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THE CRITIC AS CRITIC
The Francis Spiteri Paris Collection
Review by Isabelle Gatt
Exploring a Collection; inhabiting the Extraordinary Story of Oscar Wilde.
I walked down the avenue lined with a beautiful row of traditional Maltese town houses looking for the one belonging to the
Storm Petrel Foundation, a foundation set up in 2013 to promote art, literature and popular culture. My heart was pounding
with excitement at the prospect of viewing the exhibition of one avid collector’s ongoing journey in search of anything in
connection with Oscar Wilde. I came to a dark red door numbered 79 which was wide open, I rang the bell and the
‘antiporta’, a glazed door within a wooden frame, which is found right behind the main entrance door in these Maltese
traditional townhouses, was unlocked and I was welcomed into this wonderful space, beautifully renovated specifically to
exhibit collections. The floors of this house are still the original Maltese patterned, colourful tiles, the walls are painted in
rich shades and the furniture consists mainly of glass display cabinets and wire-door shelving, hand-painted in tones of duck
egg blue decorated with touches of gold, specifically designed to showcase precious private collections.
The very first collection to be exhibited in this house is the Oscar Wilde collection entitled: Vanities: Collecting Oscar
Wilde. As I entered the first room on the right, the collector himself, Mr. Francis Spiteri Paris, known as Perry,
a distinguished-looking man with greying hair and piercing blue eyes, was showing a book of poetry written by Lady Wilde,
Oscar’s mother who wrote under the pen name ‘Speranza’. There were other books by Speranza, some first editions, books
about Celtic mythology and superstition. You could sense the enthusiasm and passion as Perry spoke eloquently about each
item he picked up which he must have searched, researched and selected with intricate care. Each is a treasure that reveals a
significant part of Wilde’s life, this author who produced such acclaimed works of poetry, prose and theatre. There was also a
first edition of Irish Popular Superstitions, a book by Oscar’s father, William Robert Wilde.
And so, we were introduced to Wilde’s unconventional and literary parents. Lady Jane Francesca Wilde (Speranza) was a
poet/writer, a women’s rights activist in a patriarchal Victorian society who used to hold grand salons at their elegant home.
His father, Sir William Wilde, was a typical Victorian polymath, a fine surgeon and a writer who published essays about
medicine, literature, superstitions and archaeology. Oscar’s parents’ influence, not to mention that of the guests at the salon
gatherings, must have been significant. Understanding his family background and his liberal upbringing helps to understand
why Oscar Wilde dressed so flamboyantly, was such a lover of beauty, and had a refined personality which was also witty and
provocative to the point of being contemptuous towards cultural values and anything traditionally moral. He lived his life as if
it were theatre, he attracted attention because of his extravagant behaviour and the ultra sophistication and glamour of his
dress. Wilde had this capacity to bewitch with words, the gift of a raconteur and a witty outspoken manner of speaking that
made him famous. He was famous even before he had written his great works thanks to his extraordinary personality and
conversation. And being famous seemed to be his aspiration, one of his often quoted epigrams is: Somehow or other I'll be
famous, and if not famous, I'll be notorious. As Perry pointed out photos, books, letters, theatre programmes of Wilde’s
theatre premiere productions and lithographs, and gave copious facts and details, Oscar Wilde’s personality and his life
unfolded before our very eyes.
Another first edition is the collection of sonnets In Excelsis (in the highest degree), written by Lord Alfred Douglas while he
was in Wormwood Scrubs Prison for libelling Winston Churchill. And so, enters Lord Alfred Douglas, known as Bosie. Bosie
was a 21-year-old Oxford undergraduate and talented poet when he met Oscar Wilde and he became his lover and literary
muse. Bosie was a dandy, intelligent, talented but spoiled, immature, arrogant and audacious. When his father, the Marquis
of Queensberry, found out about Bosie’s affair with Wilde he did everything to break them up and threatened to cause a huge
public scandal. Bosie detested his father and so, his father attacked his lover, Wilde. He left him a visiting card on which he
wrote ‘For Oscar Wilde posing as a Somdomite’ misspelling Sodomite. Wilde could have let it be, but, ignoring advice from
everybody, and probably instigated by Bosie, he hastened to seek a lawsuit against the Marquis for criminal libel. It all
backfired horribly with accusations of homosexuality, which was then a criminal offence, and the whole case became a case
about Wilde's own character and eventually, his body of work. The Green Carnation, a scandalous novel of homosexuality
which had been published anonymously and whose lead characters were closely based on Oscar Wilde and Bosie, was
attributed to Wilde and used as evidence against him. The book forms part of the collection.
