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From the Archive: Oscar Wilde’s Gaiety Theatre lecture from November 1883

Oscar Wilde: “Nowadays the people in the street did nothing but look into the houses, and the people in the houses did nothing but look into the street, both of them, of course, extremely bad habits. Photograph: Roger Viollet Collection / Getty Images

Oscar Wilde: “Nowadays the people in the street did nothing but look into the houses, and the people in the houses did nothing but look into the street, both of them, of course, extremely bad habits. Photograph: Roger Viollet Collection / Getty Images


From The Irish Times on Friday, November 23rd, 1883: Lecture by Mr Oscar Wilde

Mr Oscar Wilde yesterday delivered the following lecture in the Gaiety Theatre. – He did not , he said desire, even were he able to give any abstract definition of the word “beauty,” because he thought they could get on so well without a philosophy of that kind if they only learned how to surround themselves with beautiful things. (A voice: “speak up.”)

Remembering the land in which he spoke, and the people to whom he was speaking, he could not, for a moment, believe that the power which produced so much beauty in the past was in the slightest degree dead amongst us, for if there was one thing more than another that distinguished the few beautiful remains of Celtic art that they were possessed of it was this, that they were absolutely decorative and dealt with form and colour without any attempt at imitation.

They knew, of course, how much had stood in the way of the artistic development of this country, and when the heart of the country had broken it had broken in music. But even now one might ask whether it would not be possible again so to elevate each handicraft that every one of them might become an art.

For with regard to any artistic movement it was not sufficient merely to have pretty shops to go to – the whole essence and basis of art lay in something far more important. It consisted entirely and absolutely in the value and the honour that they were ready to give to handicraf t. Ornament could not be produced except by the very best amongst them, and until people recognised that there was no nobler profession possible for any young man or young woman provided that they had the noble qualities that art demands, than that of simple decorative art – until that was recognised art could never be as naturally and powerfully developed as they desired. (Applause.)

– As regarded decoration and the rules for it, they should not imagine that he desired in the slightest degree to narrow them down to any form of decoration that might, perhaps, to himself be congenial. One should recognise how absolutely various all taste should be: only let them be quite certain it was taste, and not the want of it. It was not sufficiant for people to tell them what they liked– it was of far more importance to know what to like; and the desire for beauty being he could not but think natural to all, they could only hope to lay down a few general principles that lay at the basis of all art, and to see whether working on that foundation one could not have something better in the way of decorative art than the 19th century had been able to give them.

Mr Wm. Morris, whose name was known to many present, was in the habit of laying down two sensible rules for people about to furnish a house. The first was – “ Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or think to be beautiful.” If one followed that out what a lot one would, at all events, get rid of such thing as the stuffed birds, and the numerous anti macassars that made some rooms look like a sort of endless washing day. (Laughter.) Those kind of ornaments which they knew were not useful, and which none of them thought were beautiful, would in that way be got rid of.

The second rule was – “Have nothing in your houses that you do not feel must have been a joy to the man who made it, and that you do not know as joy to you who use it.” (Loud laughter.) Mr Morris’s second rule struck at the very root of the question. The whole meaning of it was simply this: that some noble-minded man, having felt the beauty of the world about us, must needs convey to others in the work of his hands the joy and the delight that that beauty had given him: and if people in choosing their pottery, or furniture or decorations stopped to think whether what they were choosing was the expression of joy and pleasure or was merely, the work of the overwrought artizans, of people who had no joy or pleasure in their lives, the end that was aimed at would be attained.

