A WILDE GUIDE TO LONDON
Oscar Wilde was one of Victorian London’s most witty and ornamental men – and as company legend goes, he was one of Penhaligon’s most committed customers. Here, we explore his London to mark Pride month.
By 1890, Oscar Wilde was like an ocean liner, cleaving his way through the tides of Victorian society. In full sail, he was a magnificent sight – a literary dandy, a raconteur, and the leading prince of the aesthetic movement. He had just published Dorian Gray, The Importance of Being Ernest was in the works, and he was wreathed in fame. Everything was going swimmingly and London was his playground.
Alas the bubble was soon to burst: he would soon fall victim to the commonly cruel homophobia of the time and the violence of his lover’s father the Marquess of Queensberry. He ended his days in rented rooms in Paris, having only just completed his last work, The Ballad of Reading Gaol. While the man is long gone – his legend still burns bright and he remains a gay icon, an inspiration, and one of the most recognisable writers of his time.
As millions around the world celebrate Pride Month this June, let us take you for a walk on the Wilde side – and allow us to speculate where the great man would go today.
Then: The Grill Room at the Café Royal
So often was Wilde to be found in the Grill Room at the Café Royal that he was almost part of the furniture. And that suited him rather well, as the room, built in 1865, is like a pocket-sized Versailles – all shimmering mirrors, soft lights, and brilliant gold caryatids. It was the perfect setting for a spot of flirtation. And indeed it was here he met his lover Lord Alfred and it was here he got legless on absinthe for the first time, writing of it: "After the first glass of absinthe you see things as you wish they were”. Quite so – until you drink another and find you see nothing, having nodded off.
Now: Queer Britain
We think Wilde would approve of Queer Britain, the first ever dedicated LGBTQ+ museum in the UK. It has just found a new, permanent home in Granary Square in King’s Cross – and aims to create a lasting record of the lives of the queer community, past and present, in the UK. As they proudly declare: they are helping complete the nation’s family tree.
When William Henry Penhaligon moved from Penzance to London in 1869, he began work as a barber at the Turkish baths on Jermyn Street in Mayfair. The curious and intoxicating aromas of the hammam gave him an idea: he would create a fragrance reminiscent of it. So, in 1872, Hammam Bouquet was born. It became an enormous success, and he soon took over the barbers at the baths and then opened a store in 1880. Wilde, like all the beau-monde of the day, was reputed to be its devotee.
Now: Still Penhaligon’s
We still sell Hammam Bouquet to this day. We know many of our clients settle on a fragrance early in life and stick with it through thick and thin – we believe that Wilde stuck with it through the dizzy highs and the terrible lows.
Then: 34 Tite Street
When Wilde arrived with his wife, fellow writer Constance Lloyd, Chelsea was seen as a bit below the salt. It was a place of artists, not aristocrats, with Whistler knocking around just up the road from them. Still the red brick house was big enough to contain Constance, two children, Wilde, and his burgeoning ego. Alas, the street was also big enough to include the house of the judge at his subsequent trial.
Now: Clerkenwell Green
Clerkenwell has the great advantage of been halfway between the gay establishments of East London and the grand dame restaurants of West London. It also seems to be entirely made up of either beautiful townhouses or lofts the size of Belgium. Wilde, we feel, would have fitted right in with the off-duty artists and architects who rule, without fear or favour, over this patch of town.
Hatchard’s has been selling books since George III was on the throne. John Hatchard opened the Piccadilly store in 1797 and it remains a royal favourite: holding warrants from Her Majesty The Queen and the Prince of Wales. Wilde was devoted to the place, and it was something of a meeting place for the gay literati. It is, it must be said, a very fine bookshop.
Now: Heywood Hill
The tourists that swamp Piccadilly today would surely have irritated Wilde: there is hardly space to swing your walking cane or traveling cape. Not far away, on Curzon Street is a little oasis of quiet. Heywood Hill is a diamond amid zirconia – and the only bookshop in the known world whose proprietor is a duke. (Devonshire, since you ask.). It was here that other gay icon, Nancy Mitford, worked selling books to her aristocratic contemporaries.
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