The Aesthete

16 May 1882

One hundred and twenty 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.


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,

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,

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:

Oscar Wild, Punch cartoon:

A Beautiful Friendship

16 May 1953

Heralding the arrival of spring after a long, arduous winter, the Canadian Tulip Festival is one of most anticipated events in Ottawa’s social calendar. Each May, the festival celebrates the enduring friendship between Canada and the Netherlands, a bond that was forged during the dark days of World War II. It all began when Crown Princess Juliana of the Netherlands, and her two tiny daughters, Princesses Beatrix and Irene, were evacuated to Canada in May 1940 ahead of the advancing German army, while her mother, Queen Wilhelmina, headed the Dutch government-in-exile in London, and her husband, Prince Bernhard, joined the RAF. The small family settled down in Rockcliffe Park for the duration. In January 1943, Princess Juliana gave birth to Princess Margriet in Ottawa’s Civic Hospital, the first and to date only princess born in North America.

After enduring five years of brutal occupation and deprivation, the Netherlands were liberated by the Allies in the spring of 1945. The First Canadian Army, numbering some 200,000 men, featured prominently in the liberation, fighting canal by canal, dike by dike, and house by house. More than 7,000 Canadian servicemen lost their lives in the battle. The Royal Canadian Air Force air-dropped food to starving Dutch citizens whose official rations had been cut to only 320 calories per day, one eighth of an adult’s daily requirements, during the cruel winter of 1944-45. On 2 May 1945, Queen Wilhelmina and Princess Juliana returned to liberated Holland. Three days later, the remaining German forces in the Netherlands surrendered.

To commemorate and honour the role played by Canada’s armed forces in the liberation of Holland, and to mark the years Princess Juliana spent in Ottawa where she gave birth to Princess Margriet, the Dutch government sent 100,000 tulip bulbs to Ottawa in October 1945 as a token of gratitude. This was a remarkable gift from a war-ravaged country whose people had been reduced to eating tulip bulbs just a few months earlier. It was also a gift that almost never happened. Letters addressed to Ottawa’s mayor, J.E. Stanley Lewis, offering the city the bulbs went unanswered until H.R. Cram, the Secretary of the Federal District Commission (the forerunner of the National Capital Commission), got wind of the offer and questioned the mayor. Lewis hastened to accept the generous gift, and apologized for the inadvertent delay in getting back to the Dutch authorities. He blamed a low-level bureaucrat who, in the mayor’s absence, did not appreciate the importance of the message.

The FDC planted the bulbs in the gardens in front of the Peace Tower on Parliament Hill. This was done against the wishes of Prime Minister Mackenzie King who thought the tulips’ bright colours might clash with the Gothic architecture of the Parliament buildings. Hastily planted while King was out of town, the beautiful blooms proved to be a big hit with the general public the following spring. Even the prime minister was pleased with the outcome.

In 1946, Princess Juliana, later Queen Juliana, sent 20,500 additional bulbs—“gentle ambassadors of goodwill”—to the Federal District Commission with a request that some be planted in the gardens of the Civic Hospital in the name of Princess Margriet. She promised to send a further 20,000 tulip bulbs each year to thank Ottawa for the hospitality she and her daughters received while they lived in the city. The Associated Bulb Growers of Holland gave an additional 100,000 bulbs to the city to express their own gratitude. The FDC’s landscape architect, Mr. E. I. Wood, planted many of the bulbs on banked grounds along the Driveway at Dow’s Lake to permit both pedestrians and “autoists” a good viewing when they bloomed in May 1947.

Although the FDC planted tulip bulbs annually for the next several years, Ottawa’s Tulip Festival was not officially launched until May 1953. It was the brainchild of Malak Karsh, the famous Canadian photographer of Armenian descent, and brother of the equally renowned portrait photographer, Yousuf Karsh. Malak, who was the North-American representative of the Associated Bulb Growers of Holland, came up with the idea while he was sick in bed in 1951. He approached the Ottawa Board of Trade who ran with the idea. Malak was to remain closely associated with the Tulip Festival for the rest of his life, and was its honorary president when he died in 2001.

