The interior design of Oscar Wilde’s dining room and study

On 10 February 2024 an event to launch No. 64 of The Wildean, the Oscar Wilde Society journal, was held in Oscar Wilde’s former home at 34 Tite Street, Chelsea. As part of the programme of this event, I was invited to speak on the interior design of the rooms that were once Wilde’s dining room and study. My talk complements the appendix of my article in The Wildean, 64, in which I describe the decoration of the front drawing room.Marland, R. (2024) John Donoghue’s ‘Requiescat’ plaque, The Wildean, 64, 3–67 For the benefit of those who were not able to attend the event, here follows the text of my talk.

Talking about Wilde’s dining room in Wilde’s dining room. Image: © Hannah Wareing, 2024

The dining room

Wilde was fascinated with interior design and lectured on the subject throughout North America and the British Isles. But I was never quite sure why he made this his specialist subject. Why interior design? My question was answered when, a couple of weeks ago, I came across a previously undocumented interview Wilde gave to the Kansas City Daily Journal. Wilde was in Kansas City to give a lecture, and the interviewer asked him what he was going to speak about that night. Wilde said:

[…] where I only lecture once, I always give my attention especially to the decorative arts—the art of beautifying home. This is all that needs encouragement. Painting and poetry need no encouragement, people love them by nature, and adore them as naturally as the bird sings. [….] No, it is the neglected arts of decorating that must be encouraged.‘Oscar Wilde’, Kansas City Daily Journal (Kansas City, MO), 18 Apr. 1882, 2, in Marland, R. (2024) Oscar Wilde: The Complete Interviews – Updates, u105. View source.

What he wanted to do, then, was to raise the standard of interior design so it was on a level with what he considered the higher arts of painting and poetry.

The White Symphony: Three Girls (c. 1868) by James McNeill Whistler. Image: Smithsonian.

A sketch of the Wildes’ dining room by Constance’s brother. The entrance to the room is in the bottom left, where the words ‘dining room’ are written. Image: The Soil.

E. W. Godwin’s design for a sideboard for the Wildes’ dining room. It was fixed to the wall above the wainscoting and a long shelf. Redrawn by Rob Marland from a design by Godwin at the British Library, Add MS 81753.

This room is really an illustration of that idea. It was the dining room, and Wilde’s designer, Edward William Godwin, conceived of it as a symphony in white. He must have been inspired by the paintings of James McNeill Whistler, such as The White Symphony: Three Girls, which Wilde talked about in his lectures and interviews.Marland, R. (Ed.) (2022) Oscar Wilde: The Complete Interviews, Jena: Little Eye, 374, n. 1 This oil sketch gives us some idea of what Godwin was aiming at, with its three young women in their white dresses standing before a white background, with a pink-white cherry blossom and a peach-and-white parasol.

As far as we know, no photographs were taken of the interior of the house while Oscar and Constance lived here, and so we have to rely on a handful of written accounts left to us by people who saw these rooms. Fortunately we have a brief description of the dining room in Wilde’s own words. It is the only room in the house for which we have a description by Wilde. He wrote in a letter to a friend of ‘a dining-room done in different shades of white, with white curtains embroidered in yellow silk: the effect is absolutely delightful, and the room is beautiful.’Holland, M. & Hart-Davis, R. (Eds.) (2000) The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, London: Fourth Estate, 259. In the same letter Wilde does describe another room, but it is not clear which room this was. A reference to a coverlet might suggest his own bedroom, although we have no corroborating description of that room.

The poet Louise Chandler Moulton, while on a visit here from New England, was especially taken with this room, with its ‘white walls, white chairs, white cabinets, [and] a white shelf a foot wide running round the walls at a convenient height’.‘People and things’, The Indianapolis Journal (Indianapolis, IN), 8 Aug. 1887, 4

This shelf was apparently something of an innovation. At first Wilde was nervous about the idea and pointed out to Godwin that the wall was 14ft wide – wasn’t this too long for a single shelf?Holland, M. & Hart-Davis, R. (Eds.) (2000) The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, London: Fourth Estate, 249. While in the room I paced out the wall on the left upon entering and found that it is, indeed, about 14ft across. Moulton’s description suggests that the shelf spanned more than one wall, and she is corroborated by Anna de Brémont: ‘[T]ea was served in the most delightfully unconventional manner from a quaint shelf extending around the wall (Brémont, A. (1911) Oscar Wilde and His Mother, London: Everett & Co., 87). But Godwin got his way, the shelf was installed, and afterwards Wilde decided he liked it: he boasted to guests that it was the only shelf of its kind in England.Lewis, L. (2002) Oscar Wilde’s house, The Chelsea Society Report, 35–8, 36

