Esoteric London

No. 251: Angel Court, SW1

Posted in Literary London, Public Art, Theatrical London by esotericlondon on February 14, 2011

Angel Court, London, SW1. Photo © Roger Dean 2010

In Angel Court, a somewhat grimy pedestrian passageway leading from King Street down to Pall Mall, there is a series of mysterious stone friezes, carved in relief. The heads of Vivien Leigh and Sir Laurence Olivier are flanked by their full figures as Antony and Cleopatra. George Alexander, who managed the St James Theatre from 1890 to 1918 and premiered two plays by Oscar Wilde, is honoured. And so is Gilbert Miller, who owned the theatre until its demolition in 1957 (following an epic protest campaign led by Leigh and Olivier). And Oscar himself appears, heroically flanked by scenes from ‘A Picture of Dorian Gray’ and ‘Salome’ (first performed in Paris, not London, while Wilde was in prison).

In fact, this is where the St James Theatre stood. It was the scene of an extraordinary event on Valentine’s Day 1895: Lord Queensberry, a thug and bully enraged by Wilde’s friendship with his son Lord Alfred Douglas, hatched a plan to present Wilde with a bouquet of vegetables after the premiere of ‘The Importance of Being Earnest’, and to address the audience. Somehow Wilde got wind of the plan and instructed the theatre not to let him in.

He later wrote to Douglas: ‘He arrived with a prize-fighter!! I had all Scotland Yard – twenty police – to guard the theatre. He prowled about for three hours, then left chattering like a monstrous ape’. Queensberry was forced to wait outside, but he left the ‘bouquet’ of cauliflower for Wilde, and set in train a series of disastrous events…

The reliefs were commissioned from E. Bainbridge Copnall as an hommage by the office block that replaced the theatre (which was itself demolished in the mid-eighties, to be replaced by the current building, St James’s House). By a miracle, these reliefs have survived, even if they are stuffed rather unceremoniously down an alleyway. A hidden gem, indeed: somehow in keeping with Wilde’s legacy. R.D. & K.E.B.