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Big Fish

Oscar Wilde, seeking work or…?

Letter from Oscar Wilde to a magazine editor, £14,950 ($23,425) at Bamfords of Derby on September 24.

One of five Oscar Wilde letters that surfaced at a September auction. Courtesy of Bamfords.

One of a group of five letters from Oscar Wilde that turned up in a toy and collectors’ sale, all of them dating from Wilde’s early years as a journalist and magazine contributor and addressed to Alsager Vian, editor of the journal Court & Society Review.

Postmarked September 9, 1887, this, the most expensive of the group, begins by asking, “Shall I do for you an article called ‘The Child Philosopher?’ It will be on Mark Twain’s amazing and amusing record of the answers of American children at a Board School. Some of them such as Republicans—‘a sinner mentioned in the Bible,’ or Democrat—‘a vessel usually filled with beer’ are excellent.”

The letter also suggests a supper at Pagani’s restaurant in Great Portland Street [London], followed by a smoke and talk of work in Vian’s nearby rooms. The suggestion that Wilde makes about having their post-supper cigars and chat about future work at Vian’s home—“I am so far off, and clubs are difficult to talk in”—was seen by the auctioneers as Wilde propositioning Vian. They also pointed out that the letters were sold by Vian’s descendants, and family tradition has it that they were kept under lock and key in a bureau until his death in 1924.

While it is of course quite possible that Wilde had more than new commissions on his mind, it is perhaps dangerous to make judgements based on knowledge of what happened later in his life. Following the Marquess of Queensbury scandal and Wilde’s trial and imprisonment, there would have been many who tried to distance themselves from any former connection with the disgraced writer.

Amphigorey and the Wet Cat

Amphigorey and The Sopping Thursday by Edward Gorey, $9,600 each at Swann Galleries of New York on October 14.

The limited edition of Edward Gorey’s Amphigorey. Courtesy of Swann Galleries.

The weird and wonderful world of Edward Gorey, whether illustrating his own books or those of others, was very much in evidence at this New York sale. There were about fifty lots in all, but it was two scarce limited editions that topped the list.

The Sopping Thursday Courtesy of Swann Galleries.

Many of Gorey’s books are short, sometimes wordless, and Amphigorey is an omnibus collection of fifteen titles that opens with his very first book, The Unsung Harp of 1953. The copy seen at Swann’s was one of just fifty signed and numbered copies of a 1972 limited edition issue that came with original ink-and-watercolor drawing of a cat standing on a wooden frame that bears the roman numerals for thirty-four—the number allocated to this particular copy.

The Sopping Thursday is example C of just twenty-six signed and lettered copies of a limited edition issued by New York’s Gotham Book Mart in 1970, and again contains an illustrated drawing—this time an uncolored ink drawing of a cat balancing a furled umbrella on its paw as the rain pours down. This copy is additionally inscribed to Lloyd Currey, a specialist dealer in science fiction and fantasy material.

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Derek HayesIan McKay’s weekly column in Antiques Trade Gazette has been running for more than 30 years.