Artifacts Shed Light On Canadian Who Seduced Oscar Wilde

Randy Boswell, Ottawa Citizen, 19 Oct. 2004

Letters and photographs recalling the lasting bond between Oscar Wilde and his Canadian patron Robert Ross -- the man believed to have sparked Wilde's embrace of a homosexual life and the eventual saviour of his literary reputation -- are to be auctioned next week in Britain.

Ross was a grandson of Robert Baldwin, co-founder of responsible government in Canada, and was born in 1869 into a distinguished Toronto family.

He was educated in Britain and by 1887 had befriended Wilde, 13 years his senior and one of English literature's leading talents of the day. Ross is widely assumed to have been the novelist's first male lover after Wilde -- who was married with two children -- began feeling drawn to gay relationships.

Ross loyally defended Wilde when his homosexual activity later landed him in jail under Britain's 19th-century anti-sodomy laws.

The Canadian also comforted Wilde during his final illness in 1900, and an extremely rare photo of the dead author arranged by Ross -- valued at about $20,000 -- is among the objects being sold by Sotheby's.

Ross, who is also credited with nurturing the career of British poet Siegfried Sassoon and a host of other artists, was almost single-handedly responsible for rescuing Wilde's estate from bankruptcy and re-establishing public interest in his work in the 20th century.

Ross died in 1918, and his ashes were later placed in Wilde's tomb in Paris.

Among the artifacts to be sold next week in London are an original photograph of Wilde signed to"Bobbie" (estimated value $35,000) and the first letter written by Wilde to Ross when his Canadian friend decided to leave London to attend the University of Cambridge ($22,000).

"My dear Bobbie," Wilde wrote in the October 1888 letter."I congratulate you -- university life will suit you admirably -- tho' I shall miss you in town."

Ross was a leading man of letters and an influential art gallery owner in turn-of-the-century London.

Sotheby's notes that as early as 1887"Ross may have seduced Wilde, and it has generally been assumed that they were lovers at some time. ... In any event, Ross would prove to be the most faithful and most trustworthy friend Wilde ever had."

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