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How Oscar Wilde made his home in Chelsea


Words by Bertie Russell

To celebrate Pride month, we describe how one of Britain’s most celebrated and tragic gay men made his home in the neighbourhood

The borough of artists

In the Victorian Era, Chelsea was known as the ‘borough of artists.’ Many of the period’s leading painters and writers lived on Cheyne Walk and the surrounding streets. In 1881, a young Anglo-Irish poet moved to the neighbourhood, drawn by its reputation for creativity and culture. His name was Oscar Wilde.

Wilde had been educated at Trinity College Dublin and Oxford University. A brilliant scholar, he was now trying to establish himself as a writer. Known for his flamboyant dress and witty conversation, he was already a leading figure in the Aesthetic movement.

This movement developed in the late nineteenth century. Its followers claimed that art should be valued for its own sake, rather than any social purpose. Many Victorians believed books and paintings ought to improve people, but the Aesthetic movement argued that beauty mattered more than ethics.

Tite Street

Oscar Wilde was their most eloquent advocate. In 1882 he toured American lecture halls with sell-out talks on the subject. Then, in 1884, Wilde moved into a red brick terrace house at No.16 Tite Street (later renumbered No.34) with his new wife Constance.

Tite Street was laid out in 1877, and soon colonised by fashionable figures from the arts. For instance, the American painter James McNeill Whistler built a large house at No.33, its interiors decorated in the Aesthetic style by Edward William Godwin.

When Wilde moved to Tite Street, he asked Whistler to decorate his own house. The artist replied, ‘No Oscar, you have been lecturing us about the House Beautiful; now is your chance to show one.’ Instead, Wilde hired Godwin for the job, spending seven months on the refurbishment in an effort to outdo his American neighbour.

No.33 Tite Street

No.33 Tite Street

A secret life

"The result was astonishing. Everywhere was white gloss, heightened with golds, blues and greens. Jewel-like Morris carpets covered the floors. The library was a lavish evocation of Moorish style. Japanese feathers were inserted into the plaster. One room was entirely white, with a yellow ceiling."

Wilde spent ten years living at Tite Street. This was where his sons Cyril and Vyvyan were born, and where he wrote many of his celebrated works, including his novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), and a series of plays that critiqued the stiffness of Victorian society. He also entertained at the house, welcoming celebrated actors like Sarah Bernhardt and Henry Irving.

However, Wilde had a secret life. During this period, he was having an affair with Lord Alfred Douglas, a spoilt young aristocrat known to his friends as Bosie. As a result, Bosie’s father, the Marquess of Queensberry, visited Tite Street and threatened to expose Wilde.

Being gay was illegal in Victorian Britain. Exposure could mean imprisonment and disgrace. Wilde attempted to sue the Marquess for libel, but lost the case when his homosexual activities were revealed. Immediately after the trial, a warrant for his arrest was made.

Lasting legacy in Chelsea

Even though Wilde had time to escape to France, instead he went to Chelsea’s Cadogan Hotel. While drinking wine with his friends in Room 118, the police arrived to arrest him. To this day, the hotel contains a replica of Wilde’s smoking jacket in Room 118 and serves several of his favourite drinks at the bar.

Wilde was tried at the Old Bailey and sentenced to two years of hard labour. He was also financially ruined, his plays pulled from theatres and the contents of his Chelsea home auctioned off to pay creditors. On his release from Reading Gaol in May 1897, he sailed to France and spent the last three years of his life in poverty and sickness. He never returned to Chelsea and died in Paris on 13th November 1900.

However, his writing remained popular after his death, and once social attitudes began to change, Wilde’s reputation was revived. His plays are performed to this day, with The Importance of Being Earnest arguably the most popular comic play in the country.

In 2024, a sculpture of Wilde will be put on display in Dovehouse Green, next to the Kings’ Road. It was designed by Sir Eduoardo Paolozzi, Sculptor in Ordinary to Queen Elizabeth II, who had a studio near the green for many years. Although exhibited to mark the centenary of Paolozzi’s birth, it also marks 140 years since Wilde came to Chelsea. The neighbourhood that witnessed his triumphs and defeats, but also gave him a beloved home.


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