Oscar Wilde, in the preface to A Picture of Dorian Gray, claimed that,
All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
As a Wilde fan (with in immediate connection to him as we share a birthday) it is with absolute delight that I do go beneath the surface of art and memorials of him and read the symbols they contain. Two statues of him remain two of my favourite pieces of art, public or otherwise – and I can’t help but feel he’d revel in the irony of that.
Like Alan Turing, Oscar Wilde’s history is two-fold; he is remembered as a genius, a playwright, a novelist and wit. But he is also remembered for his homosexuality and social downfall as a result of his affair with Lord Alfred Douglas (Bosie) and his foolishness in taking Bosie’s father, the Marquis of Queensberry, to court for libel. Queensberry had publicly called Wilde a sodomite and Wilde (heavily influenced by Bosie) sued for criminal libel. The trial resulted in Wilde’s prosecution for gross indecency, with two year’s hard labour and a ruined reputation as punishment.
Wilde is now rather more affectionately remembered, and especially considering his place in the history of homosexuality, he is very publicly fondly remembered. The two public memorials that I will discuss in this post are located in places so intrinsic to Wilde’s history: Dublin and London. Aside from these, other notable memorials to him include several plaques relating to where he lived or debuted his plays; a memorial at Reading Gaol, where he was sent after his trial; and his tomb in Paris.
Dublin as the place where Wilde was born and spent the first part of his life is also home to Danny Osborne’s Oscar Wilde statue, opposite his childhood home at 1 Merrion Square.
The memorial consists of a statue of Wilde and ‘pillars’ with quotes of his written over them (the Pillar of Art and the Pillar of Life). The statue of Wilde itself is aesthetically fantastic, and entirely embodies his wit. He wears a smoking jacket and a spectacular grin as he looks across the road to his previous home.
If the passer-by or visitor was looking for a mention of his sexuality, they would find a gold wedding band glaring from his left hand. He was a married man: he’d married Constance Lloyd, with whom he had two sons, but I found this a significantly negative part of the make up of this memorial. It reads as incredibly heteronormative and points to his life as a husband, not as someone who was “posing as somdomite”. The memorial washes over the final part of Wilde’s life, which raises significant issues in memorialising historical figures. Should Wilde be remembered only for his talent and works as a playwright and wit? Perhaps as this statue stands in the place he was born, local pride in his achievements means his homosexuality is not welcome as part of a collective ‘memory’ of him? One of the greatest challenges in reading or using memorials as a form of public history is that they are at their heart, as much pieces of art as they are a memorial of a historic figure. As such, they rely not just on the historical figure’s life, but also the opinion of the artist as well as those who commission it. I love this particular memorial as a piece of art – but not as a form of public history. While I research this current chapter on memorials and trails, I’m finding that statues and memorials are far more complex forms of public history than I initially thought, which this particular memorial of Wilde highlights. I still can’t help but enjoy it though, and would encourage anyone to stand and admire him and the choice of quotations that accompany it.
A Conversation with Oscar Wilde sits on Adelaide Street, in between Charing Cross station and Trafalgar Square. It was unveiled on the 98th anniversary of Wilde’s death, on November 30th 1998. Wilde emerges from a sarcophagus, inviting the passer-by to sit and ‘have a conversation with him’. He was originally holding a cigarette, which has so far been replaced three times due to people removing it (with substantial effort!), and is currently without one.
The statue came into being as a result of Wilde fans discussing the lack of public memorial to him in London, where he had lived and worked, and where his plays were performed. Sir Jeremy Isaacs, who was the Oscar Wilde statue project leader noted that it was Derek Jarman who suggested a statue as a memorial, and Maggi Hambling’s piece was eventually chosen. The public interest and eventual funding of the memorial is a testament both to Wilde’s legacy in London and the importance of public memorials.
Exploring this memorial as a piece of public history is particularly interesting because it specifically aims to involve the passer-by. In ‘having a conversation’ with Wilde himself, it is more than a statue and allows individuals to create their own connection to it. As in the above Dorian Gray quote, the art mirrors the spectator and allows them to create their own history with the piece and their own historical connection to Wilde.
There is no mention or allusion to his homosexuality – instead the statue’s interpretation includes simply a quotation of Wilde’s from Lady Windermere’s Fan, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Unlike the Alan Turing memorial discussed in a previous post, there is no signifier of Wilde’s status or presumed historical significance in describing him as a playwright. His significance instead, is left up to the passer-by, and although this initially reads as a memorial to Wilde the playwright through the use of the quotation, it is open to interpretation of the individual.
As well as being part of the public landscape of their respective cities, both of these Wilde memorials are used within heritage trails and walks. In Dublin there is an annual LGBT History walk that takes in the history of Wilde and his home. In London, when I went on the Kairos LGBT History Tour Soho (now run by centred) in 2010, the stop at A Conversation with Oscar Wilde was one of the most memorable for me. Experiencing memorials within a walking tour gives another dimension to them as public history, and gave me a less personal experience but one with much more historical context and interpretation. The personal experience of A Conversation… makes it an equally interesting experience to see other people sitting on it or taking note when they walk past – – – what historical connection do they make to Wilde as they do so?
 Somdomite, Wiki Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Somdomite.jpg
 Oscar Wilde Statue, Wiki Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Oscar_Wilde_Statue.JPG
 Sir Jeremy Isaacs, ‘London’s Wilde tribute’, BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/224663.stm
(All other images my own)