He became one of the most successful playwrights of the late Victorian era with a series of social satires, such as The Importance of Being Earnest. However, it was his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, that brought him lasting recognition.
At the height of his fame, Wilde suffered a dramatic downfall in a series of trials. He was imprisoned for two years hard labour, having been convicted of ‘gross indecency’ with other men. Upon his release, he left for France, never to return. He died destitute in Paris at the age of 46.
In 1892, Wilde, then 37, came to stay at Babbacombe Cliff. The Wildes borrowed the house from Lady Mount-Temple, his wife’s distant cousin, a wealthy patron of the arts and a friend of John Ruskin.
The original villa had been extended in 1878 to an exuberant design by WE Nesfield, and the Mount-Temples spent a great deal of time and money furnishing and decorating the house. Constance, Oscar’s wife, knew the Pre-Raphaelites, and the decor reflected Morris’s new designs.
It was at Babbacombe Cliff during the winter of 1892/93 that Wilde completed his plays A Woman of No Importance, Salome and Lady Windemere’s Fan.
After the banning of Salome, Wilde tempted young actors to join him. He wrote to Lord Alfred (Bosie) Douglas: “It is a lovely place, it only lacks you.” With Constance abroad, Bosie was on the next train to Devon.
Bosie took along his Oxford tutor, Campbell Dodgson: “I gasped, amazed,” Dodgson wrote on arrival. “This is a lovely house, full of surprises and curious rooms, with suggestions of Rosetti at every turn.”
Lady Mount-Temple’s boudoir was named Wonderland. Oscar lived there in her absence, and it was there that he entertained Bosie. For Dodgson, Wonderland was “the most artistic of all the rooms”.
While Wilde and Bosie spent their time together, Dodgson admired Babbacombe Cliff’s architecture. There was a large archway, gated with a mock portcullis and inside, the hall was tiled by Morris. The turned staircase led to a corridor, where sunlight came through a window painted by his friend, Edward Burne-Jones.
The three men also looked after Wilde’s two sons, Cyril, seven, and six-year-old Vyvyan. Later Vyvyan said that the house was the first in the west of England to have central-heating. He remembered: “It seemed that beneath its very windows the sea was sunlit and brightly blue.”
As a game, Babbacombe Cliff was imagined as a school “combining the advantages of a public school with those of a lunatic asylum”. Wilde was the headmaster and drew up rules. Yet, these rules led to a violent quarrel between Wilde and Bosie. After “a revolting scene”, an outraged Bosie left Babbacombe.
In April 1895, Bosie’s father, the Marquis of Queensberry, made allegations of homosexuality against Wilde. Oscar sued for libel, but lost. After details of his private life were revealed during the trial, Wilde was arrested and tried for gross indecency. He was sentenced to two years of hard labour in Reading Gaol.
Babbacombe Cliff remained among the best times of Wilde’s life.
According to his biographer, Rupert Croft-Cooke: “There was no time happier, more irresponsibly mirthful and untroubled by cares of any kind, than the four months he spent at the house in Babbacombe.”