Frances Richards was born in Brockville, in 1852, into the prominent Richards clan. Her uncle William Buell Richards was the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada and earned a knighthood. Albert Norton Richards, her father, was Attorney General in the provisional government of the Red River settlement, which was turned away by Louis Riel, during the Red River Rebellion. He was the second Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia.
From an early age Frances had aspirations of becoming an artist. This was most certainly not what her family expected. Daughters of prominent families were expected to marry well and raise a family, possibly hosting teas and dinners, to further family fortunes. The most bold women might dabble in the arts, but only as esteemed patronesses or as a ladylike hobby. Frances was a “modern woman”, less interested in domestic bliss, than achieving independence and earning a living, through her own talents as an artist.
Her opportunity arose in 1877 when her uncle and aunt were planning a tour of Europe. Frances managed to procure an invitation, to accompany them, and promptly applied to L'Académie Julian in Paris, an art school established in 1867, and unlike most, accepted female students.
Frances spent four years studying in Paris. A determined young lady she managed the intensive class schedule at L'Académie, as well as private lessons from some of the most prominent portrait artists of the era, men who had taught John Singer Sargent and Mary Cassatt. Her talent and hard work had earned her a reputation, as a promising portrait artist, of some merit.
She returned to Canada in 1881, to become the first director of the new Ottawa School of Art, which was founded with financing and encouragement, of the Canadian Governor-General, the Marquis of Lorne and his wife, Princess Louise, Queen Victoria's daughter. Frances was soon a regular attendee at vice-regal functions in the Canadian capital. No doubt because of her family connections and the association with the School of Art, Frances soon earned prominent commissions. One of these was to paint a portrait of the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, her uncle, Sir William Buell Richards. Frances' portrait still hangs in the foyer of the Supreme Court building in Ottawa.
Frances exhibited her paintings in galleries in Montreal and Toronto, all the while acquiring more commissions for her work from wealthy and powerful patrons. By 1882 she was ready to return to Paris to continue her studies. But before she left she was to have a meeting that not only changed her life, but left its mark on the literary world.
Oscar Wilde, the literary wit and playwright, was on a tour of North America that brought him to Ottawa in 1882. Wilde, handsome, flamboyant and always opinionated, was the nineteenth century equivalent of a rock star. When he arrived in New York, at the start of his tour, he famously told a customs officer, “I have nothing to declare, except my genius.”
Frances managed to meet him and must have made an impression on Wilde, for learning of her plans to return to Paris, he offered to write a letter of introduction to his good friend, James Whistler, the American artist. The letter began, “My dearest Jimmy-I want you to know, and to know is to delight in, Miss Richards, who is an artist and a little oasis of culture in Canada. She does really good work...” The letter was placed in an envelope addressed to Frances. A note inside read, “I send you with much pleasure a letter to Whistler, you will appreciate him and he you.”
Returning to Paris, Frances had the occasion to meet Wilde again, six months later when both were in the city and she invited him to tea. Shortly thereafter she returned to North America, this time New York, where she painted, taught and exhibited her portraits at the best galleries. She moved to London in 1887 and renewed her friendship with Oscar.
At some point after her return, it was arranged for Frances to paint Wilde's portrait. According to the accounts that remain, Wilde asked Frances for the sitting, which must have been quite flattering for the artist. The sitting most likely took place in her Chelsea, London home.
Wilde's reaction, to his first viewing of the finished portrait, was related in an interview with the London Pall Mall Gazette, on the subject of the inspiration for his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. 'In December 1887 I gave a sitting to a Canadian artist… when the sitting was over, and I had looked at the portrait, I said in jest, “What a tragic thing it is. This portrait will never grow older and I shall. If only it was the other way!' The moment I had said this it occurred to me what a capital plot the idea would make for a story.” The St. James Gazette, on September 24th 1890, included the same account of the genesis of Dorian Gray.
In “Dorian Gray”, having had his portrait painted, Gray sells his soul, to ensure the painting ages and not himself. He then proceeds to live an amoral, hedonistic life, all the while his portrait ages reflecting every sin and degradation he commits.
After painting the portrait Frances continued to paint and was an ardent supporter of Wilde, even through his legal troubles and imprisonment. She married the Earl of Rowley in 1888. She died at age 82, in 1934.
Frances' portrait has been lost to time, but the novel it inspired remains one of Wilde's best known works and popular to this day.
A creative alliance have used the Wilde/Richards connection to promote the idea of an Oscar Wilde theatrical festival for Brockville. Events to further this goal are being planned. Watch the Thousand Islands Life events calendar or go to www.brockvillearts.com or the Brockville Arts Co-operative Facebook page for updates.
By Russ Disotell
Russ Disotell is the author of “Brockville: The River City.” Prior to entering the field of freelance writing, he enjoyed a long career in the retail wine trade. His book is still available in local book stores and is a must for your island bookshelf. (more bio to come)
He is a passionate supporter of arts and culture in the Thousand Islands region and has written extensively on the subject, in newspapers and magazines, throughout the area. He served as a director of The Thousand Islands Writers Festival, during its 6 1/2 year history. He has since founded the Brockville Arts Co-operative, whose goal is to foster dialogue, between different artistic groups and disciplines. Presently he is part of a creative alliance, of groups and individuals, promoting the idea of an Oscar Wilde Festival for Brockville, bringing a Government of Ireland, WB Yeats exhibit to the Brockville Museum, in August and hoping to host the Irish arts ensemble, Kaleidoscope