These two images are perhaps the most famous of those taken by the late Victorian and early Edwardian photographer Frederick Henry Evans: the 'sea of steps' at Wells Cathedral and the Aubrey Beardsley photo. I am put in mind of him particularly because of the 'Modern Works on Paper' exhibition at the RA that I was blogging about just the other day where an original platinum print of the Beardsley photo was sold for many many thousands of pounds.
It is said that in Beardsley has expressed a desire to be made to look, in this portrait, like a gargolye: hence the remarkable pose in which his hands and face become part of a single shape, making the best use of his rather spectacular nose.
Evans was originally a bookseller, hence his association with Beardsley and others of the 1890s gang and we know that he was acquainted with Vincent O'Sullivan. One of the things that makes O'Sullivan the 'mystery man' of the period is that fact that of all of them, we don't even know what he looked like. There is no identified photograph or portrait of him in any medium. Yet, tantalisingly, we know that several photos of O'Sullivan were taken by Evans because of the two letters reproduced below. As you can see from the letters, one of these photos came frustratingly close to being published in O'Sullivan's lifetime as a frontispiece for one of his books, but was kicked into touch by Smithers. Of course, there are significant collections of Evans's photographs held by various institutions but without a 'key' photo or portrait, it is impossible to know which unidentified sitter might be O'Sullivan.
October 30th 1897
Dear Mr. Evans:
Thank you very much for the portraits. My own opinion about my own portraits is, of course, valueless, and all I can say is that they are what I believe myself to be. But every one to whom I have shewn them has been full of praise. As to the new Conder, it seems to me to shew in a new and quite unexpected way what photography can be brought to do. I look forward to seeing the others of myself which you promise to send.
I saw Smithers in town yesterday, and he said that my book was now in the hands of the binders and that it would delay it considerably if I insisted on the portrait being published with it. If I ever bring out a collected edition of my verse in which a portrait of myself can be properly included, I will ask your permission to use yours.
Believe me, your’s sincerely
Vincent : O’Sullivan
c/o F. Newcombe : Esqr
[imprinted on paper] Ancaster. Grantham.
Friday - 4th March - 1898
Dear Mr. Evans -
I wonder if you could find an opportunity to let me have two copies of the profils portrait you made of me - I am also curious to see the two which I don’t think you printed - at any rate, which you did not send.
I need hardly add that I will of course pay your usual charges.
With kind regards -
Vincent : O’Sullivan
To my knowledge (which is pretty certain), only one of these letters has previously been published.
The photograph of Charles Conder referred to may well be that used as a frontispiece to Gibson's 1914 Charles Conder. His Life and Work, I cannot find a copy of the image online and do not have a copy of the book.
It is interesting that O'Sullivan was asking for the profile photos: he may have been aware already of the Beardsley portrait.
The punctuation is wonderfully and idiosyncratically O'Sullivan's own down to the separation of his name with a colon and the use of an apostrophe in 'yours'.