Frank Miles (1852-1891)

 
Head and shoulders portrait of a handsome man about 30, with a bushy moustache

‘Frank’ Miles

George Francis (‘Frank’) Miles was born in 1852, the son of a well to do Nottinghamshire clergyman. He is best remembered today as an artist who specialised in portraits of beautiful society women in the 1870s and 80s, and for being a close friend, and possibly, the first male lover of Oscar Wilde with whom he shared a house from 1879-1881.

Miles’s grandfather was the banker, Sir Philip John Miles (1773-1845), Bristol’s first millionaire who rebuilt Leigh Court at Abbot’s Leigh in 1814 and remained in the family until 1915, the house now being a conference centre and wedding venue. Philip John Miles was MP for Bristol 1835-37 and head of Miles, Savile, Harford and Miles, bankers and West Indian merchants of 61 Queen’s Square, Bristol. He owned slave plantations in Jamaica and Trinidad and managed a sugar refinery which is now the Hotel du Vin in Lewin’s Mead. Eventually the bank became part of what is now Nat West. Frank’s cousin was Philip Napier Miles (1865-1935), friend of the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, and was the last “Squire” of Kings Weston House, bought by Philip John Miles in 1833.

Oscar Wilde about 28 with long flowing hair, seated , left hand rested against side of face, right hand holding walking cane.

Oscar Wilde circa 1882. Photographer: Napoleon Sarony.

Oscar Wilde (1856-1900) met the tall, handsome, “honey haired” Frank in 1875. They first shared rooms at 13 Salisbury Street, off The Strand, in London in 1879. It is possible that Oscar and Frank visited Bristol in September 1876. Wilde’s letters reveal a planned visit to see St Raphael’s chapel and almshouses, built for retired sailors in Cumberland Road, which had been founded by Frank’s father Canon Robert Miles in 1859. The Bristol born hymn writer William Chatterton Dix (1837-98) who wrote the carol “As With Gladness, Men of Old” sang in the choir. The chapel was later consecrated as a church in 1893 but was bombed in 1940. Partially demolished in 1954, fragments survive today. It appears Frank and Oscar also proposed to visit the 14th century Clevedon Court near Bristol, home of the Elton family for 250 years from 1709, and now a National Trust property.

Oil painting of beautiful young woman wearing a blue frock-coat, seated with left arm resting on a table.

Lillie Langtry by Frank Miles, 1884.

In 1877 Frank first sketched society beauty, and later actress, Lillie Langtry (1853-1929) who became mistress of Bertie, Prince of Wales (Edward VII) from 1877-80. Frank’s sketches launched the career of “The Jersey Lily, as she became known. Lillie Langtry first appeared in Bristol at The Prince’s Theatre in Park Row in 1885 (it was destroyed in an air raid in 1940 and flats now occupy the site), and last appeared at Bristol Hippodrome in 1917, the year she retired from the stage.

In 1880 Miles and Wilde moved to 44 Tite Street, Chelsea, which Miles had commissioned the previous year. It is believed it was the first serious “special” male friendship for both of them. Whether it had a sexual side is a matter for conjecture, but it seems likely. Some believe Wilde told Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas that Wilde and Miles had been lovers and that after Miles’s tragic death Wilde could not bring himself to speak about him. Miles’s patron was the sculptor Lord Ronald Charles Sutherland Gower (1845-1916) who may have also have been his lover. Gower became the model for Lord Henry Wotton in Wilde’s only novel The Portrait of Dorian Gray (1891). The character of the artist Basil Hallward is said to be partly based on Frank Miles. Lord Gower was described as “a notorious sodomite with a penchant for rough trade”, and also favoured good looking soldiers. His long term partner was the author and journalist Frank Hird (1873-1937) whom he later adopted as his son, causing Oscar Wilde to remark “Gower may be seen but not Hird”.

Frank Miles appears to have been bisexual and had relationships with both the working class girls he used as models, and the society ladies he mixed with and painted. It has been said Miles enjoyed exposing himself to young girls. Miles exhibited at the Royal Academy from 1874 to 1887. Bertie, Prince of Wales, was a frequent visitor to Miles’s studio and in 1882 purchased one of his paintings. Miles painted portraits of the Prince’s daughters, Princess Victoria, Princess Maud and Princess Louise. Daisy Greville, Countess of Warwick (another of the Prince of Wales’s mistresses) also sat for Miles. As well as his portraits, Miles was also a noted landscape artist, one of his works being Sunset at Bolt Point, Bristol.

