Oscar Wilde & Co in Bristol

Man 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.

Before Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) found fame as a playwright and notoriety after the 1895 court cases for libel and “gross indecency” he was known as a leader of the ‘Aesthetic movement’, as well as for his wit and lecture tours. In 1882 he travelled throughout the USA and Canada delivering around 140 lectures, and this was followed by a tour of Britain from 1883-1888 during which he gave over 250 lectures, including some in Bristol. In fact Wilde and several of his circle have several connections with the Bristol area.

On March 3rd 1884 the “apostle of modern art”, as the Bristol Mercury dubbed him, gave two lectures at the Victoria Rooms. In the afternoon he spoke on “The House Beautiful” and, the paper noted rather condescendingly, that Wilde spoke “with no more affectation than exists in the average curate”, and referred to the furniture and screens provided by Trapnell and Gane “to which Mr Wilde referred in terms of high approval as illustrations of his views”.

Trapnell & Gane (after 1906 P.E. Gane) were a firm of cabinet makers and house furnishers founded in Host Street in 1824. From 1860 they had showrooms at 39 College Green which continued until being destroyed in the Blitz of 1940. They became well known for their designs in the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau style of the 1880s and 90s, and the business survived until 1954.

Another Bristol firm, Cotterell Brothers, had also provided wall decorations for Oscar Wilde, and the designs were displayed in their show rooms. Joseph and Frederick Cotterell had founded their wallpaper manufacturing business in 1844 in Wine Street, and later moved to Marsh Street where they continued to trade until about 1972. Wilde’s evening lecture was “Personal Impressions of America”. He returned to the Victoria Rooms on October 14th when his topics were “Dress” and “The Value of Art in Modern Life”. According to the Bristol Mercury these lectures were delivered to ”a fashionable and crowded audience”. Among those present was Robert Smythe Hichens (1864-1950), who later found fame as the author of a parody of Wilde, “The Green Carnation” (1894). Hichens lived at Avonbank (now The Blue House), Clifton Down from about 1879 to 1886.

Hichens was a former pupil of Clifton College, as was Otho Lloyd, Oscar Wilde’s brother in law. During his lecture tour visits Wilde stayed at The Royal Hotel on College Green. Wilde was interested in the Bristol poet Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770), about whom he also lectured. In 1886 he was involved in a project to erect a memorial plaque on the school where Chatterton was a pupil, which stood next to his birthplace. The Pile Street school, where Chatterton’s father taught, was partly demolished in the 1930s, but his home has recently been renovated and a café opened.

In the 1880s, Wilde was the self proclaimed “Professor of Aesthetics”, the Bristol Times and Mirror describing him as “a well built, good looking gentleman dressed in a perfectly fitting black frock coat and light trousers, with a naturally dignified, yet with an easy and graceful manner, who delivers his lectures in a resonant and musical voice, and in a highly interesting style”. The visits to the Victoria Rooms were however not the first Wilde had made to the Bristol area. Whilst a student at Magdalen College, Oxford, in the 1870s one of his closest friends was William Welsford Ward (1854-1932) who was born in Stapleton. Ward and his family lived at Cecil House (later called Avonwood), Clifton Down, from around 1869-1876.

Wilde and Ward shared rooms together and Wilde became a friend of the family and often visited Ward at Cliff Court in Frenchay where his widowed mother and sisters lived from about 1876, and also Coombe House in Westbury on Trym where the family moved about 1884 and occupied until around 1899. Cliff Court was demolished in 1964 to build Cliff Court Drive but the entrance lodge survives at the entrance to the road. Coombe House was bought for police flats in 1946 and was demolished in the 1970s for a care home, now 321 Canford Lane. The lodge, some outbuildings, and a gardener’s cottage survive.

William Ward followed his father and practised as a solicitor, married and lived at 6 Clifton Down Road before retiring to Cornwall and then returning to live at 6 Princes Buildings, Clifton where he died in 1932. He became a respected and influential public figure and was Master of Bristol Merchant Venturers.

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

‘Frank’ Miles

Another Bristol connected friend with whom Wilde shared a house for some years, and who many now consider to have been his first male lover, was the artist George Francis (“Frank”) Miles (1852-1891). His grandfather was the banker Sir Philip John Miles MP (1733-1843), Bristol’s first millionaire who bought Leigh Court at Abbots Leigh in 1811 which remained in the family until 1915. It is now a conference centre and wedding venue. Frank Miles’ cousin was Philip Napier Miles (1865-1935), friend of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, and was the last “Squire” of Kings Weston House, bought by Philip John Miles in 1832.

