When I was in London earlier this year, I visited what was once Oscar Wilde’s home in Chelsea. It is a private residence, not a museum, so I could only stare at the facade and try to reconstruct the Victorian interior—particularly Wilde’s library—in my mind.
I wish I could say that as I stood on the footpath, a portal opened and transported me back to the 1890s, just in time to witness Wilde’s table talk, or to hear him telling a story to his sons Cyril and Vyvyan, but it was not to be. Instead, I took a photo of the house and its blue plaque and observed that the block of units opposite was such an abomination that Wilde would not want to have seen this ‘gift’ from the 1970s. I think I came closer to the Wildean spirit when I joined London Walks’ tour of Mayfair and Piccadilly, ‘Oscar Wilde’s London’.
Thanks to real estate sales, we can have a peek inside the former Wilde home. The ground floor is currently on the market. Here’s the brochure. I was alerted to this by the Oscar Wilde Society, and as the Society reports in the August edition of Intentions, no trace of Oscar and Constance Wilde remains.
If you want to find the doorway to Wilde’s library, the best way is to go through Thomas Wright’s Oscar’s Books:
“In the spring and summer time, the morning sun poured into the room from the large bay window, reflecting the shiny gilt lettering on the spines of Wilde’s books. Like his mother, however, Wilde was not fond of excessive light, and there were times when he blocked out the sun’s rays by pulling a glass bead hanging across the window or by placing in front of it a large wooden screen decorated in a Moorish pattern. According to Wilde’s son Vyvyan, screens were used in many of the rooms at Tite Street, making the interiors dark, exotic and ‘mysterious’. … The scent of tobacco dominated the room, pervading the books and the furniture; it was balanced by the dusty, musty odour of the volumes themselves, as well as by the flowers that Wilde place all around … There was a painting by the nineteenth-century French artist, Adolphe Monticelli, a picture by the Pre-Raphaelite artist, Simeon Solomon, Aubrey Beardsley’s drawing of the actress Mrs Patrick Campbell and a Japanese painting of children at play. The most striking work in the room was a cast of the famous bust of the god Hermes. … the Olympian god of orators, wits and poets … He was also the deity of liars and thieves … a trickster [with] a prodigious gift for telling stories. … This was the god whose shadow was cast across Wilde’s writing-desk.” Thomas Wright, Oscar’s Books: A Journey around the Library of Oscar Wilde
During the decades in which his name was unmentionable, Wilde was effaced from the Tite Street house, but thanks to Thomas Wright, I can watch Wilde at work in his library.
© JD Ellevsen