Melinda Hughes spends a Wilde weekend in Paris, visiting an exhibition celebrating the life of the great man and staying at the ethereal L’Hotel
I have spent the most magical evening in Paris that I can ever remember; transported back in time to an era of literary opulence, artistic decadence and bohemian grandeur. Everyone with a Wilde connection was in Paris to celebrate the opening of the one of the biggest ever exhibitions about Oscar Wilde ever held outside of London. My tenuous connections are that my father, Ken Hughes, directed The Trials of Oscar Wilde with Peter Finch and that Merlin Holland, Wilde’s only grandson, is a neighbour of ours in Burgundy.
In Wilde’s preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray he states: ‘all art is quite useless’, yet he always wished to promote the beauty of art for Art’s sake and was a keen supporter of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. What they had in common was shock value within a rather staunch Victorian society; they loved to outrage the bourgeois and showed a mutual disdain for modernism – so to see so many glorious Pre-Raphaelite paintings on display had me in raptures.
What an entrancing exhibition this is with previously unseen manuscripts, photographs and personal effects beautifully curated by Merlin Holland, who was on hand to guide the Irish Ambassador round the exhibition.
A giant portrait of Lady Macbeth dominates the first dark blue room. Even though I’ve seen this painting many times, this setting brought out a previously unseen magic. This glorious portrait by John Singer Sargent is one of many Pre-Raphaelite delights to be found in the exhibition; these including Electra at the Tomb of Agamemnon by William Blake and Love and the Maiden by John Roddam Spencer Stanhope. It is quite a collection, housed in a series of darkly painted rooms and it is beautifully lit. There’s also a huge Toulouse Lautrec lent from the Musée D’Orsay to give it that vital Parisian connection.
Many pieces have been lent by private collectors such as Turkish billionaire Ömer Koç. Even the comedian Barry Humphries lent something. There are first editions of plays and books, beautiful illustrations from Salomé by Aubery Beardsley, letters to John Ruskin, original editions of Punch Magazine, which mercilessly lampoons Wilde as the outlandish dandy, and, most hauntingly, there is the manuscript of The Ballad of Reading Gaol and exhibits from the court case that sentenced Wilde to two years hard labour in prison for homosexuality. The calling card left by The Marquess of Queensbury reads ‘For Oscar Wilde posing as somdomite’ (sic) and the envelope it was delivered in sits neatly in a glass case succinctly labelled as ‘Exhibit A and B’.
As you move through the rooms, you follow Wilde’s career. You track his success, marriage to Constance and his travels from Ireland to London, New York and Paris. You are gently led to an octagonal purple room dedicated to his great erotic play Salomé (which should have premiered in London in 1892 with Sarah Bernhardt as the lead). It was subsequently banned and premiered in Paris while Oscar languished in jail. It’s an atmospheric, heady and touching exhibition.
With my thirst for all things Oscar Wilde the only logical place to stay was the famously decadent L’Hotel on Rue des Beaux Arts in the heart of the Left Bank, as it was in this hotel Wilde spent his last months before he died.
This has always been my favourite area and, thankfully, exempt from the often disconcerting flux of Paris. St Germain is an oasis of calm, charm and culture, where you can truly step back in time.
L'Hotel's luscious interior
L’Hotel is not only opulent but it is a properly functioning five star hotel, which panders to even the most discerning traveller. I remember staying there many years ago, among its dripping taps and peeling wallpaper but, since its second renovation in 2006 by Hotel design Guru Jacques Garcia, you can be assured of a stay of the utmost quality.
I was shown round the suites by the delightful manager, Julien Révah, who has been at L’Hotel for more than ten years. I could honestly spend a week in every room living out a fantasy as a 1930s move star, a nineteenth century writer or eighteenth century courtesan.
Now is the best time to visit; take in the exhibition at the Petit Palias and enjoy L’Hotel’s bespoke walking tour, given by local historian Dr Dominique Vibrac, which retraces Wilde’s steps through Paris. Polish off the day with tea composed by pastry chef Joana Thöny Montbabut, or, even better, dine in the beautiful Michelin star restaurant. L’Hotel is an utter delight and I was desperately sorry to leave.
Had I a few months left to live, I too would take up residence at L’Hotel – and I wouldn’t complain about the wallpaper either.
Oscar Wilde Exhibition l’Impertinent absolu (Insolence Incarnate)
28th September 2016 – 15th January 2017, Petit Palais, Paris.
L’Hotel, 13 Rue des Beaux Arts, Paris
Melinda Hughes stayed at L’HOTEL courtesy of curioushotels.com