Wilde was imprisoned for two years. At first he was kept in isolation. He was eventually moved to Reading Gaol with a plank
for a bed. For some time he was tied to a treadmill six hours a day. It was a way of killing an artist’s soul. It was here that, he
was allowed to have a pen and ink every day to write a letter, as this was the only way that he could have access to pen and
paper. One such letter, which is historically key, features in this collection and is displayed right next to a first edition of the
book The Green Carnation. It is the letter sent to the Pall Mall Gazette on 2 October, 1894, where Wilde denied anonymous
authorship of The Green Carnation which was used as key evidence by the prosecution against Wilde. An anonymous book
was admitted as evidence, which goes to show how ridiculously this case was conducted. It was only after Oscar had served
his sentence of two years hard labour, that Robert Hichens claimed authorship of the book. Hitchens had based his lead
characters on Wilde and Bosie as he knew them personally, yet he never spoke up until it was too late.
Going through this exhibition with Perry, I realised how let down Oscar must have felt by such people. Yet, there were others
who proved to be loyal, even while he was in jail. The new governor of the jail, Major Nelson, was more liberal than his
predecessor and was ready to relax the stiff regulations; together with Wilde they came up with the idea that Wilde could
write a book in the form of a letter, as only letters were allowed to be written. As per regulations, what he wrote was taken
away each evening and handed back to him in the morning. This is when and how he wrote De Profundis (Latin for: from the
depths) which was in the form of a long letter to Bosie. A first edition of De Profundis forms part of this collection. De
Profundis is a profound reflection on his life, spirituality and faith from the depths of despair as he writes about the tragic
events that led to his incarceration and his spiritual development during his time in prison. It is such a moving book even if
very different from what he had written earlier. When released, Wilde gave his manuscript to Robbie Ross, a loyal friend who
helped Wilde till the end, and instructed him to send a copy to Douglas, which the latter denied ever having received. Ross
had been Wilde’s first lover. When Wilde was imprisoned Ross went abroad. However, he returned to offer financial and
emotional support to Wilde during his last years and was with him when he died. He was his literary executor.
It is intriguing how a collector makes sense of artefacts, connecting different bits together, piecing the story. In the collection
are included various newspaper cuttings of the time; one such cutting was from The Illustrated London News dated January
12th, 1895 featuring three illustrations from three different scenes of An Ideal Husband which was being staged at the
Haymarket Theatre. To demonstrate how true to life the illustrations were, two photos of the actors playing Lady Chiltern
(Miss Julia Neilson) and Sir Robert Chiltern (Mr Lewis Waller) are placed in the same frame so the viewer can clearly see
precision in the detail. The newspaper cutting includes lines from the scene which is illustrated. Displayed alongside this is an
authentic letter handwritten by Oscar Wilde dated December 1894, to Fred Terry, whom Julia Neilson had married in 1891,
urging him to ask his ‘charming wife’ to take the part of the leading lady (Lady Chiltern) which she eventually did. The
collection also features the first edition of the book An Ideal Husband but the name of the author is nowhere to be found:
under the title is written ‘by the author of Lady Windermere’s fan’! How distressing that must have been for Oscar Wilde
whose name would not be printed because he was in prison convicted for gross indecency.
Most fascinating in this collection are some 120 original coloured lithographs of caricatures of prominent people in high
Victorian society, caricatures which were featured in Vanity Fair – a reputable magazine which included political views,
weekly columns and caricatures of high society. In all, over 2300 caricatures were published in Vanity Fair. Most of these
caricatures are drawn by Sir Leslie Ward, whose nom de crayon was ‘Spy’ probably because he studied his ‘victims’ in depth
before starting to work on the sketches. Other caricatures were by Carlo Pellegrini, using the nom de crayon 'Ape' (Italian
word for bee). It was considered a public honour to have one’s caricature featured in Vanity Fair, few would refuse that, also
because having one’s caricature done by such artists appealed to one’s vanity and narcissism.
