Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Oscar at the Nicholson 1880s


In 2000 the British Library held an exhibition to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of Oscar Wilde. One of the flyers at the exhibition advertised a public meeting that Wilde spoke in Leek in the early years of his fame.

The meeting held on Monday February 25th 1884 at the Temperance Hall in Union St saw the Irish born writer lecture on ” the House Beautiful” for members of Leek Art Classes. William Challinor chaired the meeting. Among the sponsor of the event were much of the establishment of the town including the Challinors, Thomas Wardle, Thomas Shaw and the Nicholson family.

A number of local clergymen also attended the event including the Reverends Berrisford, Wright and Evans Belcher. The cost of attending the meeting was 2 shillings and 6 pence for an adult and 11 shillings for families.

The poster printed by Mr Marks of 6 Derby St requested the audience to be in their seats by 7.30pm. “Carriages may be ordered by 10”. The site of the Temperance Hall is now occupied by Leek College extension”.

Oscar returned to Leek in March 1885, this time the lecture he delivered was held at the Nicholson Institute which had opened the previous autumn. The meeting on that occasion was chaired by Joseph Challioner. Wilde at one point in the proceedings commented on the beauty of the Nicholson commenting that few towns could have boasted of such a wonderful facility. Challioner at the beginning of the meeting commented that the attendance was limited due to unforeseen circumstances. I wonder what they could have been. The weather, the room, or the lack of advertising for the event? It seems curious that the attendance was down on his visit from the previous year as Wilde had established almost celebrity status both in the UK and abroad. He had met such distinguished writers as Walt Whitman and Mark Twain on the American tour and had his artistic sensibilities had been parodied by Gilbert and Sullivan in “Patience” a few years earlier.

One interesting fact is the interesting choice of material that Wilde choose for the subjects of both talks in Leek “ The House beautiful” and “Dress” were both the subjects of lectures he gave in the US 18 months early so they lectures he gave in Leek were of rehashed material and not new.

Wilde rose to applause and began to speak on the chosen topic of dress. He would have given a polished performance as he lectured on this subject on his tour of the US in 1882. He spoke on the different types of costume worn by the Ancient Egyptians and the Greek as being the most beautiful and natural there had ever been. He also mentioned the disposable nature of fashion and that an item of clothing could be fashionable one moment and then outmoded the next. He felt that men took a delight in being behind the times in matters relating to clothing.

“Art would gain immensely by improvement in dress. Art was now an affair of the studio, but the proper place for its study was the streets of our towns and cities”

Image especially dress was an important aspect of the personality that Wilde created for himself. It gives no account in the March 1885 newspaper of the clothing that wore but studio photographs taken 3 years earlier give a clear impression of the type of clothing that Wilde wore when giving a lecture. He dressed flamboyantly. At 6 foot 3 inches Wilde cut an imposing figure when the average height for a man would have been 5 foot 7 inches. It would seem that he based his dress on the Masonic dress that he wore when a member of a Masonic lodge in Oxford especially the knickerbockers and the short jacket. He also pioneered men wearing a fur coat. One was especially made for the American tour of 1881-2: the coat meant a great deal to Wilde and he asked about its whereabouts when he was released from Reading Jail shortly before his death in 1900.

There is a mystery surrounding the second visit that Wilde made to Leek in that his name does not appear in the Nicholson Institute visitors book despite the fact that the Nicholson had opened in October 1884. Why should be the case? It may well be that the unforeseen circumstances mentioned in the opening remarks by Challioner may not have made the visitors book available

A possible reason why Wilde’s name does not appear in the Nicholson Institutes visitor book is that the building was only completed in the autumn of 1884 some months after Wilde’s visit. I have been carrying out some research on the 1890s in North Staffordshire and what does seem clear that many well known writers passed through the area in the period before the First World War such as Wilde, Shaw, Wells and I had heard an interesting story that Conan Doyle got the idea for the plateau in “ Lost World” following a walking tour of the area in 1910 and admiring the outline of the Roaches. Anyway, back to Oscar and one always is at risk fiddling with Oscar and facts. After the great man said that the truth is rarely pure and never simple.