We know from a sketch by Constance’s brother that there was a dining table in the middle of the room.Lloyd, O. H. (1917) Wilde’s House, The Soil, 1, 151–5, 154, view source One rather ungenerous guest described the colour of the table as ‘dirty brown’.Lewis, L. (2002) Oscar Wilde’s house, The Chelsea Society Report, 35–8, 36 The Grecian-style chairs were painted white and upholstered in white plush.Brémont, A. (1911) Oscar Wilde and His Mother, London: Everett & Co., 87; Holland, V. (1954) Son of Oscar Wilde, London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 42. The carpet may have been by Morris and had a green-blue background with a white pattern.Lloyd, O. H. (1917) Wilde’s House, The Soil, 1, 151–5, 151, view source

In his memoirs the Wildes’ youngest son, Vyvyan, recalled that he and his brother would often be admonished to keep the carpet clean. This must have been difficult: the boys took all their meals in this room because it would have been too much bother to bring food from the kitchen in the basement to their nursery on the top floor.Holland, V. (1954) Son of Oscar Wilde, London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 42–3

Tanagra figurine of a draped woman. Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Narcissus, or Dionysus, from a model found in Pompeii. Image: Rotherham Heritage Services/ArtUK.

Godwin was obsessed with hygiene and probably specified a totally white room not just for aesthetic reasons but so Oscar and Constance would have to keep it spotless. He also prioritised hygiene in his furniture designs, leaving extra space underneath to make dusting easier.Hayes, R. W. (2023) lounging men, standing women: pose and posture in the aesthetic interior, Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens, 97, paragraphs 30 and 38, view source

He followed this principle in his design for a white glass-fronted cabinet that was attached to this wall [to the left upon entering]. It sat above the wainscoting and the long shelf.Holland, V. (1954) Son of Oscar Wilde, London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 42. Godwin’s design for the cabinet is held at the British Library, Add MS 81753. It contained the family silver and Wilde’s collection of Venetian glass.Holland, V. (1954) Son of Oscar Wilde, London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 42; Lloyd, O. H. (1917) Wilde’s House, The Soil, 1, 151–5, 151, view source.

The only elements of colour in the room apart from the Venetian glass were a red diamond-shaped cloth on the table and a red shaded lamp that hung above it. When W. B. Yeats came for Christmas dinner in 1888 he saw a terracotta statuette on the table, which was probably one of the Tanagra figurines that Wilde brought back from his student trip to Greece.Yeats, W. B. (1922) The Trembling of the Veil, London: T. Werner Laurie, 82; Mikhail, E. H. (Ed.) (1979) Oscar Wilde: Interviews and Recollections, London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 16. A green bronze statuette of Narcissus stood on the mantelpiece, and was likely a souvenir of Wilde’s time in Italy.Lloyd, O. H. (1917) Wilde’s House, The Soil, 1, 151–5, 151, view source; Murphy, P. (1998) The quare on the square: a statue of Oscar Wilde for Dublin, in McCormack, J., Wilde the Irishman, Yale University Press, 127-39, 135-6.

We’ve already heard Oscar’s thoughts on interior design so, before we move through to the front room, I think we should hear from Constance. After all, the dining room was as much her domain as it was her husband’s. This is an extract from an article on home decoration that Constance wrote for a women’s magazine. It was published in January 1895, just three months before she would be compelled to leave this place forever. In the article Constance gives tips on interior design, but I think we can tell that she is writing about her own home.

As for your dining room, have it as light as possible. I know this is not the fashion, but I think it is the right thing for the room in which we take our meals. All the rooms should look clean and fresh, but no room so imperatively needs it as the dining-room. I like a white dining-room with very simple furniture in it. Dining-room tables are very often over-decorated. A few flowers are all that is necessary, not masses of foliage that hide your guests from one another. Tete-a-tete conversations can take place in the drawing-room, but the dining room is for social purposes. Therefore, do not have too large a table or too many guests.Constance Wilde, ‘How to decorate a House’, The Young Woman, January 1895, 132–3

I’m glad that all of us managed to make the exclusive guest list today.

