A rarely seen portrait of Oscar Wilde that typically hangs in a small hallway inside UCLA’s William Andrews Clark Memorial Library is on public display for the first time in Great Britain as part of an exhibition at London’s Tate Gallery.
Owned by UCLA, the near-life-sized portrait went on view today in the Tate’s exhibition “Queer British Art 1861-1967, which runs through Oct. 1.
The painting has a slightly incongruous thematic connection to this exhibition of queer art, said Joseph Bristow, UCLA Distinguished Professor of English and noted expert on the life and times of Oscar Wilde. The Irish author was not celebrated as a queer artist in his time, and, in fact, was jailed in England because of his sexual orientation.
But the portrait itself is magnificent, Bristow said, and features Wilde in the prime of his life. It was painted in 1884 by American artist Harper Pennington as a wedding gift for Wilde and his wife, Constance.
By all accounts, Wilde’s wife loved the painting, Bristow said, but lost possession of it thanks to the author’s collision with British law in 1895 when he was charged with “gross indecency,” for which he eventually served a two-year prison sentence.
“When Wilde was not given bail and was languishing in jail waiting for trial, he was so in debt that all of his household belongings had to be sold, including much of his artwork and some unpublished writings that were scattered and, sadly, never recovered,” Bristow said.
The Pennington portrait, which had hung in Wilde’s London home, was rescued by friends Ernest and Ada Leverson. It eventually landed in the possession of the American collector Harrison Post. Post then gave it to his lover — the avid Wilde collector William Andrews Clark Jr. of Los Angeles.
The painting has been in the possession of the Clark Library since 1934, when Clark’s private library and collections became part of UCLA. It was first exhibited outside the library in a show at the Hammer Museum in the late 1990s. The William Andrews Clark Memorial Library is one of UCLA's major libraries for rare books and manuscripts, with particular strengths in English literature and history (1641-1800), Oscar Wilde and fine printing.
From late 2016 through Jan. 15, 2017, the portrait was part of a major exhibition devoted to Wilde at the Petit Palais in Paris, titled, “Oscar Wilde: L’impertinent absolu,” which loosely translates as “Insolence Incarnate.”
Wilde loved Paris, and the French loved him and his work, Bristow said. The title of that exhibition was a nod to the irreverent style that defines Wilde’s legacy. It featured an array of artworks, manuscripts and photographs that illuminated his legendary career, including previously unseen materials from private collections.
After the Tate exhibition ends in October, the portrait will return to the Clark Library, which is currently undergoing major seismic reconstruction. Once that work is completed, the revamped building will provide the Wilde portrait with a more prominent location for public viewing, Bristow said.