Frank Miles was the son of Canon Robert Henry William Miles (1818-1883), Rector of Bingham in Nottinghamshire from 1845-1883. Now largely forgotten, Frank Miles was a sought after and popular artist in the 1870s and 80s, noted for his portraits of society beauties. He introduced Wilde to one of his portrait sitters, the famous beauty and actress, Lillie Langtry, who later became a mistress of the Prince of Wales (Edward VII). Edward was a frequent visitor to Miles’ 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 Edward VII’s mistresses) also sat for Miles. As well as his portraits, Miles was also a noted landscape artist, one of these works being Sunset at Bolt Point, near Bristol.

Oscar Wilde met the handsome, blond haired Frank Miles in Oxford in the summer of 1876, and they began sharing rooms at 13 Salisbury Street, off The Strand in London in 1879 where Miles had moved the previous year. In 1880 they moved to 44 Tite Street, Chelsea, which Miles had commissioned to be built. The architect was Edward William Godwin (1833-1886), who was born in 12 Old Market Street and became a noted architect, furniture, fabric and theatrical designer of his day. Godwin’s Bristol buildings include the Carriage works, Stokes Croft (1862), part of Cotham Parish Church (1862-63), and 10-11 Rockleaze, Sneyd Park (1861-62). After his marriage to Constance Lloyd in 1884, Oscar Wilde lived at what is now 34 Tite Street, which featured Godwin’s designs and also wallpapers by Cotterell Brothers of Bristol.

Lord Ronald Charles Sutherland Leverson Gower (1845-1916), sculptor, patron ( and possibly lover) of Miles, became the model for the character Lord Henry Wotton in Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891). The character of the artist Basil Hallward in the novel is said to be partly based on Frank Miles. Lord Gower was described as “a notorious sodomite with a penchant for rough trade”. Lord Gower’s best known sculpture are the Shakespeare Memorial statues (1888) in Bancroft Gardens in Stratford upon Avon. His long term partner was the author and journalist Frank Hird whom he later adopted as his son, causing Oscar Wilde to remark “Gower may be seen but not Hird”. Miles appears to have been bisexual and had relationships with the “society” ladies he mixed with, and also the the working class girls he often used as models. It is said he enjoyed exposing himself to young girls!

It is possible that Oscar Wilde and Frank Miles 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 architect was Henry Woodyer and the buildings were in the Early Decorated style. The chapel was later consecrated as a church in 1893 but was bombed in 1940. Partially demolished in 1954, fragments still survive today. A visit to Clevedon Court, the 14th century home of the Elton family for 250 years from 1709 was also planned. At the time the house was open to the public one day a week and Wilde was keen to see the family portraits.

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

At the age of 26 in 1886 Frank Miles became engaged to Gratiana Lucy Hughes of East Bergholt Lodge, Suffolk, but the engagement was called of when on December 27th 1887 Miles was admitted to the care of Dr Bonville Fox at Brislington House Asylum (now Long Fox Manor apartments). Miles had a breakdown after his father’s death in 1883, and was suffering from “neurosyphilis”.

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

He spent the last four years of his life in Brislington House and died on 15th July 1891 aged 39. He left an estate of £20 and the death informant was Samuel Thatcher, an attendant at the asylum. Frank Miles’ quiet funeral was held on July 18th 1891 when horses drew his coffin to be laid to rest in the churchyard of St Mary’s, Almondsbury, where his brother, Revd Charles Oswald Miles (1850- 98) was Vicar from 1889-92. Frank Miles’ grave on top of a green bank near a stone wall to the right of the lynch gate is inscribed “Lord, all pitying Jesu bless, grant him thine eternal rest”.

About a month before Miles’ death in 1891 Oscar Wilde met the handsome and spoilt Lord Alfred “Bosie” Douglas (1875-1945), his “fatal passion”, which was to prove his downfall. Lord Alfred was a student at Wilde’s own college of Magdalen, Oxford, and was the son of John Sholto Douglas, 9th Marquess of Queensbury, famous for introducing the Queensbury rules of boxing. Half mad and deeply homophobic, the Marquess objected strongly to his son’s friendship with Wilde. This increased after the death in October 1894 of his elder son Francis, Viscount Drumlanrig, who died after being shot (believed to be suicide) at a shooting party at Quantock Lodge, Over Stowey in Somerset. It has never been proven but it is alleged the 27 year old Viscount was having a homosexual affair with the Foreign Secretary, Lord Roseberry (who earlier that year had became Liberal Prime Minister) who employed Viscount Drumlanrig as his private secretary.

