Robbie Ross

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For the Australian rugby league player, see Robbie Ross (rugby league). For the baseball pitcher, see Robbie Ross (baseball).
For other people named Robert Ross, see Robert Ross (disambiguation).
Robert Baldwin Ross
Robert Ross at 24.jpg
Robert Ross at twenty-four
Born (1869-05-25)25 May 1869
Tours, France
Died 5 October 1918(1918-10-05) (aged 49)
London, England[1]
Nationality Canadian-British
Other names Robbie Ross
Occupation Journalist
Known for Executor of the estate of Oscar Wilde

Robert Baldwin "Robbie" Ross (b. Tours, France, 25 May 1869 – d. London, England, 5 October 1918), maternal grandson of Canadian reform leader Robert Baldwin, son of John Ross and Augusta Elizabeth Baldwin, was a journalist and art critic and dealer, probably best known for his relationship with Oscar Wilde, to whom he was a literary executor and devoted friend. Ross was a pivotal figure on the London literary and artistic scene from the mid 1890s to his early death towards the end of the First World War. He was responsible for mentoring several great literary figures, such as Siegfried Sassoon. His open homosexuality in a time when homosexual acts were illegal brought him many hardships.[2]



Ross' mother, Elizabeth, was the eldest daughter of Robert Baldwin, a Toronto lawyer and politician who in the 1840s, together with his political partner Louis Hippolyte Lafontaine, led Canada to democratic independence from Great Britain. His father, John Ross, was a Baldwinite and Toronto lawyer who had a very successful political career, serving, among other things, as Solicitor General for Upper Canada, Attorney General, Speaker of the Legislative Council, President of the Legislative Council, director, and, for a time, President, of the Grand Trunk Railway, and Canadian Senator, becoming speaker of the Senate in 1869.

Ross was the youngest of five children with two older sisters (Mary and Maria) and brothers (John and Alexander). The family moved to Tours, France, in 1866 while Elizabeth was pregnant with Maria, who was born in 1867, the year of Canadian Confederation. John fulfilled his duties as Senator largely in absentia until he was chosen as Senate Speaker in 1869, the year of Robbie's birth, making his return to Canada unavoidable. The rest of the family followed in 1870 as a result of France's war with Prussia. John died in January 1871 and Elizabeth moved the family to London, England, the following April.

At Cambridge[edit]

As a young man, Ross moved to England to go to university. He was accepted at King's College, Cambridge in 1888,[3] 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 who had, according to Ross, the full support of a Cambridge professor, Arthur Augustus Tilley.[4] After recovering he fought for an apology from his fellow students, which he received, but more fiercely for the dismissal of Tilley who, he argued, had known about and supported the bullying. The college refused to punish Tilley, and Ross dropped out. Soon thereafter Ross chose to 'come out' to his family in the 1880s.

Oscar Wilde[edit]

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. In 1893, a few years before Wilde's imprisonment for homosexuality, Ross had a sexual relationship with a boy of sixteen, the son of friends. The boy confessed to his parents that he had engaged in sexual activity with Ross, and 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 meetings with solicitors, the parents were persuaded not to go to the police, since, at that time, their son might be seen not as a victim but as equally guilty and so face the possibility of going to prison.[5]

On Friday 1 March 1895 Wilde, Douglas and Ross approached solicitor Charles Octavius Humphreys with the intention of suing the Marquess of Queensberry, Douglas's father, for criminal libel. Humphreys asked Wilde directly whether there was any truth to Queensberry's allegations of homosexual activity between Wilde and Douglas, to which Wilde replied no. Humphreys applied for a warrant for Queensberry's arrest and approached Sir Edward Clarke and Charles Willie Mathews to represent Wilde. His son, Travers Humphreys appeared as a Junior Counsel for the prosecution in the subsequent case of Wilde vs Queensbury.[6]

Following Wilde's imprisonment in 1895, Ross went abroad for safety's sake, but he returned to offer both financial and emotional support to Wilde during his last years. Ross remained loyal to Wilde and was with him when he died on 30 November 1900.

After Oscar Wilde[edit]

Ross became his mentor's literary executor. 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.[citation needed] He was assisted in this task by Christopher Sclater Millard, who compiled a definitive bibliography of Wilde's writings. Ross gave Wilde's sons the rights to all their father's works along with the money earned from their printing/performance while he was executor.

Robert Baldwin Ross, 1911

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. Ross's interest in the arts was particularly strong during this period: from 1901 to 1908, in personal and professional partnership with More Adey, he managed the Carfax Gallery, a small commercial gallery in London, co-founded by John Fothergill and the artist William Rothenstein.[1] During this period the Carfax held important exhibitions of such artists as Aubrey Beardsley, William Blake and John Singer Sargent.[7] After leaving the Carfax, Ross worked as an art critic for The Morning Post.

