The Oliver Observations

Wilde times in Sheffield

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For my first proper new post I thought it was only right to go back to something old, so I’ve dug out this on Oscar Wilde and Sheffield which I wrote in (I think) the summer of 2010.
Hence the reference to it being written in the hotel where my Dad was staying on a visit to Sheffield. Re-reading it today I was intrigued enough to muse on it a bit more, and add the bit about John Ruskin and his museum.
If anyone’s got more information I’d be very happy to hear it.

**

As someone with a keen interest in Victoriana, and particularly the fin de siècle London literary scene, I’m familiar with the works of its great stage presence Oscar Wilde, excitedly reading first The Picture of Dorian Gray, then his entire ‘Collected Works’, over one summer when I was fourteen.
Through my teenage years I happily read everything by or about him I could get my hands on; even resorting to dubiously researched biographies, transcripts of his tragic trials, and those books of collected quotations which attribute every possible witty remark or amusing anecdote to Oscar Wilde (sometimes supported by Winston Churchill).

As such I know the letter Wilde wrote to his friend Lily Langtry, telling her ‘I am going to be married to a beautiful girl called Constance Lloyd‘. The letter is particularly interesting for Wilde enthusiasts, as providing ready proof that Wilde genuinely loved his wife, who he describes in a cascade of classical imagery and purple (or at least violet) prose as ‘a grave, slight, violet-eyed little Artemis, with great coils of heavy brown hair which make her flower-like head droop like a blossom, and wonderful ivory hands which draw music from the piano so sweet that the birds stop singing to listen to her’.

What I didn’t know until now was that Oscar Wilde wrote the letter in Sheffield, in the very hotel in which I’m now writing this.

On being told, while visiting the Royal Victoria Hotel in Sheffield (now rebranded as a Holiday Inn) that Oscar Wilde once stayed here, I smiled politely and murmured interest, while privately thinking ‘Yeah sure. What nonsense’.

Oscar Wilde can’t have visited Sheffield! Surely the apostle of aestheticism, when not in Ireland or on the Continent, Algeria, or America would have spent his time in rather further down South? Surely the darling of Duchesses’ Drawing Rooms would have preferred the more genteel metropolitan surroundings of the Cafe Royale or The Savoy Hotel?
Surely the Prince of Paradox would only ever venture north to Lake Windermere?

Finding myself in Western Bank Library (itself slightly incongruously opened by T.S. Elliot now I mention it), for a meeting, I decided to make a quick detour to investigate further. Turning eagerly to the index of Richard Ellman’s gargantuan biography of Wilde I found no reference to Sheffield, or indeed Yorkshire at all. Clearly the whole thing was an inaccurate story dreamt up by an unscrupulous hotelier in a bizarre attempt to increase business.

Disappointed by such a dead-end I decided to cheer myself up with a quick dip into the Rupert Hart-Davis edition of Wilde’s letters. But lo, what should I see when turning to a letter addressed to ‘Dearest Lil Langtry’? The sender’s address in the top right-hand corner: ‘Royal Victoria Hotel, SHEFFIELD’.

I am sorry I ever doubted the wise stewards of the Holiday Inn. Thanks to Hart-Davis I now know Oscar Wilde did indeed spend at least two days in smoky Victorian Sheffield in January 1884, and that one of ‘the uttermost parts of the earth’ Wilde rushed back to see Constance from was South Yorkshire. Strange to think of him ambling along Division Street or strolling around the Botanical Gardens.

Of course I’d love to know what brought Wilde to Sheffield and what he did with his time here.
A possible dully prosaic answer Wilde was merely staying in the city to break a journey, in an age where rail journeys between Sheffield and London took even longer than they do today. The Royal Victoria Hotel would have served many travellers using the now defunct Sheffield Victoria station. (A viaduct of the vanished railway line can still be seen behind the hotel’s car park.)
We also know Wilde was in Belfast at the beginning of January 1884 so could certainly have been travelling the country.
However, a stay of two days to rest during a journey seems a bit excessive, even by the standards of a man who said ‘Whenever I feel like exercise I lie down until the feeling passes’.
Wilde presumably came to Sheffield with business in the city itself.