Tulip Festival, May 2014
Tulip Festival, Commissioners’ Park, May 2014

At 2.00pm on Saturday, 16 May 1953, the first Canadian Tulip Festival was officially opened on Parliament Hill. For the event, the FDC planted some 750,000 bulbs in 29 beds in the Ottawa area. Officiating at the opening was Senator Cairine Wilson, who was described as “one of the most ardent tulip growers in the capital.” She was introduced by Col. George Cavey, president of the Ottawa Board of Trade. Acting Mayor Daniel McCann expressed his appreciation to the FDC for its co-operation in making the festival possible. A bouquet of tulips was presented to Senator Wilson by Miss K. Willsher, the Ottawa Recreation Association’s “Queen.” Bouquets were also sent by Trans-Canada Airlines to Queen Elizabeth, and to each of Canada’s ten provincial premiers. Music for the festivities was provided by Lyres Club of Glebe Collegiate who performed a rendition of Tip Toe Through The Tulips, as well as O Canada and God Save the Queen. The ceremony concluded with the Dominion carilloneur playing a special arrangement of The Flowers That Bloom In The Spring by Sullivan and Spring Day by Mendelssohn. On Sunday, 17 May, Ottawa churches named the day “Tulip Sunday.” The first annual Tulip Festival ran until 24 May.

The Tulip Festival, proved to be an instant hit with both Ottawa residents and tourists alike. In the space of three years, Ottawa vaulted from fifth to second place behind Niagara Falls as the most popular tourist destination in Ontario, owing to the Festival’s popularity. Today, it’s reputed to be the world’s largest tulip festival with more than 1 million bulbs of 50 different varieties planted annually throughout the National Capital Region. 300,000 bulbs are located in Commissioners’ Park at Dow’s Lake, the premier site to view the flowers. The May event attracts more than 600,000 visitors annually, many from across North America, Europe and Asia, with an economic impact on area merchants and hotels estimated at more than $50 million each year.

After its relatively low-key inauguration in 1953, the Festival has attracted many celebrity guests, including Queen Juliana herself in 1967, Canada’s centennial year. Princess Margriet was the guest of honour at the 50th anniversary Festival in 2002. She officially unveiled the statue The Man with Two Hats by the Dutch sculptor Henk Visch at Dow’s Lake. The statue commemorates the welcome received by Canadian soldiers when they liberated the Netherlands in 1945. An identical sculpture stands in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, signifying the continuing bond between our two countries.

After some rocky years, especially in the mid-2000s due to poor weather which lowered the attendance at related music events and left Festival organizers with significant financial losses, the Festival is now managed by a non-profit organization, The Canadian Tulip Festival Inc. Among its many government and corporate sponsors is, naturally, The Kingdom of the Netherlands. In 2014, the Festival ran from 9 May to 19 May, a week earlier than in 1953 owing to global climate change which has hastened the arrival of spring to Ottawa.


Canadian Tulip Festival. 2014,

Dow, L.S., 2003. “Malak Karsh: Canada’s Immortal Tulip King,” I Can Garden,

Government of Canada, Veterans Affairs, 2014. “The Liberation of the Netherlands,”

Pacquet, L.B., 1999. “A Capital in Bloom,” Legion Magazine,

The Canadian Tulip Festival Inc. 2008.

The Evening Citizen, 1945. “Gift of Bulbs to Commemorate Great Friendship,” 3 October.

————————-, 1946. “Canada’s Largest Garden,” 9 November.

————————-, 1953. “Bouquet of Canadian Tulips Being Flown to the Queen,” 15 May.

 The Montreal  Gazette, 1956. “Bulb-Planting Big Project in Capital,” 25 October.

The Ottawa Citizen, 1953, “The Tulips in Bloom, Tra-La,” 16 May.

———————–, 1957. “Colorful Tulip Festival Tourist Attraction,” 9 May.

The Windmill, 1995. “The Crown princess Juliana in 1945 said thanks with loads of tulips,

VanderMay, Andrew, 1992. When Canada was Home: The Story of Dutch Princess Margriet, Vanderheide Publishing Co. Ltd, Surray, B.C.

Image: Tulip Festival, Commissioners’ Park, May 2014 by Nicolle Powell