Describing the room that was once Wilde’s study. Image: © Hannah Wareing, 2024

The study

This is the room that was once Oscar Wilde’s study. It was in this room that he wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray, all his stories, his essays, his dialogues, and most of his journalism.

For Vyvyan and Cyril this room was off limits, although they would sometimes sneak in and root around in their father’s wastepaper basket, searching for discarded treasures. But, really, they were only allowed inside by special invitation.Holland, V. (1954) Son of Oscar Wilde, London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 41 We are extremely fortunate that this special invitation has been extended to us today on Oscar’s behalf.

The walls were painted yellow – either pale yellow or buttercup yellow.Pale yellow: Holland, V. (1954) Son of Oscar Wilde, London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 41. Buttercup yellow: Ricketts, C. (2011) Recollections of Oscar Wilde, London: Pallas Athene, 34. Godwin was responsible for selecting paint colours, but Wilde may have had some say: he described yellow as the colour of joy.

Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth (1889) by John Singer Sargent. Image: Tate

Plaster casts of the Hermes of Praxiteles at the Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge University. On the right, the statue as it was reconstructed in the 1870s; on the left, a bust on a pillar that gives an idea of what Wilde’s was like. Image: © Rob Marland, 2019

Charles Ricketts’ thumbnail sketch of his portrait of Mr W. H., drawn in 1912. Image: William Andrews Clark Memorial Library.

Ashtoreth by Charles Shannon. Image: Eastbourne Auctions | WBM.

Red enamelled bookshelves lined the walls.Holland, V. (1954) Son of Oscar Wilde, London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 41 The shade was probably vermilion, which was used to paint the woodwork in the room on the top floor that Wilde used as his study before the boys were born.Lewis, L. (2002) Oscar Wilde’s house, The Chelsea Society Report, 35–8, 37–8; Lloyd, O. H. (1917) Wilde’s House, The Soil, 1, 151–5, 155, view source. Wilde’s love of vermilion was influenced in part by how the word sounded. His friends noticed that he pronounced it slowly, savouring each syllable as if it were a fine wine.Richards, L. E. & Elliott, M. H. (1915) Julia Ward Howe, 1819–1910, Cambridge, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 168; Sherard, R. H. (1902) Oscar Wilde: The Story of an Unhappy Friendship, London: privately printed, 30.

We don’t know where Wilde’s writing desk stood, but perhaps it faced the window. Wilde once said that a gentleman never looks out of the window,Sherard, R. H. (1902) Oscar Wilde: The Story of an Unhappy Friendship, London: privately printed, 26 but he was fond of contradicting himself. It was from this window, one foggy morning in 1889, that Wilde saw Ellen Terry exiting John Singer Sargent’s studio dressed in the famous green beetle-wing gown she wore as Lady Macbeth.Cox, D. (2015) The Street of Wonderful Possibilities, London: Frank Lincoln Limited, 138. As we noticed on the day, it is not possible to see Sargent’s studio from the window – Wilde may have seen Terry passing by in a carriage.

