The Definitive Resource Of Oscar Wilde's Visits To America

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The Decorative Arts

Confusion has arisen about the evolution and the title of Wilde’s lecture “The Decorative Arts”.


Wilde began lecturing with a subject he styled The English Renaissance (aka The English Renaissance in Art), probably written immediately prior to its debut in New York City.

The English Renaissance proved 'too lengthy and theoretical for many in Wilde's audience' [1] so he shortened and retitled it to give it wider appeal. The lecture was redrafted in early February 1882 as The Decorative Arts, and Wilde continued to domesticate the content with successive lectures so that by the time he delivered it for the last time in Buffalo it was 'quite different',  and 'the final text [of that lecture] is closer to The Decorative Arts.’ [2] 

The evolution of the two lectures can be seen as a continuum with the most conscious transition occurring in Chicago on February 13, 1882.

Early Confusion

Owing to dwindling audiences in the smaller houses, Wilde wrote to his manager, Col.W. F. Morse in early March to say:

"Kindly see that I am not advertised to lecture on 'The English Renaissance'. I have not delivered that lecture since February 11, and yet I am always advertised for it. It is very annoying, and besides, 'The English Renaissance' is printed in the Seaside, [3] so people think they know it, and stay away. The lecture is on 'The Decorative Arts'..." 

Various Titles

After the change to The Decorative Arts, early accounts at the time, and subsequent chronologies, refer to it by various names (See Lecture Titles). The term 'Art Decoration' was often used in contemporary press reports and advertising, but not consistently and sometimes inappropriately.. 

Therefore, for ease of reference among scholars, all variants of this developed lecture are referred to as 'The Decorative Arts' which was the title Wilde himself gave to it in writing to his manager.

[1] O'Brien, Kevin. Oscar Wilde in Canada: An Apostle for the Arts, 1982.

[2] Holland, Merlin. The Complete Letters of Oscar Wilde edited by and Rupert Hart-Davis, London: Fourth Estate; New York: Henry Holt, 2000.

[3] Wilde’s lecture, along with his entire book of Poems, was transcribed in the pirate publication The Seaside Library, January 19, 1882. (New York: George Munro).

Oscar Wilde In America | © John Cooper, 2024