Tag Archives: Robert Sherard

May 1883: Oscar Wilde Returns to London

To mark 1 May, here’s a tiny May-related excerpt from Wilde’s Women. Oscar, aged 28, returns from Paris to London. He has not been there for some time since he spent 1882 touring America before heading to Paris, where he wrote The Duchess of Padua for Mary Anderson:


Oscar with curls. Not a great look tbh.

In May 1883, Oscar returned to London with a head full of curls and an empty wallet. He stayed with Jane before taking furnished rooms, ‘for single men of distinction’ on nearby Charles Street in Mayfair. Frank Harris claimed that Jane had suggested Charles Street. She felt he should live at a suitably impressive address since she ‘never doubted his ultimate triumph’ and ‘knew all his poems by heart’.* These lodgings were managed by a retired butler, and his wife, an excellent cook, both of whom were devoted to their brilliant young tenant; they ‘could not speak too highly of his cleverness, kindness and consideration’ and overlooked his tardiness in settling his account.**

Sherard, who shared these lodgings for a time, tells us that ‘the rooms on the third floor that Oscar Wilde occupied were panelled in oak and there were old engravings in heavy black frames on the walls’. he adds: ‘The fact was that, in despite of an address which implied opulence, we were both very poor. It was while they were both staying in this house on Charles Street that Oscar woke Shepard early one morning to tell him that he had become engaged to Constance Lloyd; ‘At breakfast, he spoke of his bride and seemed much in love and very joyous,’ Sherard wrote.

As for the curls, they put Violet Hunt right off him for one.

For more, read Wilde’s Women:


*Frank Harris, Oscar Wilde; his Life and Confessions, Vol. I, p.82

**Robert Sherard, The Real Oscar Wilde, pp.282-3


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Maria Cassavetti Zambaco (1843-1914)

Having inherited her father’s vast fortune in 1858, Maria Cassavetti Zambaco, a British artist and model of Greek descent, led a more independent life than most women of her time. She was even known to go about unchaperoned while still unmarried.

Maria Zambaco by Edward Burne-Jones (1871)

A talented artist, she studied at the Slade School under French painter, etcher, sculptor, and medallist Alphonse Legros. In Paris, she studied sculpture under Auguste Rodin. Her work was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1887, and at the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society in London in 1889. She also exhibited at the prestigious Paris Salon. The British Museum holds several of her medals, including this one depicting the head of a young girl:

Image result for maria cassavetti zambaco

Zambaco’s love life was rather chaotic. In her teens she was wooed by George du Maurier, satirical cartoonist and grandfather of Daphne; when she showed no interest in him, du Maurier described her as ‘rude and unapproachable but of great talent and a really wonderful beauty’. Aged 18, she married Dr. Demetrius Zambaco, who was eleven years her senior. They had two children together but the marriage was not a success and she moved back to her mother after six years.

In 1866, Zambaco met Edward Burne-Jones when her mother commissioned him to paint her. As the subject was left to him, he chose an episode from Cupid and Psyche, which he worked on for several months. Although Burne-Jones was married at the time, he embarked on a tempestuous affair with Zambaco that lasted several years.

Burne-Jones Cupid finds Psyche Photo (c) Trustees of the British Museum

Burne-Jones treated Zambaco as a peer. They read Homer and Virgil together and she trained as an artist under him. She also sat as a model for some of his most iconic paintings including The Beguiling of Merlin, one of Oscar Wilde’s favourites.  Zambaco repeatedly tried to persuade Burne-Jones to leave his wife but he refused and she is rumoured to have involved him in a suicide pact, convincing him to wade into the canal in Regent’s Park with her. The attempt failed and the affair ended, but they remained friends afterwards and she was by far his most influential muse.

Zambaco also sat as a model for artists George Frederick Watts, James McNeill Whistler and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but she became more interested in developing her own artistic talent and produced award winning sculptural works.

