Rocks Gone Wilde

Incorporating five beautifully colourful and exotic rock types from three different continents, the sculpture of Oscar Wilde in Dublin’s Merrion Square is truly a geological wonder.

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 mesmerising trousers of Norwegian Larvikite, a type of monzonite, a coarse-grained igneous rock.
Wilde’s mesmerising trousers of Norwegian Larvikite, a type of syenite, a coarse-grained igneous rock.
Detail of the larvikite trousers showing the iridescent anorthoclase feldspar and dark dots of dark minerals - titanium augite, ferro-olivine, biotite, and magnetite.
Detail of the larvikite trousers showing the iridescent anorthoclase feldspar and dark dots of dark minerals – titanium augite, ferro-olivine, biotite, and magnetite.

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 smoking jacket of green nephrite jade from Canada and pink thulite collar and cuffs from western Norway
Wilde’s smoking jacket of green nephrite jade from Canada and pink thulite collar and cuffs from western Norway
Close-up of Wilde's pink thulite cuff. Thulite is a manganese-bearing variety of zoisite and the colour variation is due to differences in the Mn3+/Mn2+ ratio. The pink and white mottling is due to intermixed thulite and zoisite.
Detail of Wilde’s pink thulite cuff. Thulite is a manganese-bearing variety of zoisite and the colour variation is due to differences in the Mn3+/Mn2+ ratio. The pink and white mottling is due to intermixed thulite and zoisite.
To the ends of the Earth: Osbourne in Canada sourcing the 980 kg block of jade that would become Wilde's smoking jacket. Photo from Stillman 1999.
To the ends of the Earth: Sourcing the 980 kg block of jade that would become Wilde’s smoking jacket from BC, Canada. Photo from Stillman 1999.

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.

Wilde's socks and shoes fashioned from a black Indian granite known as charnockite. The laces are of bronze.
Wilde’s socks and shoes fashioned from a black Indian granite known as charnockite. The laces are composed of bronze.

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.

Wilde reclining on the 35 tonne block of vein quartz the sculptor hand picked in Ireland's Wicklow Mountains.
Wilde reclining on the 35 tonne block of vein quartz the sculptor hand picked in Ireland’s Wicklow Mountains.

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.

Gavin Kenny

Ph.D. student, Department of Geology, Trinity College Dublin

@GavinGKenny

All photos by the author unless otherwise stated.

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6 thoughts on “Rocks Gone Wilde

  1. Benjamin Thebaudeau says:

    Great post Gavin. I have always loved the statue but never took the time to research the rocks origins. What is his white head made off by the way ?

    1. Gavin Kenny says:

      Cheers Ben, good question. His head and hands were originally made of ceramic so they aren’t natural materials, hence I didn’t really discuss them. But in 2009 or 2010, I think it was, the head was a bit worse for ware so it was replaced by one made of jade. The statue looked very strange for a little while when he was headless!

    1. Gavin Kenny says:

      Although most statues produced today are rather boringly lacking colour, there are a few exceptions. In fact, although we think of famous statues and sculptures, such as those by the Ancient Greeks, as being white, the marble was very often, if not usually, painted quite colourfully (http://archive.archaeology.org/0801/trenches/colorgods.html) . All we see today is the bare marble left after the paint has been lost over time.

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