Today is the birthday of English poet and Dandy, John Gray. As a writer, Gray is best-known for Silverpoints,The Long Road, and Park: A Fantastic Story. Though celebrated in his day, today he is perhaps best known for being the rumored inspiration for Oscar Wilde’s fictional character and literature’s most famous Decadent and Dandy, Dorian Gray.
John Gray was born on 2 March, 1866 in Bethnal Green, London, the first of nine children. Like most people with great taste, he came from a working class background. At thirteen he quit school and began working as an apprentice metal-worker (continuing his education with evening classes). In 1882 he passed the Civil Service exams and five years later passed the University of London matriculation exams. He subsequently joined the Foreign Office and became a librarian. Gray’s evening classes had included (among other foreign languages) the study of French and he translated the work of Symbolists Arthur Rimbaud, Jules Laforgue, Paul Verlaine, and Stéphane Mallarmé into English — some for the first time.
John Gray by Reginald Savage
In 1889, at a party in Soho, Gray was introduced to Oscar Wilde and through him became friendly with Decadent poet Ernest Dowson, genius illustrator Aubrey Beardsley, and others in Wilde’s circle. Gray was rumored to have been one of Wilde’s lovers and some began referring to the poet as “John Gray Dorian.” In 1892, the newspaper The Star referred to him on their front page, referring to him thus, “…the original Dorian of the same name. Mr. Gray, who has cultivated his manner to the highest pitch of languor yet attained, is a well-known figure of the Playgoers’ Club, where, though he often speaks, he is seldom heard.” Gray responded by threatening to sue for libel. Since some of his letters to Wilde were reportedly signed “Dorian Gray,” it was likely done to protect his reputation more than anything else.
Gray’s relationship with Wilde waned as the latter’s affections turned increasingly to Lord Alfred Douglas. Following the death of his father, by the end of 1892 Gray was reportedly deeply despaired and confided in a friend his thoughts of suicide. However, things turned around for him after he met Marc-André Raffalovich, a wealthy, French-born Russian Jewish poet and outspoken defender of homosexuality (or “unisexualité” as he termed it) who’d come to England.
a copy of the first edition of Silverpoints
Gray published a collection of poetry, Silverpoints, in 1893, supported in part by Raffalovich after Wilde backed out. Its cover was designed and decorated by highly-regarded book designer Charles Ricketts with the intention of producing not just a book, but an art object. Sixteen of the poems were original whilst thirteen were translations of poems by Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, and Verlaine.
Gray’s second publication was Spiritual Poems (1896), which reflected his development as a Catholic (by some accounts inspired by French author Joris-Karl Huysmans‘s similar religious trajectory). Although Gray had been baptized a Catholic in 1890, he didn’t fully embrace religion until Wilde’s notorious trials for gross indecency prompted a bit of “soul-searching.” Gray’s best-known poem, the allegorical “The Flying Fish” first appeared in 1896’s The Dial.
Whereas Silverpoints had included translations of Symbolist poetry, Spiritual Poems mostly included translations of religious poetry by the likes of Angelus Silesius, Jacopone da Todi, Notker Balbulus, Prudentius, St John of the Cross, and others. Gray left his position at the Foreign Office and in 1898 he entered the Scots College, Rome, to study for the priesthood. He was ordained at St John Lateran in December.
Raffalovich’s major work, Uranisme et unisexualité: étude sur différentes manifestations de l’instinct sexuel, was published in 1896 (and included an essay blaming Wilde’s ego for leading himself and other Dandies astray). Encouraged by Gray, Raffalovich also became Catholic and joined the tertiary order of Dominicans (taking the name *ahem* “Sebastian”). When Gray became a priest in Edinburgh (first at Saint Patrick’s and then as rector at Saint Peter’s), Raffalovich lived nearby and even helped finance the latter church. Four months after Raffalovich died in 1934, a devastated Gray died at St. Raphael’s nursing home in Edinburgh.
Gray (left) with Raffalovich (right) and friend (middle) circa 1910
Selected publications (check the book section at Amoeba or your local library):
Spiritual Poems (1896)
The Blue Calendar (1895–1897)
Ad Matrem: Fourteen Scenes in the Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary (1903)
The Long Road (1926)
Park: A Fantastic Story (1932)
The Poems of John Gray (edited by Ian Fletcher) (1988)
The Selected Prose of John Gray (edited by Jerusha Hull McCormack) 1992
If you’re interested in seeing a film adaptation of Wilde’s Gray-inspired Portrait of Dorian Gray, look for the following:
The Picture of Dorian Gray (dir. Phillips Smalley – 1913)
Portret Doryana Greya (dir. Vsevolod Meyerhold and Mikhail Doronin – 1915)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (dir. Fred W. Durrant – 1916)
Das Bildnis des Dorian Gray (dir. Richard Oswald – 1917)
Az Élet királya (dir. Alfréd Deésy – 1918)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (dir. Albert Lewin – 1945)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (dir. Franklin J. Schaffner – 1953)
Il novelliere: The picture of Dorian Gray (dir. Daniele D’Anza – 1958)
Dorian Gray (aka Il Dio chiamato Dorian aka The Secret of Dorian Gray) (dir. Massimo Dallamano – 1970)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (dir. Glenn Jordan – 1973)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (dir. John Gorrie – 1976)
Le portrait de Dorian Gray (dir. Pierre Boutron – 1977)
The Sins of Dorian Gray (dir. Tony Maylam – 1983)
Dorian Gray im Spiegel der Boulevardpresse (dir. Ulrike Ottinger – 1984)
The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (dir. Stephen Norrington – 2003)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (dir . David Rosenbaum – 2005)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (dir. Duncan Roy – 2007)
Dorian Gray (dir. Oliver Parker – 2009)
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, writer, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities — or salaried work. He is not interested in writing advertorials, clickbait, listicles, or other 21st century variations of spam. Brightwell’s written work has appeared in Amoeblog, diaCRITICS, and KCET Departures. His work has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft & Folk Art Museum, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured in the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA? and at Emerson College. Art prints of his maps are available from 1650 Gallery and on other products from Cal31. He is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
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