Beloved for his satirical wit, Irish-born Oscar Wilde was a man of many talents and tastes. Culture Trip talks to one of the author’s many biographers, Dr Michèle Mendelssohn, about Wilde’s life and his favourite London haunts.
Oscar Wilde’s work suggests a life of whimsy and nonchalance, but the notorious aesthete spent much of his life curating this personal facade. In her 2018 biography of the playwright, Making Oscar Wilde, Dr Michèle Mendelssohn traces Wilde’s fame to an unlikely but formative US tour in 1882.
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“He was sent to the US basically as a joke, and somehow he managed to leverage it and turn it into a career,” explained Mendelssohn in a talk about Wilde’s early career ahead of a screening of The Happy Prince (2018), which details the end of the writer’s life, at the 2019 London Book and Screen Week. In conversation with Culture Trip, Mendelssohn discusses the trajectory of Wilde’s career and explores some of the London haunts he frequented.
Before heading to the USA, Wilde came to London after graduating from Oxford University in the late 1870s. “He’s sort of a nobody, but is trying to become known, and soon achieves notoriety because of these caricatures in Punch magazine where he’s depicted walking through Piccadilly with a sunflower or lily in his hand,” explains Mendelssohn. The exaggerated depiction of Wilde was picked up by playwrights WS Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan and served as inspiration for Reginald Bunthorne, the protagonist of their farcical opera Patience – also billed as Bunthorne’s Bride. The opera, performed in New York in 1881, was a commentary on the ‘aesthetic movement’ of late 19th-century England and eventually led to an American fascination with Wilde and aesthetic culture. Today, Piccadilly Circus remains a centre of performance in London, drawing throngs of tourists to its shops, restaurants and theatres.
In 1882, Wilde stepped off the ship to start the first leg of his US tour bedecked in threads from the iconic Liberty London department store. Wilde’s characteristic flamboyance was generally loathed by the American elite, but in typical fashion, he embraced the criticism of his fussy dress and took advantage of the focus on his appearance to fashion himself as an iconic figure. In well-heeled circles, the bright colours, vibrant patterns and lush velvets Wilde preferred were a sign of the moral decrepitude of a new image-obsessed generation, a sign of low-class materialism. But Wilde was never one to bend to social mores, and he soon became beloved for his public disregard of criticism. You can still visit Wilde’s favourite clothier in London’s West End to find head-turning styles of their own.
Upon his return to London and his marriage to Constance Lloyd in 1884, Wilde settled at No 16 Tite Street in Chelsea. Along with notable neighbours such as the painter James Whistler, Wilde brought fashionability to the Chelsea neighbourhood. “Chelsea becomes where Wilde and other artists make house and establish an aesthetic and social sphere. The neighbourhood is now well-to-do, but back then it was a little rough around the edges. If you look at the decor on those houses, there is a distinct late 19th-century feel to them, influenced by the artsy and bohemian vibe that Wilde and his cohort gave it, and it made Chelsea appealing. It’s the old story of gentrification, really: wherever artists go, the middle class follows,” explains Mendelssohn. No 16 Tite Street is now No 34 and is marked by a blue plaque commemorating Wilde’s time here.
Kettner’s was already an establishment by the time Wilde walked through its doors. Opened in 1867 by Auguste Kettner, chef to Napoleon III, the Soho eatery was London’s oldest French restaurant until it was closed in 2016. “As he becomes more established as a writer, Wilde develops his double life and starts frequenting bars like Kettner’s to hang out and meet boys,” explains Mendelssohn. And Wilde wasn’t the only person who found Kettner’s the perfect place to hide out: it’s rumoured that King Edward VII had a secret tunnel built under the restaurant so his mistress Lillie Langtry – a good friend of Wilde’s – could discretely enter for their clandestine liaisons. In 2018 Kettner’s reopened as Kettner’s Townhouse, where guests can stay in luxurious Art Deco-inspired suites or just pop in to enjoy a glass of bubbly at the Champagne Bar.
Though the Royal Academy didn’t necessarily feature prominently in Wilde’s everyday life, a painting by William Powell Frith titled A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881 (1885) does offer insight into how Wilde’s reputation has changed over time. Frith included in his painting a number of figures prominent in London society, including naturalist Thomas Huxley, actor Sir Henry Irving and, of course, Oscar Wilde. “It’s a huge portrait that really announced, ‘This is an important painting of the great and the good in British society.’ Modern viewers would interpret Wilde’s inclusion as a sign of his inclusion to ‘the great and the good’, but at the time that really wasn’t the case,” explains Mendelssohn. Though Wilde is depicted surrounded by admirers, closer inspection of the foreground reveals a group of sombrely dressed men casting disapproving glares at the aesthete. Frith’s depiction of Wilde functioned as a commentary on the garish nature of aesthetic culture, and the way it drew attention away from the ‘real’ arts; note that the women around Wilde are the only people in the gallery who are not looking at the paintings.
Oscar Wilde spent much of his time at the Cadogan Hotel in the years leading up to his arrest in 1895. While scandal has immortalised his time there as the primary location of his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, Wilde also liked its proximity to the apartments of socialite and actress Lillie Langtry. “Wilde’s reputation begins to grow in London because of his association with Lillie Langtry. Wilde kind of hitches his wagon to her stardom, and she appreciates the help and attention. He is able to give her some coaching about what to wear for social occasions and gives her lessons in Greek and Latin,” explains Mendelssohn. Their friendship was the inspiration behind the recent remodel of the Cadogan by luxury hotel group Belmond. Now it’s the Belmond Cadogan, and literary salons are held to honour Wilde’s career; guests are also given the chance to request their favourite book for the room, and the original staircase and mosaic floor at Langtry’s private entrance has been preserved as an entrance for hotel guests.
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