Discovery of a long-lost portrait of Oscar Wilde’s sister

John Donoghue’s ‘Requiescat’ plaque. Image: © Rev. William M. Quinlan

A copper portrait plaque depicting Oscar Wilde’s younger sister has been discovered in America, after being lost for more than a century.

Wilde’s sister Isola died aged nine of a fever from which she had seemed to recover. Wilde was distraught and would visit her grave for hours at a time. When he died in Paris in 1900, one of his few personal possessions was a hand-decorated envelope containing a lock of ‘my Isola’s hair’.

Wilde toured America in 1882 with his lectures on art and home decoration. The tour was widely publicised. The Irish-American sculptor John Donoghue, learning of Wilde’s imminent arrival in Chicago, made the portrait bas-relief in clay as a gift.

The plaque includes the third stanza of Wilde’s ‘Requiescat’, a poem Wilde had written in memory of his sister and published in his 1881 book of poetry.

Lily-like, white as snow,
   She hardly knew
She was a woman, so
   Sweetly she grew.

John Donoghue is best known for his sculpture of Sophocles, a maquette of which Wilde saw in Donoghue’s Chicago studio in 1882. Image: Art Institute of Chicago

Wilde later commissioned a metal version of the plaque and displayed it above the fireplace in the drawing room of his home in Tite Street, Chelsea, as part of an elaborate overmantel designed by the renowned architect and aesthete, Edward William Godwin.

Wilde’s arrest in 1895 for ‘gross indecency’ effectively ended his tenancy at Tite Street. The plaque was not among the items sold soon afterwards in the sheriff’s auction of Wilde’s belongings. It may have been taken from the home by Wilde’s wife, Constance – she is known to have salvaged other artworks, including three etchings by James McNeill Whistler that the couple received as a wedding present, as well as furniture.

While researching Donoghue, I entered into correspondence with Rev. William M. Quinlan, Pastor of Saint John’s Church of Darien, Connecticut, who has a long-standing interest in the artist’s work. I was astonished to discover that Fr Quinlan owns the plaque – Wilde scholars were unaware that any version of it had survived.

Fr Quinlan’s plaque may or may not be the plaque once displayed at Tite Street. With a gap in the provenance of over a century, no firm conclusions can be drawn. But, given that there is no evidence that any other metal version of the plaque was ever made, the likelihood that Fr Quinlan’s and Wilde’s plaques are one and the same must be high.

I have a paper about the plaque in the January 2024 issue of The Wildean, the journal of the Oscar Wilde Society. Dalya Alberge’s story about the rediscovery of the plaque appeared in The Sunday Telegraph on 10 Dec. 2023 (p. 11).