“When I was an art student in the 1970s, Oscar Wilde was our fashion icon,” says David Thompson. “The floppy hair, the sweeping jackets, the flowers; he wasn’t afraid to be seen and that’s what we wanted to be at art school; noticed. If we could be as stylish, witty and brilliant as Oscar we would surely make it.”
“Three decades later I rediscovered Wilde. I was a newly-qualified London Blue Badge tourist guide leading gay history walks in Soho. Oscar was the lead character in a story of outsiders living in the West End at a time when homosexuality was punishable with life imprisonment.
“Wilde developed his flamboyant style while a student at Oxford. He was a poster boy for the aesthetic movement that championed art for the sake of beauty. Oscar decorated his university rooms with peacock feathers, lilies, sunflowers, china and other exotic objects, remarking: ‘I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china’.
“By the time Wilde came down to London in the 1880s he was an established society figure in search of a reputation. After a decade of writing poetry and novels, three brilliantly successful drawing-room comedies propelled him to celebrity. But, at the apex of his fame, he was destroyed by a devastating personal scandal.
“Oscar’s very public demise played out across the capital. Wilde’s marital home was on Tite Street in Chelsea, where he lived with his wife Constance – the wealthy daughter of a leading barrister – and their two children. It was a loving marriage and they were feted as the ideal Victorian couple.
“But across town in the West End, Oscar lived another life. He kept gentleman’s chambers at the Albemarle Club in Mayfair, where he would work, sleep and entertain. These were conveniently close to the St James Theatre where Wilde’s plays were being performed to resounding acclaim.
“It is a short walk from the theatre to the Savoy Hotel on the Strand. En route was The Crown, one of Victorian London’s gay pubs, where Oscar would meet his ‘downtown boys’. It was at the Savoy where Wilde first encountered his distinctly uptown lover: the spoiled, reckless aristocrat Lord Alfred ‘Bosie’ Douglas. Oscar was 37, Bosie 20; to many it appeared that the celebrated playwright was taking advantage of the younger man.
“When Douglas’s father, The Marquis of Queensberry, found out about his son’s liaison he headed to the premiere of The Importance of Being Earnest armed with rotten vegetables to throw at Wilde. The playwright arranged for the police to guard the doors and to deny him access. Queensberry spent three hours prowling round the building, ‘gibbering like a monstrous ape’.
“Determined to confront his son’s lover, on 18 February 1895 Queensbury burst into the Albemarle Club demanding to see the playwright. Finding him absent, Queensberry left a calling card addressed to: ‘Oscar Wilde, posing as a ‘somdomite’’ (misspelling sodomite).
“Bosie hated his father and urged Wilde to sue for libel. Oscar’s friends met Wilde at the Café Royal and tried to dissuade him. To no avail – Oscar had Queensberry arrested and charged with criminal libel.
“Wilde was the star of the Old Bailey libel case, running rings around bemused lawyers to scenes of near hysteria in the press and public galleries. But when the defence produced witness statements from rent boys giving details of Oscar’s liaisons with ‘illiterate, working class, East End boys’, Wilde’s case collapsed.
“The revelations led to criminal charges of sodomy and gross indecency against Wilde. As he awaited his arrest at the Cadogan Hotel in Knightsbridge, his friends urged him to escape to France, but Oscar could only mutter ‘The train has gone. It’s too late.’
“Oscar eloquently defended himself in court, speaking of ‘the love that dare not speak its name’. To no avail, Victorian society had turned against Wilde and he was sentenced to two years’ hard labour.
“On release from jail he left England, living in impoverished exile in Italy and France. Although Douglas had been the cause of Wilde’s misfortunes, in 1897 they were briefly reunited, until their families threatened to cut off funds.
“Wilde’s final days played out at the shabby Hôtel d’Alsace in Paris. Unable to work he remarked: ‘I have lost the joy of writing’. On 30 November 1900, aged 46, he died.
“London made and destroyed Oscar Wilde. For many of us he was a martyr; the first major public figure to stand up for his sexuality at a time when gay relationships were a criminal offence.
“Ironically, the city that destroyed Wilde’s reputation now celebrates him. His statue stands opposite Charing Cross station where he boarded a train to leave England, never to return. Mayfair remembers him at the site of the florist shop where he bought his famous green carnations – Victorian symbols of ‘gay pride’. The St James tobacconist James J Fox is home to a small museum that proudly exhibits Oscar’s bills for his favourite black cigarettes.
“And Soho, the streets where men like Wilde roamed as outcasts in Victorian times, is now a welcoming home to London’s proud gay culture. We have much to thank him for.”
The world according to Oscar:
We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.
Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.
There is no sin except stupidity.
There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.
Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go