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.