One hundred and thirty-two years and one month ago, Kingston had the honour of hosting the up-and-coming Irish poet and man about town, Oscar Wilde. He visited as part of his 1882 American lecture tour, which included stops in Central and Eastern Canada, Kingston and Belleville among them. Wilde’s stop in Kingston was on May 22.
It was a younger and perhaps less serious Oscar Wilde that visited Kingston: this was before his famous works The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Importance of Being Earnest were published and performed, and certainly before the scandal with Lord Alfred Douglas that served to tragically cap off his legend. But all things considered, Oscar Wilde turned out to be one of the most well-known and influential people to visit Kingston, even if only on a touring circuit.
Wilde was the leading proponent of a cultural movement called Aestheticism. This was an outgrowth of the mid-nineteenth century Arts and Crafts movement in England, which advocated attention to hand-made crafts, dignity to the individual craftsperson, and an aversion to machine-made and mass-produced objects, all things which were germane to the culture of the Industrial Revolution. William Morris, the artist at the core of the Arts and Crafts movement, also had ties to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of artists known for their lush, sensual, and cryptic portrayals of medieval and mythical subjects. (learn more about them here). I give this bit of art history because I think it’s important to know what Oscar Wilde was bringing to scrubby little Kingston. Aestheticism, though notoriously ill-defined, essentially took all the above ideas about beauty, craft, and the luxury of objects, and combined them into a very heady perfume indeed.
The lecture Wilde gave in Kingston was called “Art Decoration.” This was one of three given on his tour, the other two being “The English Renaissance” and “The House Beautiful.” The latter and “Art Decoration” were devised when the original lecture had been quoted to death by newspapers. Indeed, the tour was a much-publicized event, with Wilde getting a rather uneven reception, some people thrilled, some bored, some cynical. He never actually explained what Aestheticism was, often cleverly skirting the problem, as quoted here in the May 23, 1882 Daily British Whig:
Mr. Wilde said that he would not give a definition of abstract beauty, they could get along very well without philosophy. . .
Much of “Art Decoration” was quoted almost verbatim in The Daily British Whig, just as had been done in many other cities. You can read about the lecture in the original newspaper article or in Richard Ellman’s biography of Wilde (both of which I’ll source at the end of this post) but what’s relevant to us is how Kingston responded to Oscar Wilde. The Daily British Whig commented a bit acidly:
Oscar struck the town at 4:25 o’clock. He stepped out of the cab in front of the British American Hotel puffing a cigarette. He advanced in a listless and languid manner to the hotel stairs. He climbed these as if enduring a most terrible punishment. He wore a heavy cloak that looked like a thatched roof over a delicate strawberry. He had a green velvet tie and a brown velvet coat, with pants of light tweed that covered all his limbs.
The British American Hotel was a Kingston stalwart that often accommodated important visitors to the area, including Charles Dickens. It was located on the corner of Clarence and King and burned down in 1963. I assume the comment about his pants covering “all his limbs” is in reference to Wilde’s idiosyncratic preference for knee breeches.
The above quote notwithstanding, the Daily British Whig seems to have been favourably impressed with Oscar Wilde. They describe him as graceful, pleasant, intelligent, and good-natured. Apparently, Wilde was not a naturally gifted public speaker, and had told his elocution teacher before touring, “I want a natural style, with a touch of affectation.” The paper confirmed the success of this attempt, describing at length his “gentleness” and “mildness,” though conceding no affectation.
The audience at Martin’s Opera House (now the Grand Theatre) on the night of May 22 was noted as being small; other than that, there isn’t much information as to Wilde’s reception in Kingston. However, I assume it was good, because he hung around the next day to tour the city and “made many friends.” Accompanied by Thomas Power, possibly the son of Kingston architect Joseph Power, he visited City Hall, admiring the “noble structure” and “magnificent harbour.” He went up to the dome and took in the view, apparently prompting some unnamed person to make a really bad pun:
Oscar’s wild over the beauty and picturesqueness of the situation!
In the afternoon, Wilde took a driving tour about the city with the Dean of Ontario. Unfortunately, nothing specific was noted about what Wilde thought of Kingston, in contrast to Dickens’ summation of us forty years earlier as half built up and half burnt down, a biting remark which Kingston’s collective memory has never been able to expunge (judging by how often people bring it up). Later that afternoon, Oscar Wilde left Kingston for his next engagement in Belleville. I can think of no better way to end this post than with the same words the Daily British Whig used to end their account of Oscar’s visit:
His style of dress and long flowing hair took the eye of every one who saw him.
This post was inspired by a comment by Erdmute Waldhauer in his article in Historic Kingston Vol. 26 (1978), “Martin’s Opera House, Kingston 1879-1898.” He mentions an interview in which Wilde, during his visit, talked about air and water pollution. However, he didn’t mention where the interview was found, and no sources were provided, unfortunately.
Ellman, Richard. Oscar Wilde. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1988.