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Portrait of Oscar Wilde to return to UK for first time in nearly a century

Writer was forced to sell his prized painting when he went bankrupt during gross indecency trial

by Martin Bailey  |  13 December 2016
Portrait of Oscar Wilde to return to UK for first time in nearly a century
Robert Harper Pennington, Oscar Wilde (1881)
A portrait of the writer Oscar Wilde, which had to be sold off after he was accused of gross indecency, is to return from America for the first time in nearly a century. It will be displayed at Tate Britain, in an exhibition called Queer British Art 1861-1967, which opens in April.

Robert Harper Pennington, an American artist who painted the full-length portrait (1881), gave it to Wilde and his wife Constance as a wedding present in 1884. It was the couple’s most prized possession, hung above the fireplace in their London home. But in 1895 Wilde was arrested and later sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for his homosexual relationship with Alfred Douglas.

Wilde’s legal expenses led to him being declared bankrupt, and the Pennington portrait had to be sold. Later, in the 1920s, it was bought by a US collector and the portrait was subsequently acquired by the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Alex Farquharson, the director of Tate Britain, describes the portrait as “an extraordinary image of Wilde on the brink of fame, before imprisonment destroyed his health and reputation”.

• Queer British Art 1861-1967, Tate Britain, London, 5 April-1 October 2017

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