am a Radical, I should be sorry not see Coningsby in the House’ (October 23, 1885) – and in a review of Lady Munster’s Dorinda (Woman’s World, March, 1889) he laments that ‘the fashionable and brilliant young dandies, in whom Disraeli and Bulwer Lytton took such a delight, have been entirely wiped out as heroes of fiction by hard-working curates in the East End’.

But all statements about his early reading of Disraeli’s novels derive ultimately from the second chapter of Frank Harris’s Oscar Wilde (1918), where Harris prints, in quotation marks, several passages from a memoir of Wilde’s schooldays at Portora (1864-71), written for him by Sir Edward Sullivan, 2nd Baronet (1852-1928), who had been at the school with Wilde: ‘The romances that has impressed him most when at school were Disraeli’s novels.  He spoke slightingly of Dickens as a novelist. …’ (p.28.)  Decisive views for a schoolboy – and wholly consistent with Wilde’s subsequent development.

Sullivan was a man of many and varied interests.  Like Wilde, he went from Portora to Trinity College, Dublin; in 1906 he edited with R.Y. Tyrrell, Echoes from Kottabos containing twelve of Wilde’s poems.  He translated the Inferno (Stock, 1893), compiled a volume of Tales from Scott (Stock, 1894), edited Buck Whaley’s Memoirs (De La More Press, 1906), wrote a study of The Book of Kells (‘The Studio’, 1914) which went into a fifth edition in 1952, and contributed the introduction to The Civile Conversation of M. Steeven Guazzo, translated by Goerge Pettie (1581) for the ‘Tudor Translations’ series (Constable, 1925).  He was a trustee of the National Library of Ireland, a barrister of the Middle Temple, a member of the Reform Club, and a contributor to the Nineteenth Century and the Quarterly Review.  Had Harris (always a suspect witness) wished to perpetrate a fraud about Wilde’s schooldays it seems unlikely that he would have chosen to do so by implicating a public figure, who would certainly have complained at any misrepresentation.


Trinity College, Oxford.


There the matter rested until resurrected here.  Charles Nickerson adds this postscript:


The only reference to the article that I have ever come across is a footnote on page 435 of Donald L. Lawler, “Keys to the Upstairs Room: A Centennial Essay on Allegorical Performance in Dorian Gray” in Lawler’s edition of the novel (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1988):  “The best case was made by Charles G. [sic] Nickerson in TLS (August 14 and 21, also October 9, 1969), and the evidence of the MSS, which were not available to Nickerson, strengthens his case…” […]

There is, by the way, an article by Stanley Weintraub on “Disraeli and Wilde’s Dorian Gray” in UNISA English Studies (XXXI, 2), September, 1993, which reaches a conclusion similar to mine—also quoting the long Max Rodenstein passage and reproducing the Maclise drawing.

[C.C.N. to D.C.R., e-mail, 23rd April 2007]


We have been unable to find a downloadable version of the Maclise drawing.  The following picture of Disraeli by Maclise is the best we can do, and we apologise for its poor quality.  Unlike the drawing, it  gives a very feeble idea of Disraeli as a young dandy, to whose extravagancies of dress the young Wilde was heir.


Go to fullsize image



Long, long after all this was generated in the TLS, the subject of changing portraits continues to engage correspondence.  The following appeared on the VICTORIA list not long ago:


I suspect that evil portraits emerge quite frequently in ghost stories. ‘The Crimson Portrait’ by the Countess of Munster appears in an early volume of The Lady's Realm (Vol 1 or possibly 2 1896/7) where an image of a gentleman in russet brown gradually acquires an
evil -looking woman, whose draperies turn crimson, and who carries a dagger in her hand.  A footnote to the tale claims that the story is founded on fact and the picture is still in Lord Munster's possession.

Barbara Onslow, University of Reading, England




How about ‘The Mezzotint’ by M.R. James from Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1904)?  There is a rarer story by Amelia B. Edwards ‘Cain’ which was collected inMiss Carew’ (1865).  This picture has an evil which exerts an influence on any viewer.




All citations are from cuttings, original letters, e-mails or copies in the Editor’s collection.

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