Essay From The Archive: Oscar Wilde in Belfast - part 2

Writing in The Linen Hall Review in 1988, Wesley McCann explores Wilde's visit of 1884

The Northern Whig in contrast confined itself to the observation that 'a very large audience, which embraced many ladies, assembled to hear Mr Wilde's exposition', and 'the stage was fitted up as a very artistically furnished apartment, in the centre of which stood the lecturer at the side of a little table. He was provided with no notes or manuscript of any kind.'

The Belfast Newsletter even went as far as to express some criticism of the speaker: 'The moderately cultured amonthe audience listened to Mr Wilde's lecture feeling that it is extremely charming in every way, but feeling also, it must be confessed, that it teaches them nothing they did not know long ago.'

The theme of Wilde's lecture was essentially practical rather than an attempt at a philosophy of beauty. What his listeners wanted, said Wilde (as reported by the Northern Whig) 'was to be able to surround themselves and their children with beautiful things', and in the lecture he described what it was that he considered beautiful and what he emphatically did not.

Cartoon from the Wasp of San Francisco depicting Oscar Wilde on the occasion of his 1882. Image is in the public domain.He quoted William Morris: 'have nothing in your house that you do not either know to be useful or think to be beautiful'. And on this dictum Wilde commented: 'If that rule were followed out, what a lot would be got rid of. Stuffed birds, wax peach under the glass shade, and endless linen macassars, reminding one of an eternal washing day'. Following this remark the Northern Whig's man parenthetically reported for the first time 'laughter'.

To Morris' second rule 'have nothing in your house that you do not feel must have been a joy to the man who made it' Wilde added another of his own, 'not to have any imitation of one material with another'. In this context he turned to consider architecture, preferring the Gothic to the classical spirit and urging the use of simple and beautiful decoration with bands of coloured stone in the Venetian style.

In the manner of an experienced visiting lecturer Wilde at this point brought in his first local reference when he praised Messrs Richardson Sons and Owden's building which he described as 'beautiful in colour and very beautiful in design'.

Designed by WH Lynn and built in 1868-9 this remains in the opinion of Charles Brett 'one of the best buildings in Belfast; a massive palazzo in rich brown stone' (Buildings of Belfast, p.44). First built as a linen warehouse it later became the offices of the Water Commissioners and is now a part of Marks & Spencer.

Given Wilde's admiration of things Venetian it is perhaps surprising that he did not also mention the Church of Ireland offices in May Street, an even more vigorous example of the style by the same architect.

Having by now no doubt completely won over his audience Wilde went on to deal with other aspects of 'The House Beautiful'. He preferred, he said, a well-polished brass doorknob to the 'large black-leaded iron monstrosity which a person was so often called upon to knock with'.

As for lighting, 'the light of candles and lamps was far better than gas', and when it came to windows Wilde preferred them to be small and had this to say of large plate-glass windows: 'the people in the street had nothing to do but look into the house, and the people in the house had nothing to do but look into the street - both being of course extremely bad habits. Such windows did not give light; they gave glare'.

Wilde even had something to say on the subject of coal scuttles. His listeners, he said, 'did not want those horrible papier-mache coal scuttles which were in use for some time, and which bore upon the front of them 'Tintern Abbey by Moonlight' and kindred pictures. A plain brass scuttle was sufficiently beautiful.'

When choosing a mirror Wilde urged a pretty, circular one, and not a large plate-glass example, as, he said, was extremely bad for people's vanity to be always looking at themselves in these gigantic looking-glasses.'

When it came to furniture Wilde offered his listeners a choice. He preferred again the Gothic, but admitted that it was often too large for the average house. Louis Quatorze he emphatically did not approve of, but of the furniture he recommended as most suitable was that which then went by the name of Queen Anne.

At this point Wilde introduced his second local reference when he complemented the furniture on the stage which had been made in Belfast and lent by Mr Campbell. 'It was,' said Wilde, 'furniture of which any town might be proud, and was perfectly well-made in every respect.' A sentiment which his audience warmly applauded.

The manufacturer referred to was the firm of NH Campbell & Co, general drapers and house furnishers of Donegall Place, one of the leading Belfast furnishing shops of the time.

Wilde then went on to deal with pictures. By now he had his audience firmly in the palm of his hand, and the breathless reporter of the Northern Whig could scarcely get it all down: 'as to photographs of one's relations, of course if one's relations were decorative - (laughter) - as he was quite sure was always the case in Ireland - (laughter) - there was every reason for hanging them on the wall.'

Wilde concluded his lecture with several remarks on the subject of education. The Northern Whig's man reported him thus:

"If, instead of teaching little boys and girls the latitude and longitude of countries that nobody wanted to go to - (laughter) - which was called geography - and all that criminal calendar of Europe, which was termed history - instead of wearying children with these two so-called sciences, they were to teach them the simple decorative arts, how much better they would make them and what a source of knowledge and delighting afterlife they would be giving to them. 

"This meant in the first place, opening the child's eyes to the wonder and beauty of the world around it, and by training his hand so that he could transfer to others all the joy that he himself felt. So he should like to see in every school the children of rich and poor alike taught carpentry or carving in wood making pottery, working in metal or the beating out of brass or silver. 

"Their school should be the most beautiful place in every town or village, not whitewashed walls with everything around dull. It should be so beautiful that the greatest punishment for a little boy would not be allowing him to go to school next day."

So ended Wilde's first lecture, and as the Newsletter commented, 'the lecture was full of interest, and by no means wanting in humour. It was delivered with an entire freedom from affectation, and it evidently produced a highly favourable impression upon the audience.' 

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