Close-up of Oscar Wilde in William Powell Frith’s The Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881
Private collection; photo courtesy of Martin Beisly Fine Art, London
‘Live the wonderful life that is in you!’ says Lord Henry Wotton in The Picture of Dorian Gray. ‘Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing…’
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) is Oscar Wilde’s only novel, but it exemplifies the flamboyant poet and playwright’s philosophy of life. Handsome young Dorian, living in Grosvenor Square, becomes enthralled by the hedonism of Lord Henry Wotton who resides in Curzon Street. The story explores the relationships between these two men and artist Basil Hallward, who paints the portrait of Dorian. Ultimately the novel addresses what it means to be alive: to be young, then to age.
Mayfair was central to Oscar Wilde’s world. It was where his professional and social lives converged. A tantalising visual glimpse of Wilde is given by William Powell Frith’s The Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881. It depicts him alert and standing tall (six-foot-three-inches before allowing for his hat), superbly attired complete with carnation, gazing upwards and, perhaps most tellingly of all, surrounded by a crowd.
In the opening pages of Dorian Gray, Lord Wotton declares Hallward’s portrait of Dorian to be the best thing he has ever done. He encourages the painter to send it to the Grosvenor Gallery – ‘really the only place.’ This Bond Street gallery was co-founded in 1877 by Sir Coutts Lindsay, another Grosvenor Square resident (he lived at number 11). Lindsay avoided any overt commerciality at his gallery; this was art for art’s sake – an aesthete’s paradise.
In a review of the gallery, Wilde recorded the walls hung with scarlet damask, the velvet couches, flowers and tables of inlaid marbles covered with Japanese china – ‘everything in decoration that is lovely to look on, and in harmony with the surrounding works of art.’
These days, at quieter times of the year, Bonhams arranges exhibitions at its New Bond Street gallery, separate from any sales activity. This year it offers Oscar Wilde: A Man For Our Times, which has moved online during the Coronavirus lockdown. The exhibition features the collection of Jeremy Mason, a former Brook Street antique dealer who, since his school days, has accumulated more than 500 items relating to Wilde including rare books.
‘The thing I keep coming back to is Wilde’s use of language,’ says Mason. ‘Yeats, no less, said that Wilde spoke in perfect sentences. He was a superb conversationalist and raconteur. If he were alive today, he’d probably be a chat show host or guest.’
Then as now, Mayfair was a village, and this is how Wilde would have experienced it. He gave Algernon Moncrieff (from The Importance of Being Earnest) an artistically furnished flat in Half Moon Street. Hatchards book shop on Piccadilly still has what’s called ‘Oscar’s table’, where he signed his books. The nearby Albemarle Club was the scene of a pivotal escalation in his conflict with his male lover’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry. In good times and bad, Wilde gathered with friends at the Café Royal in Regent Street.
He would buy carnations for his buttonhole in the Burlington Arcade (today it might be at McQueens Flowers in North Audley Street, or maybe Venus ET Fleur in South Molton Street). Together with his hats, flowing hair and full-length capes, he would have left a vivid impression on passers-by.
He gave great consideration to his wardrobe and the effect it had. Passages of Wilde’s 1885 essay The Philosophy of Dress could have come straight from Beau Brummel, the original Mayfair dandy, although Wilde was writing about both men’s and women’s attire: ‘the beauty of a dress depends entirely and absolutely on the loveliness it shields, and on the freedom and motion that it does not impede.’
Imagine him strolling through Mayfair, spinning plot strands in his head; picture him gazing up at the theatrical roof lines, regarding the architecture as some great animated stage set – perhaps stopping to enjoy spring blooms and bird song in Mount Street Gardens or Grosvenor Square, indulging his senses, drinking it all in. ‘Everything in moderation, including moderation,’ the great man said.
Written by Daniel Pembrey
The author wishes to thank the Oscar Wilde Society for its help with this article.
Bonhams, Oscar Wilde: A Man For Our Times
The Oscar Wilde Lounge at the Café Royale