While it’s tempting to imagine Wilde throwing buns to the bears in the Sheffield Botanical Gardens, exhaustive Google-based research reveals this popular attraction had already been removed by the time of his visit (clearly health and safety gone mad).
It’s also nice to think Wilde may have come to visit his fellow poet Edward Carpenter, later an early pioneer of gay rights, who lived in a series of houses in and around Sheffield, and was certainly in Wilde’s wide circle of acquaintance. Tantalising as this is, I’ve no evidence for it.

My strongest theory is that Wilde came to Sheffield to visit a museum.

John Ruskin, the great Victorian art critic, writer, social thinker, and early advocate of environmentalism, founded the St George Museum in the Walkley District of Sheffield in 1875.

Being a great admirer of the steelworkers and craftsmen of Sheffield he wanted to provide a museum which make art and culture available to the working man and their families.
To provide maximum accessibility entry was free and it was open until 9pm on weekdays, and on Sunday afternoons (those were the days).
The little cottage in which it was housed was also stuffed full of historical and artistic treasures – paintings by Turner, Burne-Jones and others, drawings by Albrecht Dürer and William Blake, Medieval artifacts including a de Croy book of hours, and plaster casts of decoration on Venetian buildings Ruskin had visited such as the Doge’s Palace (literally The Stones of Venice).
As a keen geologist Ruskin also ensured many rocks and minerals were displayed, hoping this would encourage visitors to enjoy their natural surroundings.
He knew the steelworkers of Sheffield were very unlikely to ever see his beloved Italy, but hoped the heights of the Peak District could be as rewarding as the Alps, and that the seven hills of Sheffield a worthy substitute to the seven hills of Rome.

Many of the St George Museum’s items can happily still be seen today by working men and others, in the Ruskin Collection at Sheffield’s Millennium Galleries.

In the days of booming railway travel, the St George Museum became a major Victorian attraction, attracting thousands of visitors from Sheffield and further afield.
These included many working families from Ruskin’s intended audience, but also such famous visitors as William Morris, and Queen Victoria’s son Prince Leopold.

Wilde hugely admired Ruskin, from whom he picked up much of his fascination with Renaissance art, and his concept of the aesthetic. During his time as an undergraduate at Oxford Wilde had befriended Ruskin, who was then the University’s Slade Professor of Fine Art, and the two kept in touch, Wilde later writing to Ruskin in 1888 ‘The dearest memories of my Oxford days are my walks and talks with you…there is in you something of prophet, of priest and of poet’.

Wilde also shared Ruskin’s interest in Socialism and the working class, as he explored in his essay ‘The Soul of Man under Socialism’.
(During Wilde’s later trials the establishment was scandalised not just by Wilde’s sexuality, but also by the revelation that he was on intimate terms with men of a much lower class than his. Wilde declared to the Prosecution’s shock that he would happily talk to a street urchin ‘As long as a street urchin wanted to talk to me’.)

It doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to think Wilde came to Sheffield to visit and admire his friend’s museum.
The museum’s building remains standing, much expanded and altered. I doubt many of the people hurrying past the nondescript apartments on the junction between Rivelin Street and Bole Hill Road have any idea they are passing what was once one of the most popular places in Sheffield.

This minute information on the young Wilde’s whereabouts may seem incredibly pointless. But I’m glad I took the time to research it, as it reminded me that Wilde, remembered chiefly in Britain for the Greek tragedy of his passionate personal life, was first and foremost a great writer, specialising in both hauntingly evocative imagery and the wonderful wit of juxtaposed ideas.

