Item of the Week: Wilde and the "Great Cause of Art Education"

Published: February 23, 2011

The Clark recently acquired a letter to Oscar Wilde from Charles Godfrey Leland, American author, arts educator and folklorist, written during Wilde’s North American tour in 1882.  Leland (1824-1903), the founder of the Public Industrial Art School of Philadelphia, was writing to Wilde to thank him for discussing the school during a recent lecture, in which he held up institutions like Leland’s as the ideal for creating future artisans and craftspeople.

"I can never thank you as you deserve for the good you have done to the Great Cause of Art Education -- and to me as one of its humble teachers."

According to an article in the Montreal Daily Witness (May 15, 1882), Wilde told his audience: “I would have a workshop attached to every school… I have seen only one such school in the United States, and the was in Philadelphia, and was founded by my friend Leland. I stopped there yesterday, and have brought some of their work here to show you.”  On the first page of his letter, shown above, Leland tells Wilde:

You made a great sensation among all those in Philad[elphi]a who knew anything of the school.  As soon as your lecture had ended a flock of young artless-Artfull female dodgers — who had heard you came directly to the school which they had never visitied before.  Nothing has occurred since my return to America which has gratified me as much.

Born in Philadelphia in 1824, Leland had a widely varied and extremely interesting life and career.  After attending Princeton, he studied in Heidelberg, Munich and Paris, where he constructed barricades and fought in the streets during the 1848 revolution.  Returning to the US soon after, he worked for a short time as a lawyer before embarking on a career as a journalist at several national periodicals.  In 1857, he published the first of his “Hans Breitmann” poems, humorous works written in broken English and German for which he became quite well-known.  Leland also became increasingly involved the abolitionist cause in the years preceding American Civil War and coined the term “emancipation” as an alternative to the word “abolition.”  After serving with the Union army, he became increasingly interested in folklore, folk dialects and the occult and traveled widely throughout North America studying and living with native groups.  In 1870, he moved to England in order to further study the Roma (Gypsy) people, their languages and culture.  While in England, he came under the influence of William Morris and the English Arts & Crafts movement, and opened the Public Industrial Art School in 1881, after his 1879 return to the US.  Originally intended to teach decorative arts and crafts to underprivileged children, the school became much more well-known after Wilde’s lecture, as the above quote from Leland attests.  In the 1870s and 1880s Leland also co-authored several works on art and art education.  In 1883, Leland returned to Britain to further study the Roma and the Irish Travellers, and later moved to Italy, where he studied Italian witchcraft and folklore, publishing multiple works on all of these topics.  He died in Florence in 1903.

"Hoping that you will get this note, remain yours most sincerely and gratefully..."

A companion letter to this, written by Wilde and addressed to Leland is housed at Yale.  In it, Wilde says:

When I showed them the brass work and the pretty bowl of wood with the bright arabesques at New York they applauded to the echo, and I have received so many letters about it and congratulations that your school will be known and honoured everywhere, and you yourself recognised and honoured as one of the great pioneers and leaders of the art of the future.

This letter is a lovely addition not just to our Oscar Wilde collections, but to our collections related to William Morris and the decorative arts communities in the late 19th century.

Charles Godfrey Leland, Letter, 1882 May 11, Philadelphia, to Oscar Wilde. ba MS.2011.001.  William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, University of California, Los Angeles.

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