The Apostle of the beautiful and the Season

A Private View at the Royal Academy by William Powell Frith

The opening of the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition at Burlington House, Piccadilly, London on the first Monday in May marked the beginning of ‘the Season’ for the elite of Victorian Society. This set in play three hectic months of balls, concerts, dinner parties, operas, horse riding in Hyde Park, the Derby and races at Royal Ascot, the Henley Royal Regatta and cricket at Lord’s. Young women pinned their hopes on getting engaged before the debutante balls, parties and concerts came to an end on 12 August, when fashionable people abandoned London and headed north to shoot grouse, partridges and pheasants as a prelude to fox-hunting.

Whatever Oscar Wilde may have thought of fox-hunting (“the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable” as he called it in A Woman of No Importance), his social success is reflected in his appearance at the Royal Academy’s Private Viewing day in May 1881, an invitation-only event. At only 26 years of age, Wilde was a celebrity moving in the best circles, despite being an Irishman in xenophobic London.

Wilde’s achievement is remarkable because in 1881 he had little writing to his name (his first and largely forgotten play, Vera, and a volume of poetry), yet he had made himself conspicuous enough as a wit, public personality and self-appointed art critic to be satirised (along with James McNeill Whistler) as Reginald Bunthorne in Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience.

William Powell Frith's A Private View at the Royal Academy [of Arts], 1881

William Powell Frith’s A Private View at the Royal Academy [of Arts], 1881

A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881

In a scene crowded with lords, ladies, judges, church leaders, politicians, writers, artists, journalists, actors and other public figures, the young Oscar Wilde is the centre of attention: no mean feat in a painting that is a Victorian who’s-who.

Wilde is the tall young man in a top hat holding an exhibition catalogue and expressing his views. Disapproving artists look on (What makes a young poet an expert on art?).

A Private View at the Royal Academy, with captions pointing out Anthony Trollope, Prime Minister William Gladstone, Robert Browning, the Countess of Lonsdale, Lord Leighton, Lillie Langtry, Oscar Wilde, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, and John Everett Millais

A Private View at the Royal Academy, with captions pointing out Anthony Trollope, Prime Minister William Gladstone, Robert Browning, the Countess of Lonsdale, Lord Leighton, Lillie Langtry, Oscar Wilde, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving, and John Everett Millais

Over Wilde’s shoulder we can see two stars of the London stage, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving. Also depicted are Prime Minister William Gladstone, Home Secretary Sir William Harcourt, Lord Chief Justice of England Sir John Coleridge, the Archbishop of York, the Countess of Lonsdale, Baroness Burdett-Coutts, naturalist Thomas Huxley, Professional Beauty Lillie Langtry, novelists Anthony Trollope and Mary Elizabeth Braddon, poet Robert Browning, journalist George Sala and the artists Lord Leighton and John Everett Millais. The caricaturist George du Maurier, who sent Wilde up in Punch as ‘Reginald Maudle’ and ‘Jellaby Postlethwaite’, is one of the bearded onlookers in the painting.

William Powell Frith’s motivation for painting A Private View at the Royal Academy, 1881 was to

“hit the folly of listening to self-elected critics in matters of taste … I therefore planned a group, consisting of a well-known apostle of the beautiful, with a herd of eager worshippers surrounding him. The main figure is supposed to be expounding his theories to willing ears …” William Powell Frith, My Autobiography and Reminiscences, 1888.

Wilde was probably pleased to have his fame confirmed by Frith’s painting, although it’s unlikely that Wilde thought much of A Private View’s artistic merits. Wilde said disparagingly of Frith that he had “done so much to elevate painting to the dignity of photography”.

Frith’s critique of artistic fads and celebrities was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1883, and drew the satirical attention of Punch. Harry Furniss lampooned Frith’s A Private View, but also Wilde, Whistler and their Aesthetic Movement followers. In Furniss’s cartoon of the Royal Academy exhibition, ‘General Oscar Wilde’ leads the Salvation Army in a hymn, presumably the Song of the Aesthete. The Army is made up of emotional and artistically dressed men and women who flap their hands in a limp-wristed motion.

Wherever he went, Oscar Wilde elicited both adulation and a mockery that was tainted by envy, racism and homophobia.

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