|A cabinet card portrait of Lord Alfred Douglas, poet, translator and prose writer. He is better known as the intimate friend and lover of Oscar Wilde. Although some of his poetry was Uranian in theme, in later life he distanced himself from both Wilde’s influence and any incidents of homosexuality in his own past.
Born the third son of John Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensberry, Douglas met Wilde while he was up at Oxford, and the two began a friendship that was both intense and, at times, physical, though according to Douglas, it stopped short of sodomy. Douglas’s relationship with his volatile and boorish father had always been strained, and when the Marquess began a crusade against his son’s lover, Douglas, sensing an opportunity to revenge past injuries, fanned the flames, persuading Wilde to sue when Queensberry publicly insulted him.
Wilde’s case went badly – several male prostitutes were produced against him – and on advice from his lawyers, he dropped the case. However, on evidence raised during the case, Wilde was prosecuted for ‘gross indecency’. During the ensuing trial, Douglas’s 1892 poem Two Loves - which famously refers to homosexuality as ‘the love that dare not speak its name’ – was used against Wilde.
Wilde was eventually sentenced to two years with hard labour, and Douglas went into exile in Europe. On Wilde’s release, the two were reunited at Rouen, subsequently spending two months living together near Naples. When they separated – supposedly for financial reasons – Wilde went to Paris, where he died in 1900, and Douglas returned to England.
In 1902, he married the poet Olive Custance, and in 1911, he converted to Roman Catholicism. His marriage and his religious fervour both served to distance him from his youthful homosexuality, which he repudiated in the appalling Oscar Wilde and Myself (1914). In 1918 he went even further, describing his former lover as ‘the greatest force for evil that has appeared in Europe in the last three hundred and fifty years.’ [The previous ‘force for evil’ to which he tacitly referred was the Reformation.] Following his own incarceration in prison in 1924 – for libelling Winston Churchill – Douglas’s feelings towards Wilde and his own past softened. In his Oscar Wilde: A Summing Up (1940), he wrote that ‘Sometimes a sin is also a crime (for example, a murder or theft) but this is not the case with homosexuality, any more than with adultery.’
Financially, he struggled. He edited, at various times, several reviews and journals, but this brought scant income, and his poetry, though critically acclaimed – his sonnets have been favourably compared to Shakespeare’s – brought him little money. Moreover, his ‘litigious and libellous career’ [the phrase comes from Douglas Murray’s biography, published in 2000] proved ruinous. He had been forced to declare bankruptcy as early as 1913, and he never really recovered. By then, his wife had left him, and his quarrelsome nature alienated many who would have been his friends. His spent his old age in a flat in Hove, and by the time he died in 1945, he was very pathetic, poor and almost alone.
This photograph of Lord Alfred Douglas was taken by Elliott and Fry in 1914, when the sitter was about forty-four years old, and is probably the portrait used on the frontispiece of Oscar Wilde and Myself, which was published that year.
condition: The mount has been heavily trimmed, probably to make the portrait fit an oval frame at some time. This suggests that, at one time, the photograph belonged to a relation or close associate of Douglas, since it is unlikely anyone else would have framed and displayed his portrait. The print itself has good tonal range and shows no spotting, foxing or other imperfections.
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