25 June 2020, The Tablet

Frith was regarded as the epitome of philistinism by Wilde, and he reciprocated …

Frith was regarded as the epitome of philistinism by Wilde, and he reciprocated …

I don’t know if the painter W.P. Frith liked children, but he had 12 with his wife, Isabella, and seven at the same time with his mistress, Mary Alford. In 1881, the year after his wife died, he married Mary. That same year he painted a lively canvas of smart society, A Private View at the Royal Academy.

In it, a large room at Burlington House is crowded with women, many in colourful “aesthetic” dresses, and men in tall hats. (Men wore hats in public rooms in a way they wouldn’t today even if they had them.) The centre of attention is Oscar Wilde, 6ft 2in tall, silk hat atop his thick hair and a lily in the buttonhole of his plum coat. Glowering at him from behind, encased in a fine white waistcoat but his face blotched by drink, is the monstrous George Austus Sala.

Sala, whose sign-off GAS was a household name, reported from the American Civil War for The Daily Telegraph, shot at bandits from trains, drank round the clock, abused newspaper owners in terms unmentionable in our more prim times and went bankrupt. He didn’t think himself unartistic, having lived as an engraver until he lost the sight in one eye. Nor was he entirely worldly. Like Wilde he was received into the Catholic Church before he died.

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