Oscar Wilde, a bishop, and an art dealer

DOVER STREET RUNS north from Piccadilly, not far from The Royal Academy. It is a thoroughfare we often visit because it contains several commercial art galleries that frequently put on interesting exhibitions. One of these is the London gallery of Thaddeus Ropac. Not only does this international art dealer have good exhibitions, but the house in which the works of art are displayed, 37 Dover Street, is an artwork itsef, an architectural treasure.

The architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner (1908-1983), whose writing I enjoy greatly, is a little dismissive of the buildings in Dover Street with one exception. In his “London Volume 1”, which was co-authored by Bridget Cherry, he wrote of this street:

“The only house which needs special attention is Ely House (No. 37)”

This is the building that is now home to Thaddeus Ropac. Ely House was built in the 1770s by the then Bishop of Ely, Edmund Keene (1714-1781), who was appointed to that post in January 1771. According to The Dictionary of National Biography (1885-1900 edition), Keene:

“… obtained in 1772 an act of parliament for alienating from the see, in consideration of the payment of 6,500l. [i.e., £6,500] and an annuity of 200l., the ancient palace in Holborn, and for purchasing, at a cost of 5,800l., the freehold of a house in Dover Street, Piccadilly, London. The present house on that site was built by him about 1776.”

Clearly, the bishop was not short of cash; he was married to Mary (née Andrews), daughter and sole heiress of Andrews of Edmonton, once a successful linen draper in Cheapside.

The architect of Ely House was Sir Robert Taylor (1714-1788). The building remained the London residence of the Bishops of Ely until the beginning of the 20th century. In 1909, the interior of Ely House was greatly modified by the Arts & Crafts architectural firm Smith and Brewer (https://ropac.net/news/245-galerie-thaddaeus-ropac-ely-house-london/), and it became the home of The Albermarle Club. This private members’ club, founded in 1874, was open to both men and women, and was first housed at 13 Albermarle Street. Known for its liberal views on women’s rights, it was in 1895 the site of an incident that led to the first trial of one of its members, the writer Oscar Wilde (www.back2stonewall.com/2021/02/gay-lgbt-history-feb-18-oscar-wilde-accused-sodomite.html). Because of the club’s connection with proceedings that led to Wilde’s downfall, it moved to 37 Dover Street to distance itself from Albermarle Street where these unfortunate events had occurred.

During WW2, Ely House became used by The American Red Cross Interstate Club. Later, it housed a private bank. When Pevsner and Cherry published their book in 1973, the house was being used by Oxford University Press. In Spring 2017, Thaddeus Ropac announced that they would open their London gallery in Ely House.

The exterior of Ely House might not have changed much since it was constructed. A medallion on the façade depicts a bishop’s mitre. The magnificent wrought iron railings topped with several models of lions was a 19th century addition based on the lions designed for The British Museum by the sculptor Alfred Stevens (1817-1875). The interior of Ely House would now be unrecognisable to Bishop Edmund Keene apart from a few decorative features that have been preserved. Furthermore, the artworks that are so beautifully displayed in the lovely, whitewashed rooms of the former Ely House would have seemed totally alien to the long-since departed bishop. Rarely, if ever, do the artworks displayed superbly in the gallery lack in visual interest and originality. What drew us to the gallery on the 9th of November 2021 was a small, intriguing collection of creations by Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) in one room, and several rooms containing disturbingly lifelike, but not always life-sized, sculptures by Ron Mueck, an artist born in Australia in 1958, son of German-born toymakers.

Dover Street is part of a network of Mayfair thoroughfares containing commercial art galleries. Amongst them Thaddeus Ropac has the most beautiful premises and is worth seeing not only for its artworks but also as a fine example of London’s architectural heritage.

The tests of time and taste

CONTR 0

Is it fair to juxtapose works of modern or contemporary art with great masterpieces, which have stood the test of time?

CONTR 6

We were fortunate to have been given (by our daughter) complimentary tickets to the 2018 Frieze Masters exhibition held in Regents Park. It is part of a larger art fair, Frieze, held in London annually.

CONTR 4 Lowry

The Frieze Masters show contains stalls set up by art dealers, displaying only works made no later than the year 2000 AD. I must admit that I was expecting to see works of art only made during the 19th and 20th centuries. To my great delight, the artworks on display were made anytime between ancient times (several centuries BC) and 2000 AD.

CONTR 2

Although the more recently made (i.e. 20th century) artworks are of the highest quality, they are often on display close to artworks made many centuries earlier. Some of the gallery stalls contain a mix of modern art and much older works. Placing some 20th century works (e.g. Calder) near to older classical works (e.g. Brueghel and Cranach) is not fair to the newer works.

CONTR 5

The older artworks, which have stood the test of time and satisfied the tastes of many generations of viewers, make the nearby contemporary works seem weak in comparison. This is not always the case. Some small sculptures by Barbara Hepworth seemed very comfortable next to their far more venerable neighbours. Also, to my surprise some ancient classical carvings stood harmoniously close to some abstract art works made in the second half of the 20th century.

CONTR 1 Calder

The older works of art on display have been treasured for many centuries. Probably, what we see today is the best of what was produced long ago. Even at the time when they were made, their excellence must have been obvious when seen beside other works, now lost and long-forgotten, which were created at the same time.

CONTR 3 hepworth

I question how many of the more recent (19th and, especially, 20th century) works of art, which I saw at Frieze Masters, will still attract both interest and high prices in, say, fifty or a hundred years’ time. And, I also ask myself how many of the newer works will be able to evoke the feelings of aesthetic wonder that, say, a Brueghel or a Cycladic sculpture have been able to do for so many centuries.  

CONTR 7