The Photo of Dorian Gray

Raised voices from the other room: Dorian heard one speaker say that the portrait could be created in less than half an hour, and it would be instantly recognisable.

Hallward sounded despairing as he replied: ‘But no – your images can be just a few square inches, while I can paint a full-length portrait of a person. Your photographic pictures are just made of black ink, while my flowers and landscapes are coloured. And your images are – ‘

The painter fell silent as he saw mister Gray enter the room. Carson, who owned a studio producing photographic portraits, turned to the newcomer and stared.

‘Dorian! I’m so sorry, I had forgotten you were calling round today. Mister Carson, may I present my friend, mister Dorian Gray?’

Carson bowed. ‘Pleased to meet you, sir. We was just talking about the merits of my new photographic portraits, and mister Hallward is not convinced that there is any future in my business. I think he is a very talented painter, and anybody would be proud to own one of his pictures.’

Hallward smiled faintly. ‘You are most kind.’

‘But’ continued Carson, ‘only a few people would be able to buy one of your pictures, whereas my photographs can be purchased by most people and carried around with them.’ He went on ‘We could even do a picture of your friend mister Gray here, and I would have a portrait ready in three hours, but it might take you a couple of days.’

‘Oh, but Basil has already started – ‘ Dorian broke in cheerfully, before noticing that a flash of annoyance  – and something else – vanity, pride? – passed briefly across the painter’s distinguished features. He recalled seeing a printed notice advertising a public lecture which claimed that everything was in constant motion. Perhaps all things are indeed in constant, frenzied agitation, and the moment captured by the camera is just a tiny fraction of the real image that viewers behold.

Hallward sighed faintly. ‘Yes, I have indeed started work on a painting of mister Gray. It is just a sketch, a preliminary outline; I don’t really want to share it with you before it is complete.’

Dorian stayed silent. He remembered seeing the painting, fascinated by the way the painter had conjured up an impression of him in vague blocks of colour. He wondered if the picture would appear differently viewed by lamplight, or in daylight; or on one of those bleak winter afternoons when the park is covered with snow and a pearl-grey brightness fills the drawing-room.

‘Besides’, Hallward went on, ‘we have no idea whether photographic images are stable. The beautiful forms depicted by Rubens or Titian or Delacroix are still as vivid and compelling as they were two centuries ago; but how do we know that your prints will not fade or be corrupted over the next fifty years?’

Last night Dorian had been enjoying the company of two young men, and had taken liberally of some wine laced with absinthe; every few minutes a brief wave of fatigue washed over him, and when he looked at Hallward, sharp points of light began crawling along the man’s face. Carson, too, appeared to be crumbling steadily away at the edge of his vision.

Dorian started to feel anxious. From a great distance he could hear Hallward’s concerned voice: ‘What is it, Dorian? Are you not feeling well – you have gone terribly pale. Please, sit down, I shall ask Milton to fetch you some tea.’ The painter called for his housekeeper, while Dorian slumped on the sofa. Hallward bent closer to try to catch the young man’s muttered words.

‘What if…oh, Basil…please, keep it by the window. No…I can’t look at it by the candle…that face, that…oh!’ Why is it crawling, what have you done to my face?’

Like many of the rich and famous in Victorian England, Oscar Wilde was familiar with the camera; there are photographs of the great writer as a ten-year-old, as a teenager at Oxford, and on his deathbed. The process of photography must have appeared dramatic and mysterious to many people of that era, and I sometimes wonder why Wilde decided that it was to be a traditional oil-painting, rather than a photograph, that would cause the damnation of his youthful hero.

Perhaps Wilde’s friends were anxious that the new medium of photography would gradually drive painters out of business. He may have felt that painting was a genuine craft requiring skill and dedication and vision, whereas photography was mechanical and soulless; the long hours spent creating a picture in oils represent a kind of devotion, and the end product has a spiritual element. The photographic portrait, on the other hand, is an instant production carrying none of the emotional involvement, colour, or depth which characterise the finest oil paintings.

Of course Wilde makes no attempt to explain the mechanism behind this drama; young master Gray accidentally notices one day that his painting has deteriorated in a specific manner, and it dawns on him that he is now free to indulge in late nights without having to suffer from the tell-tale scars of loose behaviour. A lesser writer might have been tempted to concoct a tale of how Dorian’s Great-Grandfather once kidnapped an Indian princess, whose father was forced to pay a ransom for her release. Of course, the ransom would include fabulous gemstones, each carrying a mysterious curse so that subsequent owners would meet a horrible end. And the silver mounting for these jewels? Well, this would have been processed into the silver nitrate used in photographic plates – the very plates used to capture the perfect image of Dorian Gray, so that when the young man utters his wish to remain young, the curse takes effect and grants his wish. And condemns him to a life of cruelty, murder and despair.

Back in the late nineteenth century, there were probably many photographic studios which made use of inferior materials, and whose pictures would start to decay after a few weeks exposure to a normal household environment. Perhaps Wilde himself had heard about someone whose portrait had been horribly disfigured by this type of silent corrosion, and been prompted to compose the Faustian tale that we now know as The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Di the painting itself change? Or was it just a psychological disorder, brought on by Dorian Gray’s exposure to absinthe, laudanum, and mercury?




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