The House of Fiction

By Phyllis Richardson

A cultural exploration of British houses in fiction from Shandy Hall to Manderley

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Oscar Wilde and Wallpaper

​Fritillary Wallpaper, William Morris, 1895. Image:​

Most people will have heard that while he lay expiring  in a Paris hotel Oscar Wilde famously uttered one last quip about duelling to the death with his wallpaper. I've been reading further about Wilde's  dabbling in interior design. This was before he married Constance Lloyd and set up the lovely house in Tite Street, London, with the 'little room with blue ceiling and frieze (distemper), yellow oil walls and white woodwork and fittings, which is joyous and exquisite, the only piece of design being the Morris Blue-and-white curtains, and white-and-yellow silk coverlet.' The description is by Wilde and  was contained in a letter of 1885  to W.A.S. Benson (Charlotte Gere, with Lesley Hoskins,  The House Beautiful. Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Interior  Lund Humphries and the Geffrye Museum, 2000 ).     Wilde had spent some time giving public lectures , and one of his topics was 'The House Beautiful'. Richard Ellmann recorded in his biography of Wilde that he lectured at the Dorchester Town Hall and Claire Tomalin writes that this was around the time that Thomas Hardy and his wife were building and decorating nearby Max Gate. Hardy was invited to meet with Wilde on one of these evenings, but it's not known whether their conversation was about the literary or the decorative arts. It's rather amusing to imagine the two literary giants  discoursing over floral patterns.Though in his letter to Benson  Wilde seemed proud of his Morris curtains,  he isn't so sure about the great Arts and Crafts leader's talent with wallpapers: 'I am surprised to find we are at such variance on the question of the value of pure colour on the walls of a room ... I have seen far more rooms spoiled by wallpapers than anything else.' I am surprised to read that Wilde put so much thought into interior decoration. But, then again, reading The Picture of Dorian Grey , you can see what he does to the atmosphere of a scene with his own decorative sensibility.

After breaking off with the lovely Siibyl Vane, Dorian returns home in the mists of dawn: 'In the huge gilt Venetian lantern, spoil of some Doge's barge, that hung from the ceiling of the great oak-panelled hall of entrance, lights were still burning from three flickering jets ...[ he] passed through the library towards the door of his bedroom, a huge octagonal chamber on the ground floor that, in his new-born feeling for luxury he had just had redecorated for himself and hung with some curious Renaissance tapestries...' (87).

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