Monday 28 March 2022

Robert Aickman and Lord Alfred Douglas

In 1943 Robert Aickman and the photographer Howard Coster came up with a scheme  to publish a book of one hundred photographs (by Coster) and one hundred biographical notes (by Aickman) of ‘the leading men of our time in all walks of life’.

This project enabled Aickman to obtain an introduction to Harry Price (the ghost hunter), and possibly other notable figures. It also meant that he met Lord Alfred Douglas, known as 'Bosie', the controversial lover of Oscar Wilde in the decadent 1890s. Wilde was one of Aickman's heroes, and he would later lecture on the subject of Wilde.

Aick­man wrote to Douglas to ask for a meeting, and they exchanged a dozen letters thereafter, discussing theatre and literary matters. Aickman later wrote to Rupert Croft-Cooke (after the publication of Bosie: Lord Alfred Douglas, His Friends and Enemies, 1963):

I knew Lord Alfred Douglas fairly well in his last years. At about the time of his seventieth birthday, I organised a small luncheon party, mainly in order that Howard Coster, who was a friend of mine, could photograph him. After the luncheon, we all returned to Douglas’s flat. Coster and Douglas entered, in order that Coster could entice Douglas into natural attitudes etc., while the rest of us waited outside in the Gardens. After about an hour, Coster emerged and said all was well. The rest of us went in and there was one of those tea parties. About three days later Coster rang me up saying he had sent proofs to Douglas who had replied in a fury that the photographs must never be published and that the plates must be destroyed. Coster did destroy the plates, but not before he had run off a set of prints, which I still have.

Aickman’s set of photographs are kept at Bowling Green University Library with the constraint that they are not to be published or reproduced—a restriction set by Aickman himself based on Douglas's dislike of them. However, the same set, taken by Coster in Douglas’ flat in the 1940s, is available to view at the National Portrait Gallery, London, and on their website.

It can only be assumed that 'Bosie' was unhappy with the way he looked, having once been compared by Wilde to 'Hyacinthus, whom Apollo loved so madly'. Bosie in fact seems to have worn very well, but even at seventy years of age, vanity still played its part.


Robert Aickman: An Attempted Biography, by R.B. Russell, Tartarus Press, 2022


With thanks to Heather Smith, and Artellus, Ltd.

All photos, unless otherwise stated, are copyright Estate of Robert Aickman/British Library/R.B. Russell, and are not to be reproduced without permission and acknowledgement.

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