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Wilde Ride


By Anne Pautler

Published Jul 1, 2017 8:00 AM

From UCLA's Clark Library, an Oscar Wilde portrait traveled to London and is on display in the Tate Britain’s Queer British Art 1861-1967 exhibition.

For Oscar Wilde scholars, the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library holds the most important archive in the world.

After a reclusive and scholarly existence for more than 80 years, how does it feel to be the toast of Paris and London?

If only portraits could talk. After many quiet decades in the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, UCLA’s magnificent Oscar Wilde portrait is on view in London through October 1, 2017. Hundreds of thousands of museumgoers will see the canvas by Robert Goodloe Harper-Pennington. The full-length portrait shows a slender, confident young man on the brink of literary success.

Courtesy of the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library.

Next to the portrait hangs a somber reminder of the writer’s fate: the door from his prison cell in Reading Gaol. Little more than a decade separates the 1884 portrait from Wilde’s prison sentence for “gross indecency” in 1895. Both the portrait and prison door are part of the Queer British Art 1861-1967 show at the Tate Britain. (From September 2016 through January 2017, the portrait starred at the Petit Palais in Paris in a show devoted entirely to Wilde.)

UCLA Professor of English and Wilde scholar Joseph Bristow, who wrote the Tate’s catalog entry on the portrait, explains that Pennington was one of a group of artists who gathered to work at the studio of James McNeill Whistler. The studio on Tite Street was not far from Wilde’s home, and the writer often dropped by. Pennington gave the portrait to Wilde when he married Constance Lloyd. “It took pride of place in Wilde’s beautifully decorated home,” Bristow notes.

After Wilde’s arrest, the portrait was auctioned with other household belongings. Rescued by Wilde’s friends Ernest and Ada Leverson, the canvas eventually came to the U.S. and the collection of William Andrews Clark Jr., who deeded his private library to the University of California in 1926. For Wilde scholars, the Clark Library holds “the most important archive in the world,” Bristow says. While the portrait has always been accessible to Wilde scholars and other Clark Library visitors, its size (70x36 inches) relegated it to a spacious wall in a stairwell.

Rebecca Fenning Marschall, manuscript and archives librarian at the Clark, escorted the portrait to Paris. Earlier this year, the painting traveled to London via cargo truck in a specially made wooden crate. After Queer British Art closes, the Tate will return the portrait to the Clark Library, which is scheduled to reopen this year after a lengthy seismic retrofit.