To these rules might be added a third. Not to have any imitation of one texture in another. Not, for instance, he meant to paper one’s hall so as to look like marble. Mr Ruskin said it was highly immoral to have anything of the kind, that it put the master of the house in the position of telling falsehoods to everyone who went to see him. The morality of art was merely beauty. The immorality of art was simply ugliness. These rules would be merely used for getting rid of bad ornaments, and clearing the ground for new ornament. As regarded the style of architecture he should say that he was not speaking about ecclesiastical architecture, or of public buildings, but merely of the architecture for private citizens – domestic architecture. He thought the most beautiful was that which preserved some relic of Gothic freedom. The classic always condemned one to the square window, and sacrificed the inside of the house to make the outside look well. The Gothic left one entirely free – there was no necessity for the monotonous severity of classic work. Working in red brick gave one more opportunity for decoration than anything else. Mr Wilde then at some length gave his views as to the kind of halldoor he would like to see in houses. Much of the beautiful wrought iron work formerly to be seen upon halldoors they had no longer with them, but one of tbe reforms in this portion of the dwelling he suggested was that the cast-iron and black-leaded monstrosity, which now did duty as a knocker, should be abolished in favour of one of polished brass , which would be cleaner and look much prettier. The door, itself he would treat merely in colour, and not paint to imitate any kind of wood.

He should not paper the hall, and he did not think the hall was a place for pictures. Pictures should only be hung where people had leisure and time to enjoy them; and where people were always running in and out with umbrellas to catch trains – (laughter) – was not the place to see a good picture, and a bad picture should never be seen anywhere – not even in the hall. (Laughter.) There was another objection to hanging pictures in halls if they were as narrow as they were generally left by the builder, and that was the want of space.

Then, with regard to the modern whitewashed square box that was often left to one by one’s builder, and termed a room. What was the first thing they should think about in decorating it? It was what colour they should decorate it with. Pray, let them not ask him what was an artistic colour. He had often been asked that. There was no artistic colour. All colours were beautiful. They lay before the artist as the keys of a piano lay before the musician. They could not love one colour more than another. (Laughter.) This, of course, it was of value to remember, that the most desirable colours in decorative art were those which just seemed to be passing into one another – secondary and tertiary instead of primary colours.

Remember that an artistically decorated room was not a gloomy room done in shades of green, which, he was sorry to say, was thought by many people to comprise what was beautiful in decoration. Decoration should be as bright and joyous as colour and texture could make it. How should they get that bright colour? Look at the stained glass in some old cathedral or at a Persian carpet. How full of bright colours they were, but how was that effect produced? By a proper use of neutrals, the bright colours being set like little gems here and there, and so given their proper value.

Our colours were far brighter than the Eastern colours, and yet how was it that the East gave splendour while Europe gave only glare? It was because the East knew how to use the neutrals; they always used gold to soften and tone down the primary colours. The Alhambra was an example of this. In Europe they had always used gold to have a glare – had treated it as a primary, whereas it was really a neutral. The room had, of course, its walls, its ceiling, its fireplace, furniture, ornament s, and windows. Most walls looked far too high; the most beautiful rooms he had always thought were low rooms. If they thought their room was too low they could decorate it in panels, and for the texture of the panels nothing could be more beautiful than many of the lovely poplins that were, he was glad to see, still made in Ireland. (Applause.)

The old poplin of perhaps fifteen years ago was, as far as he remembered, a little too thick in texture, but modern poplin fell into really very pretty folds. Whenever one was doubtful about a decoration, gold was always a safe resort. Then as regards the ceiling, what a problem really that was! (Laughter.) What was one to do with the glaring white ceiling, which spoiled the decoration of the room, no matter how pretty it was? What one wanted was that light should break into light and shade on the roof, and if they had a fine beam or a few good rafters there was a splendid opportunity of decoration, and the room would always look well. Of course the most beautiful was the plasterwork done in the delicate fashion of the last century. Many of the houses on the other side of Dublin had those ceilings, and it was a beautiful art that he was sorry to think we had forgotten for a little time.

With regard to the windows, at some time of our age, when he did not know, why he did not know, it seemed to have occurred to the builder or the architect that the room should no longer be a place where one should sit and read with one’s friends; that it should be turned into a sort of conservatory. Nowadays the people in the street did nothing but look into the houses, and the people in the houses did nothing but look into the street – (laughter) – both of them, of course, extremely bad habits. These windows did not give one light – they only gave glare. Stained glass should be more frequent in houses, but by stained glass he did not, of course, mean those dreadful transparent cromo-lithograph pictures which Germany in general, and Munich in particular, insisted on sending over to them. The stained glass window had nothing to do with being a picture. It was merely a way to let the light in, and all one wanted was as pretty and effective a colour as possible.

