Blue Velvet Knickers, Puffed Sleeves, Carrying a Sunflower: Oscar Wilde and Annandale House

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I’m approaching one year of writing this blog, dedicated to celebrating Ontario’s National Historic Sites. So, I’ve taken the occasion to look back on the first post: the magnificent Annandale House in Tillsonburg.

And you know what? It doesn’t measure up to the standards of present blogs. So stop a minute and read the new and improved “Annandale House.”  Better yet, get yourself to Tillsonburg and ooh! and aah! at the real thing.

But before we get to the bricks and mortar, let’s get up-close and personal with notorious playwright Oscar Wilde and learn the part he plays in Annandale’s storied history. Oh my!

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The year 1882 sees playwright Oscar Wilde, author of The Picture of Dorian Grey on tour. He’s criss-crossing Canada and the U.S. by train, giving lectures on The Aesthetic Art Movement. Oscar is hooked on Aestheticism and its founder, artist and designer William Morris.

The Aesthetics railed again the growing industrial mindset of the Victoria age. Victorian design, art, architecture and fashion was downright ugly, Morris and Wilde and their followers determined.

What was beauty was the celebration of nature—beauty in the form of plant life—trees,shrubbery and flowers; beauty in the avian world (peacocks were a particular favourite); and beauty in the exquisiteness of animal kingdom—tigers and leopards and other exotics especially.

Art, fabrics,furniture and home decoration, under the Aesthetic banner exuded SENSUALITY.

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America, including backwoods Canada lagged behind Europe in embracing Aestheticism. What was needed there was a draw, a character to reel Aesthetic converts in. Enter literary wunderkind Oscar Wilde, playwright, poet and general gadabout.

Wilde’s notoriety (and imprisonment) for “having carnal knowledge of men” was still a decade and a half ahead of him. Still, the young Wilde was no shrinking violet. Word of his outlandish dress and manner always preceded him. He was just what the colonials needed to educate them on Aestheticism.

In 1882, Wilde arrived by train in the sleepy little town of Woodstock, Ontario to give his talk “The House Beautiful.” History records that Oscar exited the train resplendent in royal blue velvet knickers, lacy sleeve cuffs and carrying a sunflower. If his chit-chat on the Aesthetic Movement hadn’t sold out before he arrived, it surely was now.

While much of the content and style of Wilde’s delivery has been lost to the past, he urged his audience to “find your subjects in everyday life; your own men and women, your own flowers and fields, your own hills and mountains, these are what your art should represent to you.”

Two Fans in the Audience

At least two members of the Woodstock audience were inspired by Wilde’s message. They were E.D. and Mary Ann Tillson, the “first couple” of Tillsonburg, some miles to the south of Woodstock. Tillsonburg had been founded a generation before,by E.D.’s father, George.

Wealthy and powerful–E.D. was the Mayor of Tillsonburg, as well as its richest citizen. Money rolled into the Tillson house from E.D.’s various business enterprises, including lumber and gristmills, a brickyard and several commercial developments.

But E.D. Tillson was more than money. Under his tenure as Mayor, Tillsonburg gained water service, fire protection and forward-thinking urban planning.

By 1880, the Tillsons were in the midst of building their dream home.  It was located on a 600 acre property, presently the location of a state-of-the-art model farm named Annandale. The exterior of the two-and one-half story “palace” was almost complete.

It incorporated an eclectic mix of Queen Anne, Gothic and Italianate styles and boasted octagonal towers and turrets; elaborate verge board, gabled porches; a mansard, multi-patterned slate roof; iron cresting and finials, bay and lancet windows. The house was surely the finest for miles around.

Interior work had not yet been started at the time of Wilde’s visit to Woodstock. So his Aesthetic “preaching” fell on fertile ground. The Tillsons returned home as true Aesthetic converts.

Jaw-Dropping Beauty

They hired an American interior decorator, well-schooled in the Aesthetic philosophy and were off to the races. No expense would be spared in decorating the lavish Annandale House. From the parquet wood floors in oak, red cherry, honey maple and pine, to the elaborately-carved, walnut doors, door trim, and baseboard, wood is king in this residence.

In contrast to the subtle wood, glorious colour decorates Annandale’s walls, ceilings and windows.  Stained and etched glass windows invite sunlight to dance across the floors in a dazzling spectrum of colour.

But the star of the show is surely Annandale’s ceilings and walls. Some are hand-painted or stenciled in geometric patterns; others celebrate nature. A magnificent likeness of a peacock looks down from the ceiling in one room.

Elaborate hand-carved plaster ceiling medallions encircle the chandeliers in the downstairs formal rooms. The grandest is a cornucopia of fruit–pears, grapes, plums and cherries.

Decorative metal work, marble-topped radiator covers and Eastlake (geometric)-inspired over-mantels complement the ceiling and floor work.

Annandale’s magnificent fireplaces mix marble, intricately-carved wood with inset tiles, inspired by nature’s colours. Oscar would have been delighted!

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After the completion of Annandale House (a seven-year project), E.D. Tillson turned his eye on improvements to Annandale Farm. At the time, it was the largest brick barn in Ontario and was landscaped with tree-lined streets and trout ponds.

Tillson’s farm employed only the most modern techniques, including silos, underground ventilation, and the sterilization of dairy and meat-processing buildings.

Such was Annandale Farm’s fame that trains ran daily between Stratford, London and Tillsonburg to accommodate the throngs of curious who wished to see E.D. Tillson’s marvellous operation. Sadly, only photos of Annandale Farm remain today.

Saved by Effort

E.D. Tillson died in late January of 1902. Mary Ann Tillson followed in 1911. Annandale House moved out of Tillson hands with its 1928 purchase by Dr. Charles Van Dyke Corless, who had made his fortune in mining.

It remained an elegant residence until the 1960’s when it was abandoned.  Slated for demolition in the 1980’s, Annandale was saved when a group of Tillsonburg citizens stepped in and bought it.

With financial assistance from the town of Tillsonburg, Annandale House was re-born in all its former finery. Today it is a museum open to the public.  E.D. and Mary Ann Tillson’s great home is considered the finest example of the Aesthetic decorating movement in all of Canada.

Annandale House was designated as a National Historic Site in 1997.

One thought on “Blue Velvet Knickers, Puffed Sleeves, Carrying a Sunflower: Oscar Wilde and Annandale House

  1. djbrock@uwaterloo.ca March 21, 2014 / 8:18 pm

    HI Nancy

    What a great blog, I am going to send it to my friend Pat who lived in Tillsonburg and probably doesn’t even know the story. Keep up the good work

    Janet Dawson Brock

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