OPINION - Oscar Wilde would hate this hideous sculpture of him that's coming to London

Head (Oscar Wilde) by Eduardo Luigi Paolozzi (Paolozzi Foundation)
Head (Oscar Wilde) by Eduardo Luigi Paolozzi (Paolozzi Foundation)

On the bright side, there are, it seems, no moral grounds for denying Oscar Wilde a memorial on consecrated ground. A sculpture of his head can now be erected in a former churchyard in Chelsea after a Church of England consistory court overrode objections that it would be offensive. On the downside, the work is by the late Sir Eduardo Paolozzi and it is quite, quite hideous.

The vast bronze head is lying on its side, cut into vertical slices, but with the necktie in place. It’s like Ozymandias in reverse. It’s possible that, right way up, in one piece, it might resemble Wilde, but who is going to crane to find out?

I am, myself, all for a memorial to Wilde in Chelsea, where he lived. The objection on moral grounds seems odd nowadays and, moreover, Wilde converted to Catholicism before his death. What’s terrible is that every single memorial to one of the greatest aesthetes of the age is indescribably ugly, each in its own way.

Arguably the worst is Maggi Hambling’s A Conversation with Oscar Wilde off the Strand, where Wilde’s head and shoulders emerge as on the Day of Judgment, cigarette in hand and already decomposed. It looks like it was modelled with spaghetti, though perhaps it more closely resembles entrails.

If Wilde rose from the dead and saw them all, he’d cry

There’s a terrible, terrible monument in Dubin’s Merrion Square, which is figurative, but a kind of parody of an aesthete. There’s a very odd bas-relief of Wilde in Angel Court, St James’s, better than the others but still a kind of grotesque caricature. If Wilde rose from the dead and saw them all, he’d cry.

It’s a kind of posthumous punishment of Wilde, as though two years in Reading Gaol wasn’t enough. And it’s an example of how fashions in art can betray their subject. Wilde himself was an apostle of Ruskin, a devotee like all the Decadents, of the Italian Renaissance. Donatello was more his thing than Hambling. He was a man who, in every aspect of his life, appreciated beauty but it’s the most obvious thing lacking in his memorials.

It’s on this ground we can object to Paolozzi’s head. Wilde once edited a ladies’ magazine in which he observed: “What is a fashion? From the artistic point of view, it is usually a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” Except a sculpture lasts much longer.

Poor Wilde.

Melanie McDonagh is an Evening Standard columnist