The beautiful lattice work of the East he approved of as an exceedingly pretty and economic method of lighting rooms. He would not advise them to have curtains going beyond the floor, and if they wanted to see well-decorated curtains they must go down to the Irish School of Art Needlework in Clara street. (Applause. ) There they would see some beautiful work, which he hoped they were in the habit of paying very large sums for. Nothing could be better than the pretty things he had had the pleasure that morning of seeing in the Irish School of Art Needlework.

What was to be done with the dreary white mantel piece generally to be found in our rooms? Of course it would be clearly immoral to sell it, because they should never ask anything for anything that was ugly. (Laughter.) Whatever was ugly was worthless. And it was clearly immoral to give it away, because they could not wish their friends to have anything to do with it. As regarded the fire: let them have plain floor of coloured tiles. He should never have elaborate designs in any of the tiles, because one should never put a design where it was liable to be spoiled. The back of the fire he would have of good cast-iron. They need not be alarmed at what Mr Ruskin said about cast iron ornaments. He said they were perfectly worthless and ugly, but that was not really so. In many cases old stoves showed some lovely work in cast-iron reliefs. One of the things he would have removed from their rooms was the huge plate-gloss mirror, with its gilt frame.

One of his reasons was that it was extremely bad for one’s vanity (laughter) to be always looking at one’s self in it. As to the furniture, there was the Gothic which was beautifully made and very solid, and which in a large and stately house was never out of place. But in the houses of simple and refined people its fashion was a little heavy. lt seemed, a great deal of it, to belong to a very warlike age, when people felt that it was an advantage to have furniture that might be used as a weapon of defence. (Laughter.) He hardly thought it was suitable now. What they wanted was furniture made by refined people for refined people – furniture that would grow more beautiful the longer they had it. There was a word now invented – the word “second hand” – which meant, he supposed, that from the moment any thing was bought it decreased in value , until at the end of eighteen months it was of no value at all.

Gilt furniture was never the furniture of the people. If they had real Louis Quatorze furniture they had what might he called s work of art, but the imitation of it was not at all suited for use. In the chairs made by the old upholsterers there was always a carved flower in the part against which one wanted to rest, and for a seat there was provided a huge mountain of iron springs and horse hair. There was hardly any carving wanted on chain: what was wanted was a correct and tasteful outline.

As regarded ornament, if they had good pictures they would be quite right to subordinate other decorations to them, but they should remember that mediocre pictures were worse than useless. He was not speaking against pictures, but only wished it to be remembered that beautiful embroidery, lovely porcelain, delicate ivory, and Venetian glass were far more decorative than pictures, and cost fifty times as little.

As for engravings, they were decorative many of them – fine masses of white and black, but never have white mountings. Etchings were extremely decorative, but photographs of natural scenery he thought very rarely decorative. They were good in the portfolio to refer to, but he should not hang them. If anything could prevent one from going to Switzerland he thought it would be the photographs of Mont Blanc and other places that were so common. As for photographs of one’s relations – well, if one’s relations were decorative – (laughter) – and he was quite sure they were in the case of one’s Irish relations – (laughter) – there was every reason to hang them in the room, but if one had to make a choice between the assumption of stoical affection and decorative art, he hoped decorative art would be allowed to have the first place. (Laughter.)

The huge rosewood “grand,” with its exaggerated supports, it was, of course, possible to cover with embroidery, but he thought if they really loved music, and wished it to be used, they should take the hint from the harp’s cords and spinnets of a past generation.