He’s one of those writers where you can turn to any page at random and find a brilliant phrase or something to make you smile. Hart-Davis includes another letter Wilde wrote while in Sheffield to the American sculptor Waldo Story, which contains a great description of the practical problems of being ‘desperately in love’:

‘I have been obliged to be away nearly all the time since our engagement, civilising the provinces by my remarkable lectures, but we telegraph each other twice a day, and the telegraph clerks have become quite romantic in consequence. I hand in my messages, however, very sternly, and try to look as if ‘love’ was a cryptogram for ‘buy Canadian Railway Shares’ and ‘darling’ a cypher for ‘sell out at par!’
I am sure it succeeds.’

**
UPDATE: I’ve very pleased this first post has attracted so many views after one day, and kind comments from friends and others. However, due to one of those comments I have a very exciting update – John Highfield, Sheffield’s resident PR guru and all round theatre expert sent me a tweet saying ‘I always thought Oscar came to Sheffield on one of his lecture tours, perhaps to the Cutlers’ Hall?’
Although it might undermine my whole Wilde about Museums argument, this was too good a tip not to follow up.

Sheffield’s Cutlers’ Hall, the Headquarters of the cutlery makers who for centuries brought the City so much prosperity, was built in 1832, so it would have been an perfect venue for Wilde to visit.
However there the trail went cold – there was no reference in any of the Cutlers’ or Sheffield records which online enquiries could bring up to any visit from Wilde – surely something at least to note, if not to celebrate. Even given Wilde’s notoriety after his 1895 conviction, which saw his reviled name painted over on theatre hoardings and Oxford prize boards, couldn’t have brushed him out so completely from History?
No the much more likely, and more prosaic explanation was that Wilde never visited the Cutlers’ Hall.
The usually exhaustive Ellman was no help – his doorstopper of a biography includes a list of places where Wilde lectured, but makes no mention of Sheffield.
It was time to give up and dismiss the lecture idea as some theatrical legend John heard in a bar.

But then I thought, purely out of interest, I should see where Wilde did lecture in England, and pulled up this excellent ‘Mr. Oscar Wilde’ German fan site, which includes a much more comprehensive list of the venues where Wilde spoke.
As well as revealing that Wilde spoke in such unexpected Northern places as Glasgow, Liverpool, Sunderland, Huddersfield, and at least three times in nearby Chesterfield, this included the crucial entry:
1884, January 21-22 Firth College, Sheffield: “The House Beautiful” and “Impressions of America”
Wilde clearly gave two lectures in Sheffield on two consecutive nights – surely the same two consecutive days that month we know we sent letters from the Royal Victoria Inn.

I had found Wilde’s reason for being in Sheffield.

But what really delighted me of course was the venue for his lectures; Firth College was the City’s educational hub, teaching men, and radically at the time women, Medicine, Sciences and the Arts. In 1905 it became the University of Sheffield, the very University where I work – and where, proving all things are circular, I’m now writing this.
I love the idea that students here nearly 130 years ago would have crowded in to see the up-and-coming guest lecturer, who was causing such a stir. And maybe to see if he really carried a sunflower and looked like Bunthorne in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience.

I can also argue that this doesn’t diminish the likelihood of Wilde visiting Ruskin’s museum, during the daytime when he wasn’t lecturing. If anything it might anecdotally increase it.
Firth College had been opened five years before in 1879 by the Prince Leopold, Queen Victoria’s artistic, intelligence, but sadly sickly son. It was in the delight of this royal visit that Sheffield’s Leopold Street and Leopold Square were named after the prince.
Prince Leopold had been in the year above Oscar Wilde at Oxford, where he had also been taught by John Ruskin, and took the opportunity while in Sheffield to open Firth College, to visit his old tutor’s celebrated museum in Walkley.
Surely it would have only been polite and natural for Firth College’s next distinguished visitor to do the same?

Now it only remains to establish in which building Wilde spoke – almost certainly the former Firth College building on the corner of Leopold Street and West Street. This means another Sheffield hotel can claim a Wilde link – as it’s now the Leopold Hotel.
And of course to plan an elaborate Wilde themed 130th anniversary around this time next year.

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