The Aesthete

16 May 1882

One hundred and fifteen years after his death from cerebral meningitis in a cheap Paris hotel in 1900, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde remains a controversial and poignant figure. Born in Ireland in 1854, he is best known for his witty and socially biting plays including Lady Windermere’s Fan, An Ideal Husband, and The Importance of Being Earnest. Highly acclaimed when first performed during the 1890s, his plays continue to attract appreciative audiences today. Wilde is also remembered for the notorious trial which ultimately led to his disgrace. Publicly accused by the Marquis of Queensberry of having an affair with his youngest son, Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde unwisely sued him for libel. After incriminating evidence was revealed in court, Wilde dropped his charges, but subsequently found himself charged with gross indecency. After a jury was unable to reach a verdict, Wilde was retried. Found guilty, he was imprisoned for two years with hard labour in 1895. After his release, his health broken, and bankrupt from legal fees, he lived in poverty as a social outcast in France until his untimely death at the age of 46.

Oscar Wilde, circa 1882

Oscar Wilde, circa 1882

By 1882, he was already a well-known, controversial figure despite his youth. Having written a number of well-regarded poems, he was recognized as one of Britain’s up and coming literary figures. However, he was even better known as a leader of the Aesthetic Movement. The Aesthetic Movement, which was in vogue during the late nineteenth century, was a philosophy that argued that the arts should simply please the senses rather than evoke sentimental or moral themes; art was for art’s sake. Wilde first became involved in the Movement during his years at Oxford University. There, he became renowned for his wit, flamboyant clothes, and louche lifestyle. An epicurean, he entertained lavishly in his university digs which were decorated with peacock feathers and flowers; the sunflower became his emblem.

By the early 1880s, the Aesthetic Movement, in general, and Wilde, in particular, was admired and ridiculed in equal measure. He had many high society and artistic followers. The American-born artist James McNeill Whistler was an adherent of the Aesthetic philosophy. However, many thought the Aesthetic Movement was self-indulgent and vacuous, and were critical of Wilde’s over-the-top lifestyle and ambiguous sexuality. He was lampooned in press, particularly by the English satirical magazine Punch. Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1881 operetta Patience was a satire of the Aesthetic Movement; its main character “Bunthorne, the fleshy poet” was modelled after Wilde.

Punch cartoon of Oscar Wilde, 1881

Punch cartoon of Oscar Wilde, 1881

When the operetta crossed the Atlantic to New York, Wilde went too, in part to provide additional publicity. He agreed to tour North America and give a series of lectures, bringing the philosophy of Aesthetics to the American masses. The tour was wildly successful, and was extended from four to ten months, though it’s unclear whether people showed up to learn from him or to mock him. As well as touring the United States, Wilde lectured throughout eastern Canada, stopping at most major cities, including Ottawa.

By most accounts, he arrived in the Capital from Montreal on 16 May, 1882, the day of his lecture on “The Decorative Arts.” Confusingly, however, he wrote a letter dated 12 May saying “Tomorrow night I lecture Lorne [the Governor General] on dadoes in Ottawa.” It’s also likely that Wilde stayed at the Russell Hotel, Ottawa premier watering hole and resting stop at the time.  However, there are some indications that he may have stayed, or at least hoped to have stayed, at Rideau Hall as a guest of the Governor General. Princess Louise, the Governor General’s wife, was a fan of the Aesthetic Movement, and had decorated the drawing room at Rideau Hall in that style.  Moreover, Lord Lorne’s sister-in-law was a sometime model for James Whistler, and a personal friend of Wilde.  However, Kevin O’Brien, author of the definitive book on Wilde’s visit to Canada, argues that any evidence of a Rideau Hall invitation is apocryphal. He claims that Princess Louise, who would have been behind any such invitation, was in England at the time of his visit.

What is known for certain is that Wilde held court at the Russell Hotel prior to his lecture on the evening of 16 May. According to the Globe newspaper, he was “fairly besieged by autograph hounds and interviewers,” to whom Wilde was gracious and courteous, though he cultivated a “listless aesthetic sort of air with a view to overawing the visitor.” After apparently dining with the Premier, Sir John A. Macdonald and his wife, Lady Agnes, he lectured a rapt Ottawa audience on the merits of the decorative arts. Wilde contended that art was a necessity of human life, and everyday articles should be crafted using rational and beautiful designs; there was no contradiction between utility and beauty. He argued that if you beautify the objects of everyday life, other arts will follow. To encourage the manufacture of aesthetically pleasing things, design schools should be established to educate and to inspire. But to produce the “noblest art,” craftsmen needed to live in a “clean, healthy atmosphere.” This was a far cry from what Ottawa had to offer. As Wild critically pointed out, the Capital’s air and waterways were befouled by smoke and sawdust, its shops, ugly.

