A Wilde night in Blackpool… as Oscar comes to town

Oscar Wilde as seen by a Punch cartoonist c1883

When the great Oscar Wilde visited Blackpool in 1883 much of his notoriety lay in the future. He was, however, already a well-known and controversial figure having come down from Trinity College, Dublin, and Magdalen College, Oxford, and then having cultivated literary and artistic society in London. “I often have the most beautiful people to tea,” he wrote to a friend on 23 December 1879 and he had developed a reputation for being the leader of the aesthetic movement that indulged itself in all things beautiful and artistic. Richard D’Oyley Carte had written of him in 1881“his name is often quoted as the originator of the aesthetic idea, and [he is] the author of a number of poems lately published, which have made a profound sensation on English society”.

It was with such a reputation that he was engaged to give a lecture on 'The House Beautiful' at the Assembly Rooms in Talbot Road on Wednesday 12 December 1883. This followed a successful tour of America arranged by Colonel W F Morse and Wilde returned from it a richer man, so the Colonel suggested that a lecture tour of the United Kingdom would perhaps be equally successful. Wilde agreed and he proudly declared to his friend the actress Lillie Langtry that he would “get rich quick on the proceeds”. He was to visit 50 venues and his fees were to be between 10 and 15 guineas per performance.

The tour began in September 1883 and Wilde, as he had done in America, found himself wandering from city to city, town to town across the country with successive lectures at one point being delivered in Glasgow, London and then Newcastle upon Tyne! By this time Wilde had cast aside the velvet breeches and silk stockings of the American tour. He had adopted short curly hair and had announced, “We are now concerned with the Oscar Wilde of the second period, who has nothing whatsoever in common with the gentleman who wore long hair and carried a mayflower down Piccadilly.”

He duly arrived in Blackpool on a wet and windy day for his 12 December appearance with the advance word on his lectures to that date being that his “performance lacked the lustre and exuberance that he had displayed in America” and the word was that some halls had been only half full for his performances.

All three local newspapers commented on his forthcoming visit. The Gazette & News stated, “Blackpool will, next week, have an opportunity of seeing and hearing Mr Oscar Wilde, poet, playwright, and leader of the now almost defunct aesthetic movement” but pointed out that the verdict so far was “In many towns Mr Wilde’s lecture has been attended more as a ‘show’ than as a literary entertainment.”

The Blackpool Times was a little more enthusiastic, even if the writer was not an Oscar Wilde fan. In the newspaper’s Echoes column the view was “I am not a great admirer of Mr Oscar Wilde but he is one of the ‘stars’ now ‘on tour’, and it is decidedly plucky on the part of anybody to bring to Blackpool anything big at this dull part of the year. I hope there will be a large attendance at the Assembly Rooms tonight. The ‘Apostlethwaite of Aestheticism’ has talked a lot of nonsense in his time, but the lecture he is to deliver this evening on The House Beautiful is, I believe, both instructive and entertaining.” The Blackpool Herald simply commented, “In view of Mr Wilde having provoked such attention both in England and across the Atlantic, it is probable that there will be a large attendance of those whose curiosity had thus been aroused."

In the event there were only “about 50 persons” present in the Assembly Rooms and as a consequence it was the considered view “the number of Aesthetics [sic] in Blackpool must be extremely limited”. But the Blackpool Times did admit, however, that those who did attend were “well entertained” and that they “received not a few hints on which they will probably act in the matter of the beautifying of their dwellings”.

The Gazette and News' critic shared this view but added, “taken as a whole, Mr Wilde was an agreeable disappointment”. He did, however, rather contradictorily acknowledge that the lecture was “excellent in substance and agreeable in delivery” and was “of the first order” with “many of the points made being instinct with genius”. “A more sympathetic audience than that of Wednesday night it would be impossible to bring together, and this in itself must have been gratifying to the lecturer” the same critic wrote. And he added, “If he ever chances to come to Blackpool again he may rely on a fuller appreciation.”

According to the Blackpool Herald, Wilde advised those present on the decoration of their homes, something, incidentally that he did not do for himself, and set down two rules laid down by William Morris. He told his audience “to have nothing in your house that you did not know to be useful, or thought to be beautiful” and “to have nothing in your house which had not been a joy to the man who bought it”. If these rules were followed he felt people would “get rid of a good deal of bad art that has crept into our houses”.

Sadly Wilde never did return to Blackpool, but if he had done so after his later literary success and various other escapades there would undoubtedly have been more than the 50 hardy souls who turned out to listen to his House Beautiful lecture in 1883.

Gerry Wolstenholme

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