Beauty is a form of Genius – is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs no explanation. It is one of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or spring-time, or the reflection in dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has its divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it. You smile? Ah! when you have lost it you won’t smile. … People say sometimes that Beauty is only superficial. That may be so. But at least it is not so superficial as Thought is. To me, Beauty is the wonder of wonders. It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances.
This is, of course, the passage from Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray where Dorian Gray is seduced by the words of Lord Henry Wotton, to whom Dorian has just been introduced by his friend, the painter Basil Hallward. I was seduced long ago by the idea that beauty needs no explanation. Today, no artist would argue that beauty needs no explanation. Beauty has been out of style for a century. Nowadays, ugliness is translated by genius into beauty, but only for those shallow enough to be deceived by appearances.
Same with architecture. Today’s architects shrink in horror when anyone uses the word beauty. Maybe that is because the same public that is willing to accept ugliness as beauty in an art gallery has always refused to be fooled by an ugly building that merely sits out on the street.
For architects, beauty was for 2,000 years one leg of the triad of their art. The Roman architect Vitruvius (80-70 B.C. to 15 B.C.) wrote that “well building” requires “Firmitas, Utilitas and Venustas.” Some 1,600 years later, this was rendered in English as “Firmness, Commodity and Delight” by Sir Henry Wotton (1568-1639) in his Elements of Architecture, a loose translation of Vitruvius published in 1624. Wotton was a member of Parliament and the British ambassador to Venice under King James I.
Hold on a moment. What’s with the two Henry Wottons?
Well may you ask. Might Oscar Wilde’s fictional Lord Henry have been inspired by the historical Sir Henry? After all, the former was drawn as a cynical hedonist while the latter is known for having said, “An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.” Cynical enough for you? The quote even caused a scandal back in England. But Wilde might also have been aware that the historical Henry Wotton wrote a poem called “The Character of a Happy Life,” whose first stanza reads:
How happy is he born or taught,
That serveth not another’s will;
Whose armour is his honest thought,
And simple truth his utmost skill;
Well, that is the opposite of cynicism. Maybe Wilde’s model for Lord Henry was not Sir Henry after all. Maybe Wilde had never even heard of the real Henry Wotton.
Still, aren’t the two Henry Wottons a singular coincidence? I have trolled the internet for evidence that Wilde patterned his fictional character after a historical figure with the same name, or at least that literary scholars have noticed the echo. Nada. (Of course, libraries are closed.) Yet, in regard to a novel that has generated intense analysis for a century, can I be the first to ever notice this intersection of two Henry Wottons? Not quite likely!
If anyone has any information on this curiosity, please comment below. Meanwhile, as Wilde wrote, “Beauty is one of the great facts of the world.” Yes. As plain as the nose on your face. (Of course, many are wearing masks.)