Robbie Ross

:"Robbie Ross links here, for the Australian rugby league players, see Robbie Ross (rugby league).":"For other uses of similar names, see Robert Baldwin (disambiguation) and Robert Ross."Robert Baldwin "Robbie" Ross (May 25,1869October 5, 1918) was a Canadian journalist and art critic. He is best known, however, as the executor of the estate of Oscar Wilde, with whom he had been lifelong friends. He was also responsible for bringing together several great literary figures, such as Siegfried Sassoon and acting as their mentor. His open homosexuality in a time when homosexual acts were illegal, however, brought him many hardships and contributed to his early death.


Early life

Ross was born in Tours, France but came to the United Kingdom at an early age. His father John Ross, though born in Co Antirm, Ireland, spent most of his life in Upper Canada where he became a lawyer and attorney-general in 1853, and president of the Grand Trunk Railway 1853-1862. His mother Augusta Elizabeth Baldwin was the daughter of Canadian Deputy Premier Robert Baldwin.

As a young man, Ross moved to England to go to university. He was accepted at Cambridge but was the victim of bullying, probably due to his sexuality (of which he made no secret), and his, perhaps, outspoken journalism in the university paper. Ross caught pneumonia after a dunking in a fountain by a number of students with, according to Ross, the full support of a don. After recovering he fought for an apology from his fellow students, which he received, but more fiercely, for the dismissal of the don who, he argued, had known about and supported the bullying. The university refused to punish the man and Ross dropped out of university. Soon after this event, Ross decided to 'come out' to his family, a serious matter in the 1880s. He gathered them to hear the announcement not long after he left university.

As a young Londoner, Ross is alleged to have been Oscar Wilde's first male lover. Ross found work as a journalist and critic, but he did not escape scandal. A few years before Wilde's imprisonment, Ross had a sexual relationship with a boy of fourteen, the son of friends, and the boy's best friend, aged fifteen. Both boys confessed to their parents that they had engaged in sexual activity with Ross, and the fourteen year old boy also admitted to a sexual encounter with Lord Alfred Douglas while he was a guest at Ross's house. After a good deal of panic and frantic meeting held with solicitors, the parents were persuaded not to go to the police, since, at that time, their sons might be seen not as victims but as guilty as Ross and Douglas and also face prison. ["Oscar Wilde" by Richard Ellmann, published in 1987]


Following Wilde's disgrace and imprisonment in 1895, Ross went abroad for safety's sake, but returned to offer support, both financial and emotional, to Wilde during his last years. Ross remained loyal to Wilde during and after his death, and became his mentor's literary executor. This was not an easy task. It meant tracking down and purchasing the rights to all of Wilde's texts, which had been sold off along with all of Wilde's possessions when the playwright was declared bankrupt. It also meant fighting the rampant trade, following Wilde's arrest, in black market copies of his books and, in particular, books, usually erotic, that Wilde did not write but which were published illegally under his name. The rights to all of Oscar's works along with the money earned from their printing/performance while he was executor was given by Ross to Wilde's sons.

In 1908, some years after Wilde's death, Ross produced the definitive edition of his works. Ross was also responsible for commissioning Jacob Epstein to produce the tomb for Wilde. He even requested that Epstein design a small compartment into the tomb for Ross’s own ashes.

Parallel with his work as Wilde's literary executor, Ross tried his hand at a number of underpaid vocations as a writer and art critic. He was able to rely on an allowance and inheritance from his wealthy family to support himself. His literary output is small, with only one book worth a mention: "Masques and Phases" is a collection of previously published short stories and reviews.

Ross's main contribution to literature lies in his work as Wilde's executor, and as Wilde's friend in reading Wilde's texts, making suggestions, and, if Ross is to be believed, frequently suggesting changes and improvements. As an art critic, Ross was highly critical of the post-impressionist painters. He worked unpaid for many years for a small art gallery run by friends, for whom he travelled purchasing works. At one time he hoped to be selected for a royal position, but was rejected probably due to his connection to Wilde.

After Oscar

As a result of his faithfulness to Wilde even in death, Ross was vindictively pursued by Lord Alfred Douglas, who repeatedly attempted to have him arrested and tried for homosexual conduct. During the First World War, Ross mentored a group of young, mostly same-sex-oriented poets and artists, including Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. He was also a close friend of Wilde's son Vyvyan Holland, and a friend of his other son Cyril until his death in the First World War.

In early 1918, during the German Spring Offensive, Noel Pemberton Billing, a right-wing M.P., published an article entitled "The Cult of the Clitoris", in which he accused members of Ross's circle of being at the centre of 47,000 homosexual traitors who were betraying the nation to the Germans. Maud Allan, an actress who had played Wilde's "Salome" in a performance organised by Ross, was named as a member of the "cult". She unsuccessfully sued Billing for libel, causing a national sensation. The incident brought much embarrassing attention to Ross and his associates.

Later in the same year, Ross was preparing to travel to Melbourne, Australia to open an exhibition at the National Gallery when he died suddenly, an event which caused great grief to his many friends. In 1950, on the 50th anniversary of Wilde's death, Ross's ashes were added to Wilde's tomb in the Le Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Cultural references

There have been three major biographies of Ross's life. These include Jonathan Fryer's "Robbie Ross" (2000) and Maureen Borland's "Wilde's Devoted Friend" (1990). Neil McKenna's recent "The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde" (2003) looked in detail at Ross's sexuality.

* Ross briefly appears in Pat Barker's novel "The Eye in the Door", and his part in Noel Pemberton Billing's agitations against him and his circle is mentioned throughout as a backdrop to the main story.

* Robert Ross, the protagonist of Timothy Findley's 1977 novel "The Wars", is named after Robert Baldwin Ross.

* Ross was portrayed by Emrys Jones in the 1960 film, "The Trials of Oscar Wilde".

* Michael Sheen played Ross in the 1997 biographical film "Wilde", starring Stephen Fry and Jude Law as Douglas. Ross is portrayed mainly as a confidante and a good shoulder to cry on.

* He features prominently in "Melmoth", part of Dave Sim's "Cerebus" graphic novel. "Melmoth" documents with close historical accuracy, the final days of Wilde. The title refers to Wilde's pseudonym, Sebastian Melmoth, which he adopted following his release from prison.

The University of Bradford's LGBT Society, Bradford MSGI, named its LGBT library collection the [ "Robbie Ross Liberation Library"] after Ross in 2008.

ee also

* Oscar Wilde
* Lord Alfred Douglas
* Historical pederastic couples


* Maureen Borland, "Wilde's Devoted Friend: A Life of Robert Ross 1869 - 1918", Oxford: Lennard, 1990. ISBN 1852910852
* Brian Busby, "Character Parts: Who's Really Who in Canlit", Toronto: Knopf, 2003. p. 221-222. ISBN 0-676-97579-8
* Jonathan Fryer, "Robbie Ross: Oscar Wilde's True Love", London: Constable & Robinson, 2000. ISBN 0-09-479770-6 (U.S. Title: "Robbie Ross: Oscar Wilde's Devoted Friend")
* Margery Ross, ed. "Robert Ross. Friend of Friends. Letters to Robert Ross, Art Critic and Writer, together with extracts from his published articles." London: Jonathan Cape, 1952.

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