As a young man, Ross moved to England to go to university. He was accepted at King's College, Cambridge in 1888, 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, Arthur Augustus Tilley. 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 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. 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' 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.
On February 15, 1895 Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas and Ross approached solicitor Charles Octavius Humphreys with the intention of suing the Marquess of Queensberry, Douglas' 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 in the negative. 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.
Following Wilde's disgrace and 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 November 30, 1900.
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. 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.
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’ own ashes. Ross' 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. During this period the Carfax held important exhibitions of such artists as Aubrey Beardsley, William Blake and John Singer Sargent. 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' 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, Australia 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' ashes were added to Wilde's tomb in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
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 in order 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.
Robbie Ross: Oscar Wilde's Devoted Friend by Jonathan Fryer
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Carroll & Graf (January 9, 2002)
Amazon: Robbie Ross: Oscar Wilde's Devoted Friend
In a compelling narrative of moral courage and personal integrity, this biography tells the story of Robert Baldwin Ross, the man who first seduced Oscar Wilde and never wavered in his loyalty to the flamboyant wit and playwright. Unfailingly, Ross stood by Wilde through the scandals that shocked a nation, through his much-publicized trials and imprisonment, at his deathbed in Paris—and thereafter dedicated himself to defending the reputation of his famous friend.
The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde by Neil McKenna
Paperback: 576 pages
Publisher: Basic Books; Paperback Ed edition (November 7, 2006)
Amazon: The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde
In The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde, Neil McKenna provides stunning new insight into the tumultuous sexual and psychological worlds of this brilliant and tormented figure. McKenna charts Wilde’s astonishing odyssey through London’s sexual underworld, and provides explosive new evidence of the political machinations behind Wilde’s trials for sodomy. Dazzlingly written and meticulously researched, The Secret Life of Oscar Wilde offers a vividly original portrait of a troubled genius who chose to martyr himself for the cause of love between men.
The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde by Joseph Pearce
Hardcover: 412 pages
Publisher: Ignatius Press (April 1, 2004)
Amazon: The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde
Vilified by fellow Victorians for his sexuality and his dandyism, Oscar Wilde, the great poet, satirist and playwright, is hailed today, in some circles, as a "progressive" sexual liberator. But this is not how Wilde saw himself. His actions and pretensions did not bring him happiness and fulfillment. This study of Wilde’s brilliant and tragic life goes beyond the mistakes that brought him notoriety in order to explore this emotional and spiritual search.
Unlike any other biography of Wilde, it strips away these pretensions to show the real man, his aspirations and desires. It uncovers how he was broken by his two-year prison sentence; it probes the deeper thinking behind masterpieces such as The Picture of Dorian Gray and "De Profundis"; and it traces his fascination with Catholicism through to his eleventh-hour conversion.
Published on the 150th anniversary of his birth, this biography removes the masks which have confused previous biographers and reveals the real Wilde beneath the surface. Once again, Joseph Pearce has written a profound, wide-ranging study with many original insights on a great literary figure.