The lecture appears to have been a qualified success. The Ottawa Citizen commented that “there was a fairly good audience,” though one notable absentee was the Governor General, a snub that was widely noticed. According to the Citizen, Wilde cut a rather fine figure, wearing “a black velvet suit of the previous century,” heavy lace cuffs and collar, and black stockings. However, the newspaper said his appearance suffered owing to “the outre manner in which he wore his hair.” The newspaper also though his lecturing style dull and monotonous, and his accent more English Cockney than Irish. The Citizen concluded that Wilde’s ideas would have relevance only for millionaires and savages, and would not find many supporters in “the practical 19th century, or in practical Canada.” For similar practical reasons, it also rejected Wilde’s criticism of Ottawa’s pollution problem.

After the lecture, Wilde visited Parliament Hill to view a night session at the House of Commons. Feted in style, he was invited to sit on the floor of the House of Commons beside the Speaker’s chair—a signal honour. This was followed by tea with his many admirers in the Speaker’s rooms. Later, he visited the Parliamentary reading room, and had a late night snack in the Parliamentary restaurant. The next afternoon, Wilde left Ottawa from the (first) Union Station on Broad Street in Lebreton Flats, taking a first class berth on the Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa & Occidental Railway (just acquired by the CPR) for Quebec City, his next stop on his lecture tour of eastern Canada.

One minor, but fortuitous, event of Wilde’s visit to Ottawa was his introduction to the Canadian portrait artist, Miss Frances Richards. Richards, who was head of the Ottawa School of Art, was well-connected socially, being the daughter of a lieutenant governor of British Columbia and niece of a former Canadian Chief Justice. In addition to signing her birthday book, Wilde provided letters of introduction for her, including one to James Whistler. Several years later in London, Richards, now a close friend of Wilde, painted his portrait. Her painting provided the inspiration for Wilde’s only book, The Picture of Dorian Gray. In a later interview to the Pall Mall Gazette, Wilde commented:  “In December 1887, I gave a sitting to a Canadian artist [Frances Richards] who was staying with some friends of hers and mine in South Kensington. When the sitting was over, and I had looked at the portrait, I said in jest, ‘What a tragic thing it is. This portrait will never grow older and I shall. If only it was the other way!’ The moment I had said this it occurred to me what a capital plot the idea would make for a story.” Sadly, Richard’s portrait of Wilde is lost.

As a final note, Wilde had another Canadian connection. His close friend and sometime lover, Robert Baldwin Ross, was the grandson of the great Canadian reformist politician Robert Baldwin. Baldwin and his political partner Louis-Hippolyte Lafontaine brought responsible government to Canada during the 1840s. Ross was at Wilde’s bedside when he died, and subsequently became his literary executor, tracking down and producing the definitive collection of Wilde’s works. In 1950, Ross’s ashes were interred in Wilde’s tomb in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Sources:

Gale Student Resources in Context, 2007. The Picture of Oscar Wilde: The Celebrated Aesthete Gazed At the Portrait Frances Richards Had Painted of Him. Suddenly, He Had a Brilliant Idea, http://ic.galegroup.com/

Holland, Merlin & Hart-Davis, Rupert, (eds), 2000. The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, Henry Holt and Company: New York.

O’Brien, Keven. 1982. Oscar Wilde in Canada: An apostle for the arts, Personal Library: Toronto.

Official Website of Oscar Wilde, 2014, http://www.cmgww.com/historic/wilde/.

The Globe, 1882. “From the Capital, Oscar Wilde on New World Art.” 17 May.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1882. “Grand Opera House – Oscar Wilde,” 15 May.

————————, 1882. “Oscar Wilde,” 16 May.

————————, 1882. “Oscar Wilde,” 17 May.

————————, 1963. “Oscar Wilde’s Ottawa Visit,” 2 March.

Porter, Brian, 2014. “Local Artist inspired Oscar Wilde Novel,” The Ottawa Citizen, 18 October.

Images: Oscar Wilde, circa 1882: http://www.cmgww.com/historic/wilde/.

Oscar Wild, Punch cartoon:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oscar_Wilde/.

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