125th Anniversary of the Trials of Oscar Wilde

A black and white portrait photograph of Oscar Wilde, wearing a suit and tie

In 2020, Wightwick Manor commemorated the 125th anniversary of the famous trials and imprisonment of Anglo-Irish LGBTQ playwright, Oscar Wilde.

A decade before the events that would bring greater visibility to LGBTQ lives in Victorian England, on 10 March 1884, in the audience of the Free Library Lecture Hall in Wolverhampton, Theodore Mander sat taking notes. The lecturer, Oscar Wilde, was the leader of the new Aesthetic Movement, a movement he described as a principle and not a style. Theodore listened while Oscar spoke about this movement which encompassed education, art, furniture, fashion, architecture, literature and many other aspects of expression. 

Notes taken by Theodore Mander on Oscar Wilde's 'The House Beautiful' lecture, from the archives at Wightwick Manor
A section of a letter, written in flourishing ink pen on yellowing paper, by Theodore Mander with his notes on a lecture by Oscar Wilde
Notes taken by Theodore Mander on Oscar Wilde's 'The House Beautiful' lecture, from the archives at Wightwick Manor

The notes in the image above were taken by Theodore Mander on Wilde’s The House Beautiful lecture and can be found in his notebook in Wightwick Manor’s archives. Theodore made notes about colours, textures, materials and children’s education. 

Three years later, in 1887, and with the building of Wightwick Manor, Theodore was inspired by Wilde’s lecture and the Aesthetic Movement when he came to decorate the interiors:

" You will want a joyous paper on the wall, full of flowers and pleasing designs, but the dado should not be of paper but either of wood or some beautiful Japanese mattings."
- As spoken by Oscar Wilde in his lecture on Aestheticism
The visitor staircase at Wightwick Manor
A view of the main visitor staircase at Wightwick Manor featuring Eastern rush work and William Morris archive
The visitor staircase at Wightwick Manor

As Oscar envisioned, the visitor staircase at Wightwick features Eastern rushwork below the dado rail and William Morris’ Willow Bough pattern wallpaper as you can see in the image above.

" Most modern windows are much too large and glaring, the small, old windows just let in light enough, if you have big windows, let a portion of them be filled with stained glass."
- Oscar Wilde in his 'House Beautiful' lecture

Just at Wilde suggested, stained glass windows adorn lots of the windows at Wightwick. Many of these were designed by preeminent Victorian glass designer Charles Kempe and can be seen here in the Drawing Room.

Stained glass windows adorn many of the windows at Wightwick Manor
Stained glass framed by wood in the bay window in the drawing room at Wightwick Manor
Stained glass windows adorn many of the windows at Wightwick Manor

In 1895, two years after the building work had finished at Wightwick, and over ten years since Wilde gave The House Beautiful lecture which inspired the Manor, Oscar would once again be performing in public, but under very different circumstances. Defending himself in the dock, Wilde was on trial because of his sexuality.

By 1895 Oscar Wilde's celebrity had reached new heights, as well as a poet, novelist, well known wit, lecturer and leader of Aestheticism, he was a well-respected and successful playwright whose new play, The Importance of Being Earnest, had just opened in London.

A few days after the opening Wilde received a card at his club from the father of his lover, the Marquis of Queensberry which said- ‘For Oscar Wilde posing somdomite (sic)’. After this incident Wilde decided to sue the Marquis for libel. However, he lost and after aspects of his private life were exposed during the trial, was arrested and tried. 

From the Illustrated Police News, 20 April 1895, London
A line illustration of Oscar Wilde's trial on the front of a newspaper
From the Illustrated Police News, 20 April 1895, London

The trial became famous, as seen above on the front cover of the Illustrated Police News. The illustration features the closing moments of the trial alongside two vignettes contrasting his former fame as a lecturer to his new status as a prisoner.  

Wilde was charged for committing acts of ‘gross indecency’ with other men and sentenced to two years of hard labour under the Criminal Law Amendment Act (1885). This act made all gay activity between men, even in private, a criminal offence. These charges effected so many in the period the act became known as ‘The Blackmailer’s Charter’. 

After his imprisonment, Wilde never saw his wife or sons again. His time in jail irrevocably effected his health and lead to his death a few years later at the age of 46. 

As a member of the LGBTQ community Wilde endured prejudice, oppression and the loss of his freedom. Wightwick Manor, the home of the Mander family, is in part a legacy of visionaries like Oscar Wilde, a place where we can both remember the hardships he faced but also enjoy the physical manifestation of his ideas. A reporter from The Wolverhampton Chronicle wrote an article about the lecture Oscar gave and which Theodore Mander attended which ends with ‘the lecturer was warmly applauded.’

Many thanks to Assistant Curator, Hannah Squire for this article.

Visit Wightwick Manor to find out more and see the principles Wilde described bought to life. Also, in the Malthouse Gallery the ‘Look Beneath the Lustre’ exhibition examines the influence of Aestheticism on two of Wightwick’s artistic contributors, Evelyn and William De Morgan’s work.

To learn more about the LGBTQ discrimination Oscar Wilde faced and his links to Wightwick Manor please watch the Facebook Live video Hannah Squire filmed in the Honeysuckle Room at Wightwick Manor on Tuesday 18 February 2020.

Find out about Oscar Wilde's influence on Wightwick from Assistant Curator Hannah Squire
Hannah Squire, Assistant Curator for the National Trust, looks over the wooden beams of the gallery down into the Great Parlour at Wightwick Manor. Below can be seen the grand piano, ceramics, paintings and rugs on the wooden floor.
Find out about Oscar Wilde's influence on Wightwick from Assistant Curator Hannah Squire
A view of the De Morgan Gallery showing ceramics in glass cabinets and oil painting hung on the walls

Look Beneath the Lustre - The De Morgan Gallery at Wightwick

Look Beneath the Lustre in our gallery.