Image: Oscar Wilde sculpture, Merrion Square, Dublin, by Danny Osbourne
The city of Dublin sports innumerable statues and sculptures of its famous former residents but most, quite literally, pale in comparison to the striking, multi-coloured sculpture of its beloved son Oscar Wilde. Since its unveiling in 1997, the work of art, commissioned by Guinness Ireland Group and executed by Danny Osborne, has earned its place as a regular stop on Dublin’s tourist trail. But not many people, geologists included, appreciate the true beauty of the work.
Walking up to the statue for the first time I was immediately struck by the shimmer of Wilde’s trousers and on closer inspection I found them to contain huge crystals of feldspar up to a few centimetres across. My face right up against the statue I was then attracted to Wilde’s lurid smoking jacket. The materials were clearly natural yet they seemed to flow so fluidly. I was reminded of the Ancient Greek sculpture of Nike adjusting her Sandal – a marble relief from the Temple of Athena Nike at the Acropolis, Athens (410-405 BC), in which the sculptor makes solid marble appear to flow like fabric and hang almost weightlessly.
My interest ignited, a quick Google search later I came across a fascinating review of the sculpture and its geologically aspects by Prof Chris Stillman who spent forty years in the Geology Department of Trinity College Dublin. I soon learned of the extraordinary rock types used by Osborne to produce Wilde on his perch.
The mesmerizing trousers worn by Wilde are composed of larvikite – a coarse-grained igneous rock often known as Blue Pearl Granite due to its striking blue iridescence (and for Geos looking for a bit more: the iridescence is caused by subsolvus exsolution in the anorthoclase feldspar, a process known as ‘schillerization’). The larvikite perfectly mimics a coarse tweed fabric and the effort of shipping it from the Oslo Fjord in Norway, is easily justified.
Wilde’s brash smoking jacket is a combination of green nephrite jade from the extreme north of British Columbia, close to the Yukon, Canada, and pink thulite from Western Norway that composes the collar and cuffs. Deborah Wilson who assisted sculpting of the jacket has a number of photos of the process available to view here. The Canadian jade is from a zone of contact metamorphism where ultramafic bodies intruded into the local country rock while the Norwegian thulite, a manganese-bearing variety of zoisite, was mined from veins in metamorphosed calcareous shales and sandstones.
Wilde’s black shoes and socks may take a back seat to their chromatic siblings but they are no less exotic. The black Indian granite is a charnockite from southern India and contains a distinctive pyroxene mineral known as hypersthene.
Ireland too contributes a piece of its geology to the jigsaw. The huge rock on which the sculptor has perched Wilde is a 35 tonne boulder of quartz transported from the Wicklow Mountains where it had weathered out of a vein in the Leinster Granite. Osbourne, who found the boulder himself, must be congratulated on placing Wilde so naturally. In the words of Wilde himself, “being natural is simply a pose,” but this reclining pose, as the subject faces his childhood home on Merrion Square, is a true demonstration of a master artist at work.
In addition to the beautiful use of wonderful natural materials, I love the cleverness of the sculpture. The vivid colours, straight from the natural world, capture Oscar Wilde’s flamboyant character so perfectly. One can easily imagine Wilde, adorned by his unapologetic smoking jacket, shimmering trousers, and cheeky smile, flicking his head towards a US Customs Control officer to offer: “I have nothing to declare but my genius.” He struts on, head held high, his heavily polished, charnockite-granite-black shoes clicking loudly as he exits.
Ph.D. student, Department of Geology, Trinity College Dublin
All photos by the author unless otherwise stated.