Many have claimed that Wilde’s writing desk once belonged to the historian Thomas Carlyle, and it was sold as such in the 1895 auction of Wilde’s possessions that followed his arrest.Munby, A. N. L. (Ed.) (1971) Sale Catalogues of Libraries of Eminent Persons: Poets and Men of Letters, London and New York: Mansell, 371–88, lot 171 This idea was likely started up by Wilde himself. Now, as Wildeans, we would never be guilty of what Wilde called the ‘monstrous worship of facts’,‘The Decay of Lying’: Guy, J. (Ed.) (2007) The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Vol. 4: Criticism: Historical Criticism, Intentions, The Soul of Man, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 77.11–12 but Carlyle scholars, I regret to inform you, are not similarly restrained. One has pointed out that Carlyle bequeathed his only writing desk to a friend. The friend gave it to the London Library and it is now in the Thomas Carlyle museum, the historian’s former home, which is just a few minutes’ walk from here.Hill, M. (2013) A tale of a table: Oscar Wilde, Virginia Woolf, and the Legacy of Thomas Carlyle, Carlyle Studies Annual, 29, 137–54 So that’s where to go if you want to see the desk on which Wilde didn’t write The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Behind Wilde’s chair, in a corner (we’re not sure which one), there was a red pillar on which stood a life-sized plaster bust of the Hermes of Praxiteles – a statue that was unearthed at Ancient Olympia in 1877.Holland, V. (1954) Son of Oscar Wilde, London: Rupert Hart-Davis, 41; Lloyd, O. H. (1917) Wilde’s House, The Soil, 1, 151–5, 155, view source; Peters, W. T., ‘Oscar Wilde at Home’, The Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, IL), 16 Dec. 1894, 31, repr. Marland, R. (Ed.) (2022) Oscar Wilde: The Complete Interviews, Jena: Little Eye, 617–21. When the artist Charles Ricketts came to this room Wilde pointed to the bust and said that the ‘plaster did not retain the beauty and transparency of the marble, which is like ivory lit by the sun’.Ricketts, C. (2011) Recollections of Oscar Wilde, London: Pallas Athene, 35 But Wilde was only guessing at what the original looked like. He had visited the diggings at Olympia, but the statue was discovered several weeks after his departure. Perhaps he had seen it in his mind’s eye – he always had 20/20 vision in his mind’s eye.

There were two other major pieces of art in this room. One was Ricketts’s portrait of Mr. W. H., painted as a frontispiece for Wilde’s story. It stood on a chair. The other was a pastel nude by Charles Shannon. This was propped up against a wall.Peters, W. T., ‘Oscar Wilde at Home’, The Daily Inter Ocean (Chicago, IL), 16 Dec. 1894, 31, repr. Marland, R. (Ed.) (2022) Oscar Wilde: The Complete Interviews, Jena: Little Eye, 617–21 It was probably kept here rather than in the more public space of the drawing room because, as Wilde said, it was ‘dangerous to chambermaids’.Holland, M. & Hart-Davis, R. (Eds.) (2000) The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde, London: Fourth Estate, 896 Both pictures were sold in 1895. The Ricketts is lost, and the only evidence we have of what it looked like is a thumbnail sketch done some years later by the artist.Mackie, G. (2019) Beautiful Untrue Things: Forging Oscar Wilde’s Extraordinary Afterlife, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 3 The Shannon turned up again at auction a few years ago and was identified by Simon Casimir Wilson in his excellent paper for The Wildean as the picture that was once kept in this room.Wilson, S. C. (2021) ‘Dangerous to chambermaids’: Ashtoreth, a controversial early work by Charles Shannon, owned by Oscar Wilde, The Wildean, 59, 72–88. See also Maier-Sigrist, W. (2022) Where was Ashtoreth? The Wildean, 60, 120–1.

On the walls hung smaller works: Aubrey Beardsley’s drawing of Mrs Patrick Campbell, a Keats manuscript Wilde had been given by the poet’s niece in America, a group picture by Adophe Monticelli, a Simeon Solomon drawing of Eros speaking with schoolboys in the dress of Shelley’s time, and a picture of Japanese children playing that was probably by Mortimer Menpes. All of these were sold in 1895 and have been lost, except for the Beardsley, which is in a public collection in Berlin.For more on the artworks displayed in the study, see my article on the Wildes’ art collection.

As terrible as it is that almost the entire contents of this home were sold in that auction, from the artworks and furniture and books in this room to the pots and pans in the kitchen below and the children’s toys in the top floor playroom, I sometimes wonder if those auctioneers did all of us a favour that day.

If the House Beautiful had been preserved in aspic like the home of Thomas Carlyle, and converted to a National Trust museum with a tea room in the back and a gift shop in the front, and the detritus of Wilde’s study arranged exactly where he left it in April 1895, it would be wonderful in its own way. But I much prefer that this is still a home rather than a museum. The space is still alive; not what Wilde might have called ‘a dead thing’.Wilde, O. (1908) A Woman of No Importance, Methuen, 71 It means that we’re not visitors – we’re guests. Just as Charles Ricketts, and Louise Chandler Moulton, and W. B. Yeats were guests. What an honour that is.

And it has meant that for us to do what we’ve done today, to step back in time 130 years, we’ve had to use that thing that was so important to Wilde: our imagination.