O ne hundred years after his death, Oscar Wilde is many things to many people (playwright, poet, wit, gay icon). But in his prime he was also known as an arbiter of style in interior design. That aspect of his genius is scarcely remembered now, largely because, following his imprisonment in 1895, the contents of his house were dispersed in a bankruptcy sale, But an exhibition at London's Geffrye Museum, which opens tomorrow, offers a fascinating insight into his life as a fin-de-siecle taste-maker.
No objects that belonged to Wilde are exhibited, but his spirit infuses the show, and in the book that accompanies the exhibition, The House Beautiful: Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Interior, he emerges as a fastidious, passionate champion of the values of the Aesthetic Movement - whose members included Whistler and Aubrey Beardsley - in domestic life. Wilde summed up its philosophy when he wrote: "It is through Art, and through Art only, that we can realise our perfection; through Art and through Art only, that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence."
The style was a reaction to mid-19th-century interior excesses. It's hardly minimalist, but the furniture favoured by the Aesthetes is finer and lighter looking, and the ornaments are more restrained in shape and colour, than the ponderous, overstuffed and over- decorated pieces we associate with the Victorian era. The object of the Aesthetic game was to surround oneself with items of beauty, following strict rules about colour schemes, wall treatments and furniture. It's a fey approach, and Wilde was ridiculed for it. But at its best it was dazzlingly memorable, and few people who visited Wilde's house in Chelsea forgot it.
Wilde leased the house, in Tite Street, in 1884, when he was newly married. He commissioned architect Edward Godwin to design the interior - despite limited funds. No pictorial records have survived of the interior, but contemporary accounts reveal that, for example, in the dining-room Godwin chose a white and grey scheme which extended to the furniture - painted to look like Japanese lacquer. Wilde wrote to thank Godwin, saying: "Each chair is a sonnet in ivory, and the table is a masterpiece in pearl. …