The relationship between Wilde and Miles broke down after Wilde’s “Poems” were published in 1881.
Frank’s father, Canon Miles, criticised Wilde’s lifestyle and wrote to him about his “wicked and licentious poetry’…. which may do great harm to any soul reads it”. Canon Miles forced a separation between his son and Wilde and as Frank Miles was financially dependent on him he was forced to yield to his father. After a row Wilde left the Tite Street house and his friendship with Miles was over.

In 1886, aged 34, Frank Miles became engaged to (Gratiana) Lucy Hughes (1859-1948) of East Bergholt Lodge, Suffolk, daughter of Sir Alfred Hughes. It appears the Hughes and Miles family knew one another but the circumstances and details of the proposal of marriage remain a mystery. Did Frank renounce his homosexual inclinations because of his mental illness? Was he trying to please the memory of his now dead parents by taking a fiancée to please them? Perhaps he was in the grip of a delusion and had fastened upon a kind young girl who was humouring him. Was Lucy a naive 27 year old with no awareness of Frank’s homosexual past or his mental condition?

Engraving of grand 3-storey house and small chapel, with sweeping drive and figures in formal dress.

Brislington House, engraving after S. C. Jones, c.1865.  Wellcome Library.

Whatever the truth the engagement was called off as on December 27 1887 Miles was admitted to the care of Dr Bonville Fox at Brislington House asylum, Bath Road (now Long Fox Manor apartments). Miles had suffered a breakdown after his father’s death in 1883 and was suffering from ‘neurosyphillis’. Miles spent the last four years of his life at Brislington House and died there on July 15 1891 aged 39. The cause of death was verified as “General paralysis of the insane, exhaustion and pneumonia”. He left an estate of £20 and the death informant was Samuel Thatcher, an attendant at the asylum.

Frank Miles’s quiet funeral was held on July 18 where horses drew his coffin to be laid to rest in the churchyard of St Mary’s Church, Almondsbury, where his brother Revd Charles Oswald Miles (1850-1898) was Vicar 1889-92, having been Vicar of Shirehampton 1884-88. The only mourners were three of Miles’ brothers and their wives, including Oswald who conducted the service. The choir sang the hymn Days and moments quickly flying. The wreaths included one from Lucy Hughes. In the evening the bells of Almondsbury church rang a muffled peal.

A plain stone cross in front of a stone wall.

Grave of ‘Frank’ Miles, St Mary’s, Almondsbury. Photo: Tom Sanday, Almondsbury Local History Society.

Frank’s grave on top of a green bank near a stone wall to the right of the lych gate is inscribed “Lord, All Pitying Jesu blest, Grant him thine Eternal Rest”. Despite his incarceration in Brislington House, an exhibition of his portraits and sketches was held at the galleries of Frost and Reed at The Triangle, Bristol in September 1889. Bizarrely reports of his death appeared in March 1888. The Aberdeen Evening Express of March 2 1888 noted Miles was “full of genius, was good natured, pleasant, handsome, liked by many men and loved by many women …. it was he who, with Oscar Wilde, started the Langtry cult…and christened her ‘The Jersey Lily’…. his life ended in abysmal gloom”.

How Lillie Langtry reacted to the news of the death of the man who first sketched her beauty, thereby instigating her career does not appear to have been recorded, but it seems unlikely she ever visited his grave in Almondsbury churchyard, and as far as we know Oscar Wilde never travelled there to stand by the grave of his former lover.

In 1975 the bizarre claim that Frank Miles was Jack the Ripper and committed the horrific murders in Whitechapel in 1888 was made in the book The Complete Jack the Ripper by Donald Rumblelow. To say the claim is fanciful is to put it politely as at the time Miles was 120 miles away, committed in Brislington House asylum.

Lucy Hughes later married a clergyman, Revd Samuel John Sherbrooke Banks in 1895 and had a son and daughter. In 2021 Bristol Old Vic presented an online production of The Picture of Dorian Gray, re-imagined for the 21st century, with gay actor Russell Tovey in the role of Basil Hallward,

On Frank Miles’s grave in Almondsbury churchyard where he lies together with two of his brothers (he was one of 11 siblings) grow pale pink and soft yellow primroses, bright yellow celandines, and crocus, which is appropriate as, apart from being an artist, Miles was also a keen botanist and gardener and contributed regular articles and drawings to the magazine The Garden for ten years from 1877 until he was committed to Brislington House asylum.

A month before Frank’s death Oscar Wilde had the fatal first meeting with Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas who was to become his lover and cause of his downfall, sharing as it seems he did with Frank Miles, as Douglas was to write “The love that dare not speak its name”.

Jonathan Rowe, 2021

Frank Miles – Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Miles

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