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Wilde About Oscar!

On 28 September in Paris, all eyes will be on the Petit Palais Musée des Beaux-Arts, as the city opens its first major exhibition on the life and works of the flamboyant Irish writer, Oscar Wilde. Manuscripts, photographs, paintings and personal effects are among almost 200 exhibits coming from public and private collections worldwide for the exhibition, which is co-curated by Wilde’s grandson Merlin Holland. Included in the  exhibits are three items borrowed from the Oscar Wilde collection held in Trinity College Library.

Tithe Street Sale Catalogue (EPB Quin Case)
Tite Street Sale Catalogue (EPB Quin Case)

Known for his biting wit, extravagant dress and glittering conversation, Oscar Wilde is one of the best known personalities of the 19th century. His love affair with France began as a child, having learned to speak French from a native governess. He considered himself an ardent Francophile and regularly visited Paris, eventually dying there in 1900, when he was hounded out of England after his conviction for homosexuality. His tomb, in Paris’s Père Lachaise cemetery, is now a place of pilgrimage.

The Oscar Wilde collection was acquired by the Library of Trinity College Dublin in 2011 from Julia Rosenthal, a rare book dealer and avid collector of Wildeana, based in London. Rosenthal purchased her first autograph Wilde letter in 1976 and built her collection from there, and it has  been of immense value to Wilde scholarship. Richard Ellmann, Thomas Wright, Horst Schroeder and Neil Mc Kenna all made extensive use of it for their biographical works on the author. This truly unique collection of both manuscript and print materials, contains autographed first editions; letters (a small number of which are unpublished); photographs and portraits; theatre programmes and music; and some rare items of memorabilia.

One subject of the Dublin-Paris loan is a letter from Wilde in 1891 to his son Cyril, who was aged five at the time. Writing from Paris, he remarks that he is going ‘to visit a poet, who has given me a wonderful book about a Raven’. The poet was Mallarmé and the book was a translation of Poe’s The Raven. Signed ‘your loving Papa, Oscar Wilde’, it is the only known surviving letter from Wilde to either of his children.

Letter from Oscar Wilde to his son Cyril, 1891 (TCD MS 11437/1/1/1)
Letter from Oscar Wilde to his son Cyril, 1891 (TCD MS 11437/1/1/1)

Another highlight of the Trinity collection, and also included in the loan, is the ‘Tite Street Sale Catalogue’ of Wilde’s books and household goods. Among the items listed for sale are inscribed editions of Wilde’s parents’ writings and the rabbit hutch and toys belonging to his two young sons, Cyril and Vyvyan. These effects were sold at the demand of Wilde’s creditors at the time of his trial in 1895, and only four copies of the auction catalogue are known to have survived.

The final item loaned to Paris is a moving letter from Wilde to his friend, the writer Eliza Stannard (who used the pseudonym John Strange Winter), written shortly after his release from Reading Gaol in May 1897. Some of Wilde’s most poignant letters were written during these few short years of exile in France, until his death in Paris in 1900. Writing from a hotel in Bernaval-sur-Mer, Normandy, Wilde remarks, ‘of course I have passed through a very terrible punishment and have suffered to the pitch of anguish and despair’ and refers to himself as ‘an unworthy son’. ‘France has been charming to me and about me during all my imprisonment’, he writes, ‘and has now – mother of all artists as she is – give me asile’.

Letter from Oscar Wilde to Eliza Stannard, 1897 (TCD MS 11437/1/1/5)
Letter from Oscar Wilde to Eliza Stannard, 1897 (TCD MS 11437/1/1/5)

The exhibition at the Petit Palais runs from 28 September 2016 – 18 January 2017.

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