ROBERT “ROBBIE” ROSS AND EDWARD PERRY WARREN
AFTER THE DEATH OF OSCAR WILDE
by Henry Berry. books/ephemera
Early 1900’s letters by Robert “Robbie” Ross (1869-1918) and letters by Edward Perry Warren (1860-1928) mentioning Ross give a picture of Ross’s activities after the death of Oscar Wilde in 1900. It is generally accepted that Wilde’s first homosexual experience was with Ross in 1886. This relationship continued though it was not monogamous. Ross was with Wilde when he died, and his remains were moved to Wilde’s tomb at Paris’s Pere Lachaise Cemetery in 1950 on the 50th anniversary of Wilde’s death. Edward “Ned” Perry was a wealthy American ex-patriot noted for his Lewes House in East Sussex, England, which was a center for collecting and selling of antiquities and art and a changing group of homosexuals as residents and visitors.
After graduating from Harvard in 1883, Warren attended Oxford, where he got an advanced degree in Classics. Although Warren is not known to be closely associated with Wilde, he would have known about Ross as a member in the community of English gays at the time connected to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge and living or spending time in London. Ross, son of a Canadian politician, started at Cambridge in 1888, but left after facing difficulties for his sexuality and unconventional journalism in the university newspaper, taking up residence in London working as a journalist and critic.
As seen in the Ross and Warren letters, in the years after 1908, after Ross had left management of the Carfax Gallery, Ross was helpful to Warren in performing certain tasks in London, among these reserving accommodations for business associates and friends. Warren also consulted Ross about matters in Warren’s business of buying, selling, and appraising works of art. As return addresses on the Ross letters indicates, Ross continued to live in Mayfair, an affluent area of London where Wilde also lived for a while. After 1908, Ross was also working on the definitive edition of Oscar Wilde’s works.
During the period of about 1908 to 1911, one of Warren’s chief interests was determining the painter of a Renaissance period, Old Master Italian painting which an Italian friend of his named Tommaso Virzi had inherited from his uncle. Warren looked to Ross for help in practical, artistic, and business matters in dealing with this. Bernard Berenson and Roger Fry also contributed opinions about who was the painter of Virzi’s inherited work, provisionally named “The Doctor” for the person it appearing to portray. Berenson at first thought it could have been done by Raphael, but later became convinced it was by Sebastiano del Piombo.
In a November 10, 1909, letter to Virzi coming soon to London, Warren writes, “My dear Tom, The Grosvenor [Hotel] is all very well for the first night or two — but more than that I find it expensive. The foxy friend (R. Ross, 5 Hertford Street, Mayfair) will recommend you something better for a longer stay.” In a P. S., Warren adds, “The foxy friend has decided against the London man and would be glad to have you take the thing to Milan.” In his letters, Warren often called Ross “l’amico volpe”, “foxy friend” in Italian.
In this short letter of about 100 words, Warren notes that Ross can be helpful in finding accommodations for Virzi, and also passes on Ross’s advice to forget about someone in London who had been considered to do some work on a work of art, likely cleaning or restoration, and take it to Milan when Virzi’s London trip was done and he returned there. In this letter, Warren also notes that he would like Virzi to come to Lewes House after John Marshall and his wife left. Marshall and Warren had become sexual partners when both were at Oxford in 1884; and they remained friends and business partners after Marshall married in 1907. Marshall, his wife, and Warren are buried together in a tomb in the Italian town of Bagni di Lucca.
In working with Warren, Ross had an independence from knowing what Warren would want and his trustworthiness. Beyond seeing to accommodations for Virzi, Ross introduced him to connections he had which might help to authenticate Virzi’s inherited painting or display it so it would attract interest. A September 13, 1910, letter by Ross on the same single sheet also with a letter by Warren is an introduction of Virzi by Ross and Warren to Sir Charles Holroyd, director of London’s National Gallery — “Signor Virzi…possesses a very fine [two words underlined twice] Italian picture ascribed to a great master…well worth [two words underlined] your attention…Virzi might be inclined to lend the picture…to the National Gallery” [in secretarial hand signed by Ross].
