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The story behind the picture: Recreating Oscar Wilde’s 1884 visit to the Royal Pavilion

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The infamous playwright and poet, Oscar Wilde visited the Royal Pavilion and presented two of his popular art & life lectures on 17 and 18 November 1884. To mark the anniversary of the occasion we recreated Wilde’s visit on Saturday 19 November 2011 staging a living history presentation in which Oscar Wilde and his Aesthetic companions promenade the palace. Here is the story of how the event came about.

The event planning process

In 2011 I was working as Royal Pavilion & Museums Learning Officer with responsibility for the adult event programme and this was one of the 53 public events of that year. Each event was staged as the result of a methodical planning process.

My first stage of the process was to submit the idea to the departmental Creative Programming panel about eight months before the intended date of the event. This was always done to ensure any proposed event met with a series of key service objectives.

This particular event was offered to the panel for consideration with a range of objectives including its appeal to audiences with a specific interest in Oscar Wilde as well as people interested in Brighton’s history, interior design and the Victorian era. The event was aimed at a broad audience from families to the LGBT community and specialists since the event included an illustrated lecture.

Achieving objectives

As proof of success in achieving the objective of increasing visitor numbers to the Royal Pavilion I quoted two previous Oscar Wilde themed events; a lunchtime lecture at the Old Courtroom in 2007 which bought the largest ever audience to the lecture programme and a recent visit by over 100 members of the Brighton & Hove National Trust Association who attended a lecture about Oscar Wilde at Hove Museum.

As a character from history Oscar Wilde had proven pulling power.

I proposed the event title as Oscar Wilde and the Royal Pavilion with the following description:

Oscar Wilde in person promenades the Pavilion dressed in his Aesthetic costume accompanied by Aesthetic Movement followers and poets. The characters discuss the Pavilion interiors in enacted vignettes. The event also contains an additional lecture in the Red Drawing Room on the subject of Oscar Wilde with specific reference to his visits to the Royal Pavilion, Brighton and the South Coast and his views on interior design

Inspiring audiences

I proposed three major aims regarding enjoyment, learning and the inspiration audiences would derive from the event emphasising the way it would promote and highlight the Royal Pavilion & Museums collections.

The event will increase visitor knowledge about:

1) The Victorian history of the Royal Pavilion.

2) Famous visitors to the Royal Pavilion once it became a public building.

3) How Brighton used the Royal Pavilion once it was no longer a royal palace.

Peopling the event

Public events also had a staff learning and development objective and this included offering opportunities for museum volunteers. This event was staffed by members of the Royal Pavilion & Museums Learning team, more often seen working as museum teachers in the school programme and a drama-student volunteer from Lewes Sixth Form College who worked with me in the planning process and on the day. I’d visited the college on 5 July and presented a talk to a year group of students aiming to inspire them regarding opportunities to be found working in museums and historic houses as living history actors. The majority of the young people I spoke to had no idea such interesting careers existed.

Bringing history alive with people & costume


From the beginning I knew I wanted Oscar Wilde to appear to bring his character alive and give Royal Pavilion visitors the sense they’d travelled back to 1884. Fortunately, we had experienced staff on the team who could step into roles I’d chosen. These were Oscar Wilde himself and a small party of women to play the role of his devoted admirers. Most of the costume was already held in the store of facsimile period dress held at Preston Manor including a real-hair wig for Oscar whose tousled poetic locks were his especial trademark.

I wanted the women to appear in what was known at the time as Aesthetic Dress, that is clothing approved by Oscar Wilde as being the opposite of the tightly corseted modes of the day. Wilde believed women should dress is looser styles freeing the body to move unrestrained and thereby achieve true beauty. The crinoline, the hoop, fussy frilly trimmings and unnatural silhouettes were ugly and out and soft-colours, art-embroidery and classical drapes were in.

The Aesthetic (or Artistic) Dress Movement was the first anti-fashion or alternative fashion movement and was often derided at the time. The humorous Punch Magazine ran a series of satirical cartoons depicting Aesthetic persons adopting exaggerated poetic poses at art galleries and soulfully gazing at lilies in restaurants to gain sustenance in lieu of food. It was to these cartoons I turned because of the way the artist exaggerated the gowns worn by Aesthetic ladies. Volunteers with dressmaking skills adapted two garments. One, an Aesthetically-approved Renaissance-style costume with rich-green velvet tunic, simple wide white lace collar and loose flowing skirt. The other was an amalgamation of two dresses, the finished gown displaying the favoured medieval-inspired wide sleeves, long flowing train hung loosely from the shoulders and tapered to a tabard-effect at the front.

Colour and specific motifs were of the greatest importance. The Aesthetics favoured olive-green, terracotta, peacock blue and amber-gold with peacock feathers, sunflowers and lilies as popular motifs used in wallpaper, stained-glass, textiles, book illustrations, tiles and decorative artistically crafted home items.

Studying Oscar for homework

To ensure everyone involved in the event could answer visitor questions and to fully prepare them for the challenge of portraying historical characters I created a file of fact-sheets and background-history documents for participants to study ahead of the event. I especially needed them to know why Oscar Wilde came to Brighton and what he spoke about at the Royal Pavilion. To this end I looked at contemporary newspaper reports.

The Brighton Herald sent a reporter to Wilde’s lectures, which were themed to The Value of Art in Modern Life and Dress so there was plenty of first-hand reference material available.

I required my 2011 Oscar to study the description of Oscar at the Royal Pavilion as reported in the Brighton Herald on 22 November 1884

“a rather tall, well-proportioned young man, with a full, clean-shaven, somewhat effeminate face, pleasant in expression, and of unvarying placidity. His hair is long and waving, falling low on his neck and over each side of his forehead and temples…his bearing, as he lounges and poses at the back of a chair, is easy and graceful; his voice is soft and pleasant; his language florid and polished, and strongly tinged at times with quiet sarcasm and humour”

A cello coat

Scholars of Wilde continue to debate whether or not Oscar’s wardrobe contained a coat designed to look like a cello, which some reports have him wearing at a private view at the Grosvenor Gallery in London. The art gallery was known in Wilde’s time for displaying works outside mainstream art such as those by the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and James McNeill Whistler. The sighting of such a coat has been tracked down to an entry in a private diary dated 1880 and published in 1921 at which the diarist writes of Oscar’s inspiration come from a dream of “a coat of a peculiar make and colour which somehow reminded him of a violincello” which he had made up by a tailor in an unusual cloth that looked bronze in some light and red in another with a peculiar seam at the back resembling the construction of a cello, which may or may not have been coincidental.

This possibly apocryphal but fabulous-sounding garment was the inspiration behind a red and black cello-dress put on display in the William IV Room at the Royal Pavilion on 19 November 2011 made and owned by a member of Royal Pavilion & Museums staff shown here wearing an Aesthetic Movement inspired dress in Wilde-approved muted purples. She stands next to a mannequin dressed in a black and white gown embroidered with designs by the works of Brighton-born illustrator, Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) who was a leading figure in the Aesthetic Movement.

VLUU L200 / Samsung L200

A successful event

I wrote in my 2011 diary of the day’s success and how, because of the unseasonable fine weather, the costumed characters promenaded outside the Royal Pavilion delighting passers-by and encouraging them to come into the Pavilion and find out more. I add that the lecture was attended by the Chairman of the Oscar Wilde Society who kindly bought with him a letter written by Wilde himself (penned to a publisher) and which was put on display for the duration of the one-day event in a locked display-case specially sourced for the occasion.


Paula Wrightson, Venue Officer, Preston Manor