All the Vanity Fair lithographs included in this collection are of individuals who, in one way or another, were connected to
Wilde’s life - some were friends, some were enemies disguised as friends, and others were people who, good or bad, had an
influence on his destiny. So, like a jigsaw puzzle, these lithographs, and all the memorabilia meticulously collected over the
years, help conjure up the intriguing life and destiny of this ingenious if controversial dramatist/writer and witty
conversationalist and the circles he moved in. The caricatures include foreign royalty, nobility, politicians, a few women of
social position or notoriety as well as judges, journalists, artists and actors. Oscar Wilde was clearly well-connected in high
society and, as I read how the people caricatured were connected to him, again I wondered how such an erudite cultured
person with exquisitely polished manners could have had such a tragic turn of events to end up as he did. How come his
friends did not help him? Maybe, though many appreciated his witty and satirical nature, others were jealous of his
popularity, while others yet disliked him specifically because of his flamboyancy and mockery of religion and traditional
customs. The lithographs upstairs are accompanied by epigrams that are typical of Wilde’s conversational wit.
Most poignant of the rooms upstairs, is the one full of lithographs of caricatures of people connected with the trial such as
Sir Edward Clarke, a leading advocate of the late Victorian era who represented Wilde in the trials, the Marquis of
Queensberry, Sir Frank Lockwood who was leading counsel for the prosecution in Regina v. Oscar Wilde and Sir Alfred
Wills who sentenced Wilde to two years' hard labour. The caricature of Edward Henry Carson in parliament, caught my eye as
he is pointing an accusatory finger at someone opposite him. Carson was an Irish unionist, politician, barrister and judge. He
led the defence of the Marquess of Queensberry, whose caricature also features in the collection, against Wilde’s action for
criminal libel. Carson and Wilde knew each other from the time they had been students at Trinity College. Carson clearly was
out to destroy Wilde. Wilde remarked of Carson ‘No doubt he will pursue his case with all the added bitterness of an old
Wilde eventually withdrew the libel prosecution when he realised that there was proof that the accusation was true. However,
too much proof against Wilde had been presented and consequently Magistrate John Bridge requested a warrant for the arrest
of Oscar Wilde. Wilde was subsequently prosecuted for gross indecency through a second trial and third trial and was found
guilty and imprisoned for two years with hard labour.
In the middle of the room is a display table with four objects in it. In a box placed at the top centre is the highly valued key to
Wilde’s cell at Reading Gaol. Next to it, a framed certificate from Reading Prison attesting to its authentication. Bottom
centre is a first edition of The Ballad of Reading Gaol by C.3.3. representing cell block C, landing 3, cell 3 – the cell Oscar
had been in. As mentioned earlier with the book, this was because Wilde's name could not be published because of his
notoriety. The scandal had made his works unsalable. In fact, though the book was very popular, his name was not published
on the subsequent editions until the 7th edition. The last item in the display cabinet, on the left, is a sepia photo by Napoleon
Sarony when Wilde was in America. It is of the handsome Oscar, with longish hair parted in the middle, wearing the famous
great green overcoat trimmed in otter fur as he poses, elegantly seated on a sofa, left hand touching his face as he looks
languidly straight at the lens.
The collection is truly world class and so extensive that it is impossible to mention each and every item. I visited twice and
had a fascinating discussion with Perry (Francis Spiteri Paris) who has also authored the forthcoming publication featuring
the collection. The book with the same title of the exhibition Vanity: Collecting Oscar Wilde will be launched later this year.
The inscription by Stephen Fry reads ‘Stunned, dazzled and delighted by your loving and knowledgeable collection’
Isabelle Gatt (Ph.D Exon) is a full-time lecturer in Creativity and Drama Education within the Faculty of Arts,
Open Communities and Adult Education (University of Malta). Isabelle’s background is in theatre and television and she
has acted, directed and produced both theatre productions as well as TV programmes. She runs Teatru Qroqq Projects
creating theatre productions for children. Two of these projects which she produced and directed were theatre adaptations
of Oscar Wilde’s stories The Birthday of the Infanta and The Selfish Giant.
Exhibition photographs by Nick Sant Manduca courtesy of Francis Spiteri Paris ©, except Figures 3 & 5, taken by
The collection ‘Vanities: Collecting Oscar Wilde’, was open to the public in May and June 2017 at the Storm
Petrel Foundation, 79, Triq San Anton, Attard, Malta.
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