Naturally, since she features here and in my book Wilde’s Women, Zambaco had a connection to Oscar Wilde. She lived much of her life in Paris and presided over an important artistic salon. It was she who introduced Oscar Wilde to his friend and biographer Robert Sherard. Years earlier, when writing about Burne-Jones’s The Beguiling of Merlin, Wilde had described Zambaco as ‘a tall, lithe woman, beautiful and subtle to look on, like a snake’.

Burne-Jones: The Beguiling of Merlin Lady Lever Art Gallery, Merseyside

Maria Zambaco died in Paris in 1914. She features in my book Wilde’s Women


For more on Edward Burne-Jones and his relationship with Maria Casavetti Zambaco you can read Fiona MacCarthy’s book ‘The Last Pre-Raphaelite’. There’s an extract here.

There is also a brilliant online exhibition of her work and that of her contemporaries Aglaia (née Ionides) Coronio (1834-1906)and Marie (née Spartali) Stillman (1843-1927) available via the University of York here. Together these women were known as ‘The Three Graces’.

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The Sacking of Tite Street

Illustrated Police Budget, May 4, 1895

The trial of Oscar Wilde and Alfred Taylor opened on 26 April 1895, in a gloomy courtroom at the Old Bailey, the Central Criminal Court, which was housed at the time in a dispiriting building adjacent to Newgate Gaol. Both men faced counts of gross indecency and conspiracy to procure the commission of acts of gross indecency, although the conspiracy charges were later withdrawn.

Wilde and Taylor had been charged in accordance with Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, commonly referred to as the Labouchère Amendment, which contained no definition of gross indecency and, as a result, outlawed a broad spectrum of homosexual behaviour that was considered less serious than sodomy but was easier to prove. As a consequence, it was regularly exploited by blackmailers.

The ‘Old Bailey’

A bankruptcy sale of the Wilde family’s possessions had been held at their Tite Street home two days earlier. Many items were pilfered during the ensuing melee, including several irreplaceable manuscripts and Wilde’s poignant letters to Constance, which she had kept in a blue leather case. The items that were sold achieved far less than their true value.

An Irish-born publisher gave an account of proceedings to Wilde’s friend and biographer Robert Sherard:

‘I went upstairs and found several people in an empty room, the floor of which was strewn, thickly strewn, with letters addressed to Oscar mostly in their envelopes and with much of Oscar’s easily recognisable manuscript. This looked as though the various pieces of furniture which had been carried downstairs to be sold had been emptied of their contents on to the floor.'[1]

The sacking of the Wildes’ Tite Street home was a terrible humiliation. Wilde’s friend Ada Leverson, one of Wilde’s Women, believed many of those in attendance that day delighted in Oscar’s downfall and wrote:

‘It was already well known that Oscar had bitter enemies as well as a large crowd of friends. And if his chief enemy [Queensberry] was eccentric, many of his jealous rivals were quite unscrupulous.'[2]

Wilde’s prized books, numbering around two thousand volumes, were bundled together and offered at knockdown prices, making just £130 in total.[3] Artist James McNeill Whistler sent representatives to buy back a number of his works for less than £40.

Ernest Leverson was present that day and managed to acquire a full-length portrait of Oscar by Harper Pennington, which had hung above the fireplace of the Wildes’ Chelsea home, for £17. Oscar joked about the corrupting influence this work might have on visitors to the Leversons’ home, writing to Frank Harris in June 1897:

I was quite conscious of the very painful position of a man who had in his house a life-sized portrait, which he could not have in his drawing-room as it was obviously, on account of its subject, demoralising to young men, and possibly to young women of advanced views.

The nursery was raided and toys belonging to Cyril and Vyvyan were sold, a loss that caused them great distress. In all, the sale raised just £230.


