The Definitive Resource Of Oscar Wilde's Visits To America

The Kelly Sketch

New York, January 1882

,At the start of Wilde's lecture tour of North America in 1882 his touring manager, Colonel W. F. Morse, required a sketch image of Wilde, in addition to the Sarony photographs for publicity purposes. He therefore commissioned a sketch of him to be made.

The artist chosen was James Edward Kelly (1855—1933), a New Yorker of Irish descent, who grew up during the Civil War. It was this upbringing, perhaps, that caused Kelly to develop a lifelong interest in American history—indeed the subjects of his sculpture and illustrations are often people and events of American military history. The connection with Wilde continued when, as the Complete Works [1] reminds us, "Kelly was commissioned to provide five full-page designs and nine tailpieces for Rennel Rodd's Rose Leaf and Apple Leaf (1882), to which Wilde contributed an introduction". 

The drawing depicts Wilde, later famous for his children's stories, seated in profile perhaps as storyteller, alongside an unidentified child. It is often speculated that the boy was Kelly's son, but Matthew Sturgis in his biography Oscar Wilde (UK Edition: p. 778, n. 44) points out that Kelly had no son.

Kelly used the head of Wilde from this image as the basis for an etching made to reproduce advertising media during 1882; and he also sculpted a similar clay bas-relief from which a bronze plaque was made. The image has since appeared in various guises including in Wilde biographies (see below for examples):

[1]  The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Volume 1: Poems and poems in prose, ‪Oxford University Press‬, 2000.


See my blog article First Impressions for more on the bas-relief (below) and Wilde’s signet ring which he impressed into a corner.


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Oscar Wilde In America | © John Cooper, 2024