Tillsonburg celebrates Wilde Week

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It's going to be a Wilde Week in Tillsonburg from May 29 to June 2.

"We're celebrating the 135th anniversary of Oscar Wilde's visit to Oxford County," said Patricia Phelps, Manager of Culture and Heritage/Curator at Annandale National Historic Site in Tillsonburg. "And his subsequent influence on the decorating of Annandale House - it's that decorating that made it a National Historic Site, that made it so special."

On May 29, 1882, Wilde visited the County Seat, the Opera House of the Woodstock Town Hall, which is today the Woodstock Museum.

"You can still see stage he spoke on," said Phelps. "And on a beautiful evening in May, Oscar gave a lecture called The House Beautiful."

It focused on how to decorate in the style of the new Aestheticism movement.

"The Tillsons were building a new home that was part of his Model Farm. The whole idea behind the farm was that it be state of the art with all the newest and latest ideas employed. So they were building a farmhouse for the farm, but it was no ordinary farm and no ordinary farmhouse."

Edwin Delevan, the first mayor of Tillsonburg, and his wife Mary Ann wanted their 'farmhouse,' which built in 1883, to be equally modern.

"That's why they chose to embrace a rather avant-garde style of decorating for its time."

The interior decorating embraced nature, both flora and fauna, and the philosophy that 'whatever could be decorative should be decorative.'

"So that wherever your eye will look, it lands on something of beauty. So we have decorated door knobs and decorated door hinges. And we have painted ceilings and inlaid floors. And stained glass, and painted glass in the doors, so that wherever you're looking, there's art. It was a philosophy of beauty in everyday things, that you should surround yourself with this love of art."

Wilde Week

Wilde Week in Tillsonburg kicks off in a big way Monday, May 29th, on the exact day of Wilde's visit to Oxford County 135 years ago, at 2 p.m. at ANHS, 30 Tillson Ave.

"Oscar Wilde is returning," said Phelps. "He is coming to Annandale House to give us a little talk about the Aesthetic Movement."

Admission to the Oscar Wilde presentation, portrayed by Tillsonburg Mayor Stephen Molnar, is $10 (plus HST) and includes light refreshments.

"And of course your ticket includes a chance to tour this amazing building," said Phelps.

On Tuesday, May 29, an Irish Tea will be held at ANHS in honour of Wilde's Irish roots, featuring Irish Shortbread, Chocolate Potato Cake and Drop Tea Scones. Admission $12 (plus HST).

A free outdoor 'Movies on the Lawn' series takes place Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday night, May 30-June 1.

"Weather permitting, we will host it inside if it's raining," Phelps noted. "We're hoping for beautiful weather. There is no charge for the movies, but we will be passing the hat for a goodwill donation."

On Tuesday they are showing Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest, a light-hearted comedy. On Wednesday it's Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray. And on Thursday, it's Wilde's An Ideal Husband, a romantic and sentimental comedy.

"The movies are based on plays all written by Oscar Wilde, who was an author, poet, and playwright. He wrote children's stories, he wrote poems, he wrote plays, and he gave talks. He wasn't the only 'Aesthet,' but he was its most vocal supporter. William Morris and John Ruskin, who are better known for the Arts and Craft Movement, actually started this Aesthetic Movement and Oscar just became the most vocal and well-known supporter because he went on a North American lecture tour and talked to people about it."

A lecture will also be given Thursday, June 1st by Olwyn Coughlin about Oscar Wilde himself ($10 admission plus HST), followed by refreshments.

"It's about his life and who he was, and his times," said Phelps, noting Wilde was known for carrying a sunflower when he talked, waving it around for emphasis.

Wilde Week, hosted in partnership with Oxford Creative Connections Inc., is playing on the sunflower theme by inviting OCCI member artists to create paintings, photographs or fibre art pieces using 'Sunflowers for Oscar'.

"It's a juried show that will be in Annandale House for the whole week. On Friday, June 2nd, there will be a closing wine and cheese reception for the art show, and the public is invited. So come at 7 p.m., you can tour the House, see the art, and enjoy a refreshment. It's how we're closing out Wilde Week."

Earlier on Friday, June 2, there is a 1 p.m. workshop on how to make stained glass ($45 plus HST).

"There's actually something happening, day and evening, the whole week," said Phelps. "But a couple of the workshops (Monday and Wednesday night) are already full.

"It's definitely a Wilde Week that we're going to have here at the museum. We're hoping for lots of people to come. Come in the evening for the movies, there will be popcorn available. Bring your lawn chair. It may be a little cold, but hey, wear a jacket."

They've never attempted an outdoor big-screen Movie on the Lawn before, said Phelps, excited by their Wilde Week opportunity.

"It is an ambitious program for the week but we think Oscar deserves it because, really, without his talk and the Tillsons having heard it, I'm not sure we would have ended up with a house the way they decorated it. It would have been spectacular, because of who they were, but probably if they had not heard of this new decorating idea, they wouldn't have embraced it.

"Although the house was, and is, historically important to our town, without them embracing the Aesthetic Movement, it would not have had the same national significance that it does today. We owe a debt of gratitude to the Tillsons for what they accomplished for our community, but Oscar played a little role in that Tillsonburg is nationally 'on the map' for this home."


Although Annandale House was a 'pattern home', its interior decorating set it apart.

"It was a different approach," said Phelps, noting colour schemes were different, and although Victorian homes typically included flowers, they did not decorate with birds and fauna.

The colours were also more vibrant with the Aesthets, she said, noting as an example the green and blue dining room.

"Some people love it, some people say 'ooh.' The colour combinations are not for everyone."

The Aesthetic Movement lasted 10 years, roughly 1880-1890. It morphed into the Arts and Crafts Movement, which flourished from about 1880-1910.

"A lot of people know of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and they will see things in the house and say that sort of looks Arts and Craft. Or it looks Art Nouveau (1890-1910). It's because the Aesthetic Movement is sort of the grandparent of those movements. You can see it coming. If you know about interior design you can see it leading towards these other ideas.

"It's the decoration that makes the house so special," said Phelps, noting the Royal Bank building in Toronto has an aesthetic painted ceiling. "Our (National Historic Site) designation actually reads that we're the best surviving example in domestic architecture. There's not another house like it in all of Canada, or we wouldn't have got that designation. That's what the designation means - that this is an incredible, special home. This is unique to our country."

In Tillsonburg, some people are not aware of what the letters NHS mean.

"People think it's just a historical site, 'yeah, okay, everything's a historical site,' but National Historic Site designation means that the Federal Government of Canada has designated this property as unique and important to the history of our country. And it's not an easy thing to get, it was a five-year process. It's a very big deal.

"But yes, if it's something in your own backyard, something you drive by every day..." Phelps smiled. "We have visitors who come from all over who are amazed, people who come to see us specifically because of that designation because they realize the importance of the decorating within this house.

"And we want to give a tip of the hat to Oscar 135 years ago for coming this way... to help us be more than just locally important. Because the Tillsons are so important to the history of Tillsonburg, it would always be important locally, but because of their visionary thinking - E.D. was an entrepreneur and industrialist and he thought ahead, and because they embraced a new idea, we ended up with something that is nationally significant." 



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