I was recently asked just how much the townsfolk of Napier would have really know about Oscar Wilde in his own time. I answered pretty quickly that I felt some had very real understanding of Wilde and some perhaps some even had a direct connection.
This not at all scholarly response was entirely based upon two local discoveries that now make up my Oscar Wilde corner.
The first is a piece of sheet music found in a pile of old and largely indifferent offerings in a local charity shop. Called Utterly Utter: An Aesthetic duet, it is a long forgotten satirical ditty from the pen of Edmund West and Percy E Marshall whose reputation as a composer/lyricist duo seems to have lasted no better than has their duet.
What’s wonderful about it, is the cover illustrating two aesthetic gentlemen, elegantly dressed in evening suits – in angular poses – one offering the other a lily. It brings to mind other aesthetic parodies most famously Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience – itself in danger of slipping from the repertoire.
Using the rationale that Oscar Wilde was sent to the United States in advance of Patience so that audiences would know who and what was being parodied, I figure that for Utterly Utter to be performed in a nineteenth century Napier drawing-room the same rule had to apply – or else it would have been a very unfunny evening around the piano.
I can understand how a piece of sheet music might have been bought in London or sent out – the latest thing – to the colonies but my next discovery seemed both more of a find and more of a mystery.
This was a small pencil drawing by Frank Miles, titled ‘I’ve been Roaming,’ it is a rather lovely pencil drawing of a woman with flowers and leaves collected in her hair. This work turned up at the local auctioneer Maidens & Foster. It is no bigger than a cigarette packet and was close framed in a small narrow gold frame and so it was hardly attention-getting. Yet worst (or best) of all, some one had attached a note to it reading “Frank Miles was Oscar Wilde’s first boy friend.” Now I don’t want to disparage the locals – but with a note like that no red-blooded Kiwi bloke was gong to be bidding on the piece – and thus it was mine for a song.
Was Frank Miles really Oscar Wilde’s first boyfriend. Well most biographers say yes (there are a few still in denial). The two met in the spring of 1876 with Frank described as a dashing good-looking blond-haired young man. The two men lived together for a period and Wilde certainly introduced Miles to the society beauties he specialised in depicting, as well as a host of other delights.
What I like most about Frank Miles, is that he was a good Victorian romantic – troubled and talented. Not only was Frank sexually adventurous, he was colour-blind and this meant he struggled as a painter – and therefore almost specialised in pencil sketches. There’s that and then the fact that he went insane and died in a mental hospital just before his fortieth birthday. It’s a sad picture but an engaging one and it makes me like ‘I’ve been Roaming,’ in a way I wouldn’t if it were an ordinary portrait of a Victorian society beauty.
How did this work get to Napier – that we’ll never know. However, like Frank Miles, I’ve been Roaming needed help. It sat for more than a year on the mantelpiece of my study where it looked insignificant, until I found a substantially larger frame at a local antique shop. Taking it down to the framers I had one of those moments where you find yourself doing what you despise in others and directing what was essentially an exercise in pretentious framing – small pencil sketch in large gilt frame – but it worked and the end result gives Frank Miles and I’ve been Roaming the gravitas they deserve.
With Utterly Utter organised into an old bamboo frame (that we’ve carried around unused for years) the two works now make a little Oscar Wilde moment on our wall and should any one ask – they’re local icons – reminders of a particular moment in Napier’s long forgotten history – which in their own way tell a romantic story.
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