To show his appreciation of Ross’s help while he was in London, Virzi gave him the gift of a Greek marble statue. In a February 1911 letter of thanks Ross wrote, “How can I thank you sufficiently for the exquisite little Greek marble which you have so generously sent to me? I did not know for exactly what reason though our friend Warren tells me it was on account of the very small courtesy which I was able to show you.”
In December 1909, before Virzi came to London, Warren consulted with Ross on Virzi’s painting. Warren wrote to Virzi following this to let him know what was discussed and Ross’s advice and opinion. “My dear Tom, I saw the foxy friend [Robbie Ross] on Friday and had two hours with him. Here is my report…The foxy friend had not absolutely decided that with your permission he would put No. 1 [painting labeled earlier in letter] into [the painting cleaner’s] hands. He was to form his decision when he had seen him…I read to the foxy friend two of your letters…He is strongly of opinion that if it is safe to bring the thing to Milan that would be the best way…He thought that if it were owned by a foreigner, the foreigner could get it out of Italy under law…I told [Ross] that [Bernard] Berenson would probably have the stomach-ache and fail to go to Milan…Concerning [the matter being discussed] my foxy friend made three important remarks. First: – that it was not sufficient that Berenson had confirmed your attribution of the [painting] in conversation, for he had known Berenson to be very indignant when his remarks made in passing were cited…The foxy friend wanted me to get Berenson to make the statement in writing. This he said would be the only basis on which a price could be fetched…The second remark of my foxy friend was that even with Berenson’s favourable opinion, your price of 5 could not be realized…when I mentioned three (3) he thought that the highest…I, for my part, remind you that we are not likely to be able to call upon Morgan [J. P. Morgan, the famed financier) after his recent purchase…The third remark was, that both [Ross] and Berenson thought that No. 2 [another painting labeled by Warren at the start of his letter] would sell much better in Italy…The foxy friend accepted with joy your proposal that it be sent to Germany…[Ross] made, however, one reserve. Before it went, he would show it to Lionel Cust [British art historian, museum director, and editor of the Burlington Magazine]….” The lengthy letter gives a picture how Warren and Ross worked as associates in the art world of Britain, Europe, and the United States of the time and some of their network of experts, critics, and dealers.
The Warren and Ross letters shed light on the working relationship between the two in the early years of the 1900s after the death of Wilde in 1900. Ross had more time to develop more fully relationships with others while at the same time working on the edition of Wilde’s works and giving what financial and emotional support he could to Wilde’s wife and children. Despite being a part of the same British gay community of the time as Ross and with mutual interests and friends, acquaintances, and business contacts, Warren was never so daring nor conspicuous about his homosexuality, partly by nature and partly by common sense called for in becoming the noted international antiquities dealer he did become considering the prejudices and laws of the time.
Warren was never drawn into the scandals surrounding Oscar Wilde and some of his sexual partners and fleeting liaisons. With the loss of its most public and scandalous figure in 1900, the British gay community inevitably changed. Ross developed new pursuits, and new aspects of his existing activities and relations formed. Warren and Ross were known to have some level of friendship or working relationship before Wilde died. Ross is known by letters and biographical research to have visited Warren’s house in Lewes. After Wilde’s death, Warren would be not so concerned about being drawn into a scandal about homosexuality which would be detrimental and possibly ruinous to his antiquities business based considerably on discretion and reputation. And so for his part, Warren was not so concerned about being carelessly or inadvertently drawn into and affected by a scandal of the sort which had raged in London society over Wilde’s trial and conviction for homosexuality.
Given the libertine attitudes of upperclass British gays of the time, most of whom were nonetheless discreet, and in particular Warren’s and Ross’s known sexual activities, there is no reason to believe they were not gay sexual partners in some respect. At this time, however, there is no definitive evidence. And thus, this can only be speculated.
(Sources: (1) Bachelors of Art – Edward Perry Warren & The Lewes House Brotherhood by David Sox, Fourth Estate, London, 1991; (2) The Mount Vernon Street Warrens – A Boston Story, 1860-1910, by Martin Green, Scribner’s, 1989; (3) an archive of more than 100 letters mostly by Edward Perry Warren acquired by the archives and ephemera dealer Henry Berry, books/ephemera, Connecticut USA, henryberryinct(at)gmail(dot)com)