The same year Lord Alfred Douglas wrote the poem Two Loves containing the famous line “The love that dare not speak it’s name”. The relationship between Wilde and Bosie Douglas was volatile to say the least. Bosie was staying with Wilde at Babbacombe Cliff, near Torquay which Wilde had rented for the winter of 1892-93, and it was here, in March 1893, when Wilde was completing the play A Woman of No Importance that the couple had a violent quarrel and Bosie fled to Bristol. Wilde wrote later whilst in prison, “You wrote and telegraphed me from Bristol to beg me to forgive and meet you”. Why Lord Alfred came to Bristol and where he stayed during his brief visit remains unknown.

In 1895 the Marquess of Queensbury left a card at the Albermarle Hotel in London addressed to Oscar Wilde “Posing as a sodomite”. Wilde’s case of criminal libel against Queensbury led to Wilde’s trial for gross indecency in May 1895 where he was found guilty and sentenced to two years with hard labour. He died of cerebral meningitis in an hotel room in Paris in 1900 aged 46.

In the 1880s Oscar Wilde corresponded with the Bristol born poet, writer and historian John Addington Symonds (1840-1893). Born at 7 Berkeley Square, he was one of the pioneers of gay rights and writers on homosexuality in Britain and admired Wilde’s Poems of 1881. Aged ten in 1850 Symonds moved to Clifton Hill House, Lower Clifton Hill. In 1864 he married Catherine Janet North, sister of Marianne North, the botanical artist. They had four daughters, and Edward Lear, who was a friend of the North family, wrote The Owl and the Pussycat for their eldest daughter, Janet, in 1871. In 1868 they moved to 7 Victoria Square and, on the death of Symonds’ father in 1871, the family moved to Clifton Hill House which Symonds had inherited. Ill health forced a move to Davos in Switzerland. Symonds died in Rome in 1893. Clifton Hill House became a Bristol University hall of residence in 1909.

Another Bristol based poet with whom Oscar Wilde regularly corresponded and first met in 1890 was “Michael Field”. This was in fact the pseudonym of lesbian partners (and also aunt and niece) Katharine Harris Bradley (1846-1917) and Edith Emma Cooper (1862-1913). They moved to Bristol from Birmingham in the late 1870s and lived in Sneyd Park for about ten years from 1878-1888, first at “Ivythorpe” (No.3), moving in about 1884 to “Stoke Green” ( No.12). They studied and attended lectures in Classics and Philosophy at Bristol University. It was while they were in Bristol they began to write verse, and “Michael Field” was identified in a review of 1884 as “ a Bristol man”.

Line drawing of a narrow 3-storey building with ornate bow windows

Architect’s drawing of the Cabot cafe, 1904

Bristol does have a permanent, if tenuous, link with Oscar Wilde which people pass every day without knowing, at 38 College Green. Built in 1904 for estate agent Walter Hughes of 2 Downfield Road, Clifton, as “The Cabot Café”, it was considered to be the most chic Art Nouveau restaurant in the city in its day. The building features between the upper front windows a mosaic and enamel panel of pomegranates by Catherine Hughes, daughter of the owner, who took the design by Charles Ricketts from the book binding of Oscar Wilde’s A House of Pomegranates, a collection of fairy stories published in 1891. Charles Ricketts (1866-1931) and Charles Shannon (1863-1937) designed almost all of Wilde’s books, and were life long partners in both their artistic and personal lives. Much of the building (now Grade 2 listed) was damaged in the Blitz of 1940 but the panel has survived, and in 2015 the Catch 22 fish and chip restaurant and take away opened there.

Thank you to Anthony Beeson, Hilary Long, Andrew Foyle, Alan Freke, Gemma Tiley, and Liz Tomlinson for help with research.

Jonathan Rowe, 2016

This article first appeared in the Bristol Times supplement of the Bristol Post.

Ornate burgundy and gold mosaic between and first and second floor bow windows

38 College Green, Bristol

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