Contents of Oscar Wilde’s favorite haunt – The Caf

A packed Bonhams saleroom in Knightsbridge saw 120 lots from the iconic Café Royal go under the hammer at Bonhams. The bidders were largely private individuals who had memories of celebrations at the Café Royal or some other personal link. The sale, which was expected to make $124,000, in fact achieved $305,000.

Top items in the sale included lot 34, a large early 20th century Venetian clear glass and gilt 20-light chandelier that was estimated to make $6,900-$11,000 and sold for $21,500.

Lot 96, a late 19th century electroplated twin handled grill serving trolley estimated at $2,770-$4,150 sold for $23,018.

Lot 59, another 20-light chandelier made $13,300 against an estimate of $5,540-$8,300.

Lot 93, a pair of late 19th century oak coopered barrels estimated $1,660-$2,330, sold for $10,906.

Lot 95, a Mathurin Moreau (French, 1822-1912) L’immortalite bronze made $10,123 against an estimate of $1,946 -$2,600.

A playground for the rich and famous, The Café Royal has been the hub of glamour and scandal for decades. Generations of the world’s most celebrated and notorious film stars, writers, artists, politicians and royals have celebrated at the Café Royal, making it not only a London landmark but also the setting for many dramas.

Established in 1865, patrons of the Café Royal over the years included Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, Noel Coward, Sir Winston Churchill, Cary Grant, Brigitte Bardot, Elizabeth Taylor, Princess Diana, Mick Jagger, Margaret Thatcher, Virginia Woolf, Muhammad Ali and Yul Brynner.
The doors to the Café Royal closed forever on Monday, Dec. 22, 2008, following confirmation that the Crown Estate is to redevelop the lower end of Regent Street.

The sale included a wide range of items from the Café Royal, from humidors and brandy caskets from its legendary cellars to the opulent Venetian chandeliers which hang in the Napoleon suite. Also included is the Café Royal’s original boxing ring, which has been used at many of the black tie boxing events held over the years.

Charlie Thomas, Head of Knightsbridge Furniture, says “Building on the success of the Savoy sale last year Bonhams is delighted to be selling the contents of the Café Royal. Bidders will have the opportunity to acquire a small piece of this iconic London institution.”

The Wilde days of the Café Royal

To the Bohemians of Victorian England the Café Royal was an oasis of French charm. As such it was a firm favorite with Oscar Wilde and his friends. The Café Royal formed the backdrop to some of the most dramatic events in Wilde’s life, including his decision to sue the Marquis of Queensberry.

Absinthe was often Oscar’s drink of choice and he describes one evening sitting alone in the Café Royal drinking when he started to hallucinate. Oscar thought that the waiter, who was stacking chairs, was in fact watering the floor, covered in tulips, with a watering can.

Oscar often entertained guests at the Café Royal including his lover “Bosie,” Lord Alfred Douglas. Bosie’s father, the Marquis of Queensberry, a notorious brute, abhorred his son’s relationship with Oscar. The only amiable meeting between Wilde and Queensberry took place in 1893 at the Café Royal over lunch. The Marquis was charmed by Oscar despite himself and was temporarily won over.

The truce was momentary however, and after Queensberry left his misspelt calling card at Wilde’s club –“for Oscar Wilde posing as a somdomite” – Wilde decided to launch a libel case against him. When Wilde met his friends George Bernard Shaw and Frank Harris at the Café Royal, they desperately tried to persuade Oscar not to go to court. Oscar stormed out of the Café Royal and never set foot inside again.

Salacious details of Wilde’s private life entered the public arena during the trial and he was later convicted of gross indecency and sentenced to two years hard labor. His time in prison broke his health and he died three years after his release.

If walls could talk

The Café Royal was established in 1865 by Parisian wine merchant Daniel Nicolas who was on the run from a prison sentence imposed for bankruptcy in France. He arrived with only a few dollars in his pocket and no knowledge of the English language.

The Café Royal is the spiritual home of black tie dinner boxing in the UK. The original National Sporting Club founders, the Earl of Lonsdale and the fifth Marquis of Queensberry, who were keen patrons of the Café Royal, created the world famous Queensberry rules for boxing. The National Sporting Club’s boxing activities found a permanent home at the Café Royal in 1955.

In 1894 the Café Royal was the scene of an infamous murder. The night porter Marius Martin was found with two bullets in his head, the murder was never solved.

The Café was frequented by Edward VIII and George VI in the early part of the 20th century. An entry in the waiter’s instruction book ran: “Prince of Wales, Duke of York lunch frequently. Always plain food. No fuss.”

Winston Churchill and Rufus Isaacs dined at the Café Royal for several nights awaiting a call from the new Prime Minister Sir Henry Campell-Bannerman who took office after Balfour resigned in December 1905.

In 1922 the Café Royal was demolished and rebuilt to conform to other buildings in the Regent Street quadrant. “They might as well have old us,” wrote TWH Crossland, “that the British Empire is to be pulled down and redecorated.”

The Café Royal has been painted and sketched by Aubrey Bearsley, Walter Sickert, Sir John Lavery and Laura Knight.

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