On This Day: Oscar Wilde at Swansea

April 4, 1884

This “coal town,” as Mr. John Ruskin denominated Swansea, from which, “what can you expect” was favoured at the close of last week by a visit of the celebrated, or rather the notorious Oscar Wilde, who delivered a lecture in the Albert Hall on “The House Beautiful.” At the present moment, no doubt, Mr. Wilde enjoys or suffers the enviable or unenviable distinction of being the possessor of one of the best known names in English speaking countries. The why and the wherefore of that preeminent distinction is not easy to determine. It is not that he has done anything very great, or said anything very new or noteworthy. What is popularly known of him is that he is the high-priest of aestheticism, and what is chiefly known of aestheticism comes from the unfair caricatures of it and of its professors in the comic and the society papers. Nothing has been more mercilessly lampooned than this movement in favour of the beautiful and the real, but then, on the other hand, no professors of a cultus have ever behaved themselves more absurdly or placed themselves in more ridiculous attitudes than they. Oscar Wilde is young man of ambition and unbounded self-esteem. He first attracted attention by his eccentricity of garb and manner, and these have lifted him into the publicity he now rejoices in. At Swansea, however, the attire in which he appeared before his audience was common-place enough. He is not at all slender and “floppy,” as many people have supposed, but a tall well-built, not to say fleshly young man of about 27 years in appearance. He wore a suit of black evening dress closely fitting, with white cuffs turned back over the sleeves, a black necktie, and a crimson silk handkerchief arranged with “careful negligence” betwixt waistcoat and capacious shirt front. The handkerchief he affected to use was not more than six or seven inches square, hardly large enough to cover the masculine nose, and the white gloves were not put on but toyed with by the ostentatiously displayed small “hand of little occupation.” The attitude which he struck was a singular one, with the chest thrown forward and the head thrown back, and the utterance was clear and distinct, but very languid and effeminate. There was an indication of the awe and hush of reverence when he spoke of the beauty of leaves and tendrils, and flowers, but for the most part the delivery was affectedly cold and heartless. There was all through a fine vein of assumption of the role of arbiter elegantiarum, which could not fail to provoke the smile of those who know the flimsiness of such a pretence. His directions for the making of the house beautiful were merely arbitrary, consisting of a denunciation of antimacassars, gigantic mirrors, white ceilings, with exaggerated vegetable adornments, window poles like ships’ masts, plate glass windows, white marble mantelpieces, and Louis Quatorze and similar furniture but in place of these things, the only recommendations he ventured to make were that we should indulge in tertiary and neutral colours with the bright colours in small masses only, and that instead of pictures, unless of the highest art, we should “go in for” beautiful china, fine embroidery, rich textures, and the like. In conclusion, he did make some sensible but not at all original remarks about the folly of teaching young children in school such dry and useless facts as the population of Madagascar, and training of the hand and eye by contact with the concrete.

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