A full length portrait of Oscar Wilde, owned by the writer himself, will be exhibited in the UK for the first time as part of Tate Britain’s Queer British Art 1861-1967 exhibition. Wilde was declared bankrupt whilst awaiting trial for ‘gross indecency’ and was forced to sell the work to pay his legal fees. It has since been held in an American collection for almost a century. Opening in April 2017, Tate Britain’s exhibition will show the painting alongside the prison cell door behind which Wilde was incarcerated in Reading Gaol.
The artist Robert Goodloe Harper Pennington presented the portrait to the sitter and his new wife Constance as a wedding present in 1884. Considered to be the couple’s most prized possession, it hung above the fireplace in their Chelsea home. In April 1895 the Marquess of Queensberry, the enraged father of Wilde’s lover Lord Alfred Douglas (known as Bosie), accused Wilde of ‘posing as a sodomite’. Wilde sued for libel but evidence of his relationships with men caused the trial to collapse. Wilde was arrested for ‘gross indecency’ and was sentenced on 25 May 1895 to two years imprisonment with hard labour in solitary confinement.
Wilde was declared bankrupt whilst awaiting trial. All of his belongings, including the portrait, were sold at auction to pay his debts. Most of Wilde’s belongings remain untraced, but Wilde’s friends Ernest and Ada Leverson bid for the painting and kept it in storage in their Kensington house. Wilde remarked that Ernest ‘could not have [it] in his drawing-room as it was obviously, on account of its subject, demoralising to young men, and possibly to young women of advanced views’. It later resided in the home of Wilde’s former lover and executor Robert Ross until being sold to an American collector in the 1920s, and it has remained in the USA ever since. It will be displayed at Tate Britain alongside the door of cell C.3.3 in which Wilde was incarcerated in Reading Gaol from 1895 to 1897. Behind this door, Wilde wrote the famous letter De Profundis – ‘from the depths’ – addressed to Bosie. His time in cell C.3.3 also inspired The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which he wrote whilst in exile in France.
Alex Farquharson, Director, Tate Britain, said: ‘It’s wonderful to be displaying this important portrait of Oscar Wilde for the first time in Britain. It’s an extraordinary image of Wilde on the brink of fame, before imprisonment destroyed his health and reputation. Viewing it next to the door of his gaol cell will be a powerful experience that captures the triumph and tragedy of his career.’
The curator of the exhibition, Clare Barlow, said: ‘The six foot oil painting depicts him as a slender 27-year-old on the cusp of success. His stance is confident, holding a pair of gloves in one hand while the other clasps a silver-topped cane. It presents a different, more sombre image to the one we are more familiar with’.
Queer British Art 1861-1967 will mark the 50th anniversary of the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in England and Wales. Open at Tate Britain from 5 April to 1 October 2017, it will present work from the abolition of the death penalty for sodomy in 1861 to the passing of the Sexual Offences Act in 1967 – a time of seismic shifts in gender and sexuality that found expression in the arts. It is curated by Clare Barlow with assistant curator Amy Concannon and will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue from Tate Publishing and a programme of talks and events in the gallery.