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-orientated poets and artists, including Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen. He was also a close friend of Wilde's sons Vyvyan Holland and Cyril.

In early 1918, during the German Spring Offensive, Noel Pemberton Billing, a right-wing Member of Parliament, 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 authorised by Ross, was identified as a member of the "cult". She unsuccessfully sued Billing for libel, causing a national sensation in Britain. The incident brought much embarrassing attention to Ross and his associates.

Later in the same year, Ross was preparing to travel to Melbourne, to open an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria when he died suddenly. In 1950, on the 50th anniversary of Wilde's death, Ross's ashes were added to Wilde's tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.

Ross's work[edit]

Ross was able to rely on an allowance and inheritance from his wealthy family to support himself, leaving him free to pursue his interests. His main contribution to literature lies in his work as Wilde's executor, and as Wilde's friend in reading Wilde's texts and, if Ross is to be believed, frequently suggesting changes and improvements. He worked without pay for many years for a small art gallery run by friends and in this capacity travelled to purchase works. At one time he hoped to be selected for a royal position, but was rejected, probably due to his connection to Wilde.

In parallel with his work as Wilde's literary executor, Ross tried his hand as a writer and art critic and provided an introduction to Wilde's play Salome. His literary output is small, though, and he authored one book worth a mention, namely Masques and Phases, a collection of previously published short stories and reviews. As an art critic, Ross was highly critical of the post-impressionist painters.


In 2008, the University of Bradford's LGBT [Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender] Society, Bradford MSGI, named its LGBT library collection the Robbie Ross Liberation Library.[8]

Appearances in fiction[edit]

  • Ross briefly appears in Pat Barker's novel The Eye in the Door. Ross's part in Noel Pemberton Billing's agitations against him and his circle is mentioned throughout as a backdrop to the main story.
  • The protagonist of Timothy Findley's 1977 novel The Wars, is named after him.[9] Additionally, the historical Ross appears as a character in Findley's novel Pilgrim.
  • Ross was portrayed by Emrys Jones in the 1960 film The Trials of Oscar Wilde.
  • Michael Sheen played Ross in the 1997 biopic Wilde, which starred Stephen Fry as Wilde and Jude Law as Douglas. In the film, Ross is portrayed mainly as a confidante and a good shoulder to cry on.
  • In David Hare's play The Judas Kiss (1998), Ross is a major character in both Act 1, set in 1895 on the evening of the collapse of Wilde's libel case and in Act 2, in Italy in 1897.
  • Ross appears prominently in Dave Sim's Melmoth (ISBN 0-919359-10-8), a graphic novel "short story" (as Sim described it) related to but tangential to his ongoing 6000 page work Cerebus the Aardvark. Melmoth documents the final days of Oscar Wilde with close historical accuracy and with much quoting from primary sources. (The title alludes to Wilde's alias, Sebastian Melmoth, which he adopted following his release from prison.)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Borland, Maureen (1990). Wilde's Devoted Friend: A Life of Robert Ross 1869–1918. Oxford: Lennard. ISBN 1-85291-085-2. .
  2. ^ Fryer, Jonathan (2000). Robbie Ross: Oscar Wilde's True Love. London: Constable & Robinson. ISBN 0-09-479770-6. . (U.S. Title: Robbie Ross: Oscar Wilde's Devoted Friend).
  3. ^ "Ross, Robert Baldwin (RS888RB)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  4. ^ N. John Hall & Nina Burgis, eds., The letters of Anthony Trollope vol. 1, p. 986 (and see footnote
  5. ^ Oscar Wilde by Richard Ellmann, published in 1987
  6. ^ Linder, Douglas O. 'The Trials of Oscar Wilde: An Account'
  7. ^
  8. ^ "Robbie Ross Liberation Library"
  9. ^ Brian Busby, Character Parts: Who's Really Who in Canlit, Toronto: Knopf, 2003. p. 221-222. ISBN 0-676-97579-8

Further reading[edit]

There have been three major biographies of Ross's life. These are Maureen Borland's Wilde's Devoted Friend: A Life of Robert Ross 1869–1918 (1990), Jonathan Fryer's Robbie Ross (2000) and Neil McKenna's The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde (2003) which looked in detail at Ross's sexuality. See also: Margery Ross, ed. Robert Ross. Friend of Friends. Letters to Robert Ross, Art Critic and Writer, together with extracts from his published articles. (1952).

External links[edit]