Oscar Wilde on Trial

LiveAuctionTalk.com:  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.

The man many called the cleverest person in the world was on trial for homosexuality. 

It was the height of Oscar Wilde’s career in 1895.  The place was London’s main courthouse.  A hush fell over the courtroom as Mr. Justice Wills read the sentence. 

Some said my life was a lie but I always knew it to be the truth; for like the truth it was rarely pure and never simple
— Oscar Wilde

“People who can do these things must be dead to all sense of shame…It is the worst case I ever tried,” he said.

Cheers broke out in the courtroom as Wilde was sentenced to two years hard labor for “acts of gross indecency with men.” 

He left prison two years later a broken man. 

Yet Wilde kept the promise he made many years before to his Oxford classmates.

“Somehow or other I’ll be famous, and if not famous, notorious,” he said.  No one understood the power of promise better than Wilde.

Playwright.  Novelist.  Poet.  Essayist.  Editor.  Raconteur.  Fashion icon.  Hedonist.  Change agent.  Oscar Wilde was a study in contrasts. 

His fame was unstoppable in late Victorian England what he couldn’t stop was England’s Victorian prudery. 

With Wilde’s glory came his fall.  As an Irishman and homosexual he would always be an outcast among British society. 

He married and fathered two children as an attempt to end the rumors.  But, it was its own kind of prison sentence.  Wilde wasn’t happy playing the part.

“Some said my life was a lie but I always knew it to be the truth; for like the truth it was rarely pure and never simple;” he said. 

Wilde’s downfall showcased the double life homosexuals led in Victorian England.  His effeminate manners and flamboyant dress made him an easy target for critics. 

“He came into (the room) talking, laughing, smoking a cigarette with waved hair and a flower in his buttonhole,” one friend said.  The same friend could also see the toll Wilde’s imprisonment had taken in his face.

As soon as he could Wilde left the country where he spent his life.  He lived his few remaining years in France.  He had big plans to write a new play and complete an old one but never did.

Wilde did write one of his saddest poems entitled “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.”   It was the story of a man who was executed for the murder of his wife.  An execution Wilde witnessed.

His estranged wife died a year after he left prison.  Broke and hungry Wilde spent his remaining time panhandling.  With nothing left to lose, he was more open about his homosexuality than ever before.

He died Nov 30, 1900 at the age of 46.

On Feb. 11, Swann Auction Galleries featured a signed photo of Oscar Wilde in its Signed Historical Photographs from the Jerome Shochet Collection sale.  The cabinet card, half-length portrait in a typical pose with flower in his lapel sold for $12,000.

Historical Signed Photos

George Bernard Shaw; by Claude Harris; close-up portrait of bearded playwright; 8 inches by 5 ¼ inches image size;  $4,080.  

Robert Louis Stevenson; portrait of author leaning toward camera; 5 ¾ inches by 4 inches approximate, image size;  $7,800. 

Sigmund Freud; by Halberstadt; bust portrait; 12 inches by 9 inches approximate;  $21,600.

Christopher (“Kit”) Carson; carte-de-visite; by Brady; dressed in civilian attire and seated; 3 ¼ by 2 ¼ inches approximate, image size;  $33,600.   

Abraham Lincoln; by Gardner; carte-de-visite; showing a seated president; 3 inches by 2 ¼ approximate, image size;  $48,000.   

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her LiveAuctionTalk.com website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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