He had said at the beginning that the whole basis of art lay in the honour and value that they gave to handicraft. He thought a great mistake had been made in founding popular education upon books and literature long before they had taught the child how to appreciate literature and enjoy books. All remembered the sorry times they spent in their youth with some books – books which did not suit them, for they did not make them happy. In one’s childhood books were not much, and instead of teaching little boys and girls the latitude and longitude of countries that nobody wanted to go to, which was what was called geography, or that criminal calendar of Europe which they called history – (laughter) – if instead of wearying children with those two sciences, if he might call them so, they were to teach them some of these simple decorative arts, how much happier they would make them, and how great a sense of knowledge and delight in after life they would give to each of them: Let them be quite sure there was a mind to appeal to before appealing to it by books.

They could teach the child to design. How? By opening its eyes to the world of beauty around it, and by training his hand so that he could transfer to others all the joy that he had himself felt – could teach him that there was some better use for his hand than to be put into a glove that was too tight for it. So he should like to see in every school the children of rich and poor alike taught carpentry, or carving in wood, making pottery, working in metal, or the beating out of brass or silver.

Do not banish books altogether, but do teach these arts. He was aware that in some schools there were handicrafts taught, but he was afraid that in many cases it was allowed to remain merely a handicraft, instead of being made an art. What he felt was well summed up by Sir Wm. Morris, who, speaking of his own work-men, said – “I have tried to make an artisan an artist; and when I say an artist , I mean a man.” What nobler definition of an artist could be got than that? There could be nothing better.

It was a mistake not to see how sensitive children were to beauty. Shakspere’s “Tempest” could be understood by them. They have a power of imagination which later they seem to lose, and he thought a great deal of the over-seriousness of their decorative art was caused by people only having taken to it in after life, when common sense had taken, to a certain decree, a hold of them, and when the imaginative faculty had, perhaps, been jeered and mocked out of one.

There was not enough fancy in our decorative art; but if the artistic education began at the earliest time how different all that would be! How long were they to allow children to live in the sordid atmosphere that so many schools gave them? The school should be the most beautiful place in any town or village. (Applause.) It should be so nice that the greatest punishment imposed upon a little boy would be not to allow him to go there the next day. (Laughter.)

How curious it was to note how much ordinary little boys and girls did know the population of Madagascar, how many of the people were black and how many white, as if it made the slightest difference how many people there were, or what colour they chose to be – (laughter) – the names of the kings of the Saxon Heptarchy, as if that were a source of joy or pleasure in after life.

His own experience was that as one grew up he had the intense satisfaction of forgetting all about that – (laughter) – and it was probable that these same children would not know how a single thing in the room was made – they might never have seen the potter’s wheel, or the loom with the crimson and gold of the shuttle flashing in and out. To teach the children how carpets are made, how wall papers are printed, or how metal is beaten out, would be a refining and beautiful knowledge for every one of them, and far better than the book knowledge taught to children in many schools at present.

One of the evils of our art schools at the present time was that pupils ran at once into painting, while all the mediocre painters, in whom there was neither joy nor pleasure, might be engaged in producing simple works of decorative art which would have great value. Holbein designed furniture, jewellery, dresses – even the most simple things; and every great artist had felt pleasure in doing such simple work.

How many of the Florentine painters came from the jewellers’ shops. The artist and the handicrafts man should be again brought into one. In asking them to interest themselves in this decorative art, he told them that if they did so in a short time he believed there would be no flower of our meadows that would not wreath its tendrils around our porches, no curving spray of wild rose or brier that would not bloom for ever in our households; and let them remember that the voices that dwelt in sea and mountain, on the wind-swept height, or upon the bosom of the mighty deep, would, if they would but listen to them, yield more pleasure than if the galleys of the world floated in our harbours: and if men asked them what creed this was, he knew of no better answer that could be given than was found in a scutouco of a letter written by a young man who loved beauty and created beauty more perfectly than any one since Shakspere – the poet Keats. He was asked to have reverence for some prejudice or theory of his age, and he wrote back – “I have not the slightest reverence for anything in existence except for the Eternal Being, the memory of great men, and the principle of beauty.” (Applause.)