[1] Sherard, Life of Oscar Wilde, p.359-60

[2] Leverson, Letters to the Sphinx, p.35

[3] Donald Mead, ‘Heading for Disaster: Oscar’s Finances’, The Wildean, No. 46, January 2015, p.89

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Oscar Wilde & The Duchess of Padua

Oscar Wilde undertook to complete his second play, The Duchess of Padua, by 1 March 1883, and he signed a contract to that effect:

 …a first class Five act tragedy to be completed on or before March 1st 1883 – Said tragedy to be the property of Miss Mary Anderson and her heirs forever.

In return, he was to receive $5,000, although just $1,000 was paid in advance with the balance falling due if, and only if, acclaimed American actress Mary Anderson approved his completed manuscript.

As Wilde had every expectation that his play would be accepted, he saw no reason to economise. He used Anderson’s advance to secure a suite of rooms on the second floor of the Hotel Voltaire, overlooking the Seine in Paris. When his friend Robert Sherard called on him, he saw evidence of industry scattered all about the living room; ‘a glance at these sheets showed that many of the lines had been written over and over again’, he recalled.[i]

Wilde and Sherard, a great-grandson of  poet William Wordsworth, met in Paris early in 1883 and got along exceptionally well. Since Sherard was estranged from his family and struggling to make a living as a writer, Wilde treated him to dinner at the celebrated restaurant in the Hotel Foyot. Making light of the cost, he declared: ‘we dine with the Duchess to-night’.

Robert Harborough Sherard

It’s thought likely that the contract between Wilde and Anderson was amended since he did not dispatch his completed manuscript until 15 March and he offered no word of apology.

He following up with a long and exceptionally revealing letter outlining the approach he had taken to: ‘the masterpiece of all my literary work, the chef-d’oeuvre of my youth’.[ii]

Noteworthy, at this early stage, is his absolute conviction that an element of comedy was essential in even the darkest tragedy, since no audience, he believed, would weep unless it was first made to laugh.

When Anderson turned the play down, Sherard was there to witness his friend’s muted reaction:

…he gave no sign of his disappointment. I can remember his tearing a little piece off the blue telegraph-form and rolling it up into a pellet and putting it into his mouth, as, by curious habit, he did with every paper or book that came into his hands. And all he said, as he passed the telegram over to me, was, “This, Robert, is rather tedious”.

Several years later, on 26 January 1891, Guido Ferranti, ‘A new Italian Love Tragedy’, opened at the Broadway Theatre in New York. A long and largely positive review by William Winter of the New York Tribune announced:

The authorship of Guido Ferranti has not been disclosed. There need not have been any hesitation about it – for he is a practised writer and a good one. We recognise in this work a play that we had the pleasure of reading several years ago, in manuscript. It was then called The Duchess of Padua. The author of it is Oscar Wilde.

Actor-manager Lawrence Barrett, who had first expressed interest in The Duchess in 1882, acquired the play and, with Oscar’s agreement, amended the title to shift the emphasis onto the male lead.

Five weeks after opening night, Barrett, aged fifty-three, fell ill on stage and died shortly afterwards. Mina K. Gale*, the actress who played Beatrice to Barrett’s Guido acquired the rights, but Oscar, desperate for money by then, insisted she was limiting his royalties by performing his play infrequently: ‘This is of course extremely unjust to me’, he raged in a letter to her in December 1891.

Had he known it, he could have taken consolation from the fact that he was on the cusp of enormous success with his fourth play, Lady Windermere’s Fan.

*Mina Gale was managed by Mary Anderson’s actor brother Joseph, who was married to Lawrence Barrett’s daughter Gertrude. Joseph Anderson was also involved in negotiations with Augustin Daly and Ada Rehan for ‘A Good Woman’ a.k.a. Lady Windermere’s Fan.

To discover why Anderson rejected The Duchess of Padua and how Wilde exacted his revenge you’ll have to read Wilde’s Women.



[i] Sherard, Real Oscar Wilde, p.218

[ii] Letter to Mary Anderson, 23 March 1883, Complete Letters, p.196

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