Oscar Wilde’s London
For more than 500 years, London has inspired some of the greatest works in English literature, including The Canterbury Tales, Oliver Twist, Mrs Dalloway and Sherlock Holmes.
For a young Irish poet named Oscar Wilde, there was only one place to be in the 19th century, and on graduating from Oxford University in 1874, he arrived in London and quickly began mingling with Victorian high society. While many of us know him for his highly satirical plays, including An Ideal Husband, he also gave lectures, wrote poems and penned one novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, which celebrates its 125th anniversary this year.
Despite immense popularity and critical acclaim during his lifetime, Wilde’s personal life overshadowed his literary success. Even now, it is his vivacious personality, supreme wit and love affair with Lord Alfred Douglas – then an open secret in London – that fascinates us most. A century ago, Wilde was imprisoned for his homosexuality. Thankfully, his plays live on and many of his London hangouts remain intact.
Dating from 1879, there are few London shopping centres as stylish or historic as The Royal Arcade in Mayfair (28 Old Bond St, W1S 4SD). It was inside this splendid arcade, at Goodyear Florist (now designer store Paul Smith), that Wilde bought the green carnations for his suits. While some people believed the flower was a symbol for gay men, Wilde said it meant ‘nothing whatever, but that is just what nobody will guess’.
You don’t have to be a smoker to enjoy visiting prestigious tobacconist Fox of St James’s in Piccadilly (19 St James’s St, SW1A 1ES), which is 225 years old. Aside from being one of the oldest cigar merchants in the world, it boasts the biggest sampling lounge in London and a small museum where, rumour has it, Wilde met his friends to drink and debate. See his preferred cigarettes, as well as items that once belonged to cigar-lover Winston Churchill.
There’s no shortage of afternoon teas in London, but if Wilde were around he’d choose Hotel Café Royal (68 Regent St, W1B 4DY). Served in the hotel’s Oscar Wilde Bar (where he is said to have fallen in love with Douglas), The London Royal Tea includes edible icons of the capital, generously filled sandwiches, scones and Battenberg cake. If this all sounds enjoyable so far, you’re wrong because, according to Wilde, ‘pleasure without Champagne is purely artificial’.
Make amends by heading into Artesian at The Langham Hotel (1c Portland Place, W1B 1JA), voted the World’s Best Bar in the most recent 50 Best Bars Awards. Be sure to try the new tapas-style ‘Snax’ menu, inspired by the cocktails, with small plates from as little as £4. If it wasn’t for The Langham, we may not have had Wilde’s only novel or Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series, as it was here that the writers met with the publisher of Lippincott’s Magazine in 1889 and chose to write for the title.
There’s nothing quite like seeing one of Wilde’s plays live. Catch Gerald Barry’s hilarious operatic adaptation of The Importance of Being Earnest at the Barbican Theatre (from 29 Mar; Silk St, EC2Y 8DS). ‘When one is in town, one amuses oneself. When one is in the country, one amuses other people,’ quips a character in the play – wise words to take with you as you explore London this spring.