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.

Blockbusters

Bauhaus

National museums in the UK do not charge entrance fees to view their permanent exhibits. However, they do charge, often quite high, fees to view special temporary exhibitions.  This is nothing new. In 1968, I saw superb exhibition at the Royal Academy about the Bauhaus school, founded in pre-WW2 Germany. It was so excellent that I visited it on three separate occasions. Likewise, with a wonderful exhibition about Tutankhamen, also held at the Royal Academy.

Now, several decades later, the museums and galleries have caught on to the idea of ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions. These try to attract vast numbers of visitors, who would not nomally visit the institution where they are being held. They often succeed in drawing the crowds, but by slightly devious means. For example, recently the Royal Academy held an exhibition called: “RUBENS AND HIS LEGACY. Van Dyck to Cezanne”. I thought, as I am sure many other visitors believed, that this was primarily an exhibition of works by Rubens. Well, it was not. There were a few paintings by this great master diluted by a far larger number of works by other artists. It would have been more honest, but less ‘sexy’ and attractive to the public, to have called this exhibition something like “THE LEGACY OF RUBENS”.

My wife visited the current exhibition at the Tate Britain, a real crowd-puller called “VAN GOGH AND BRITAIN”. Who cannot resist seeing pictures by Van Gogh? Few, judging by the crowds of people jammed into the rooms where the exhibition is being held. And, how many paintings and other works by the man who cut off his own ear were on show. There were only a few. The rest of the show was of paintings by other artists, who were definitely not of interest to the bulk of the visitors, who had paid £18 a head to see a Van Gogh show. Clearly the name of the exhibition draws in the ‘punters’. 

As with the Van Gogh exhibition, the recent Leonardo da Vinci exhibition at the National Gallery was also disappointing. A few works by the great Italian master were vastly outnumbered by works produced by inferior artists, in whom most visitors were uninterested. And, most of the ‘fillers’ in the exhibition had only tenuous connections with Leonardo.

Of course, not all blockbuster exhibitions fail to live up to their promise. Apparently, the Alexander McQueen exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum was a brilliant show that concentrated on the subject promised by the exhibition’s name. Another really good temporary exhibition, which attracted an entry fee, was one dedicated to Roy Lichtenstein at the Tate Modern.

Given the absence of entrance fees and the constant insufficiency of public funds, our national museums and galleries need to raise as much money as possible. The blockbuster exhibitions must be a good way of doing this. It would be better if their naming was a little more related to what the visitor is likely to see.