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Oscar Wilde's grave saved from fans' loving kisses

By Bryony Jones, CNN
updated 12:54 PM EST, Thu December 1, 2011
The tomb of Oscar Wilde at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris has been renovated and surrounded by a protective glass screen after it was damaged by fans' lipstick kisses. The tomb of Oscar Wilde at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris has been renovated and surrounded by a protective glass screen after it was damaged by fans' lipstick kisses.
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Oscar Wilde's grave saved from kisses
Oscar Wilde's grave saved from kisses
Oscar Wilde's grave saved from kisses
Oscar Wilde's grave saved from kisses
Oscar Wilde's grave saved from kisses
Oscar Wilde's grave saved from kisses
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Oscar Wilde's grave at Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris was covered in fans' lipstick kisses
  • Grease from the lipstick caused serious damage to the stonework
  • The monument, by sculptor Jacob Epstein, is now surrounded by a glass screen
  • Writer's grandson among those present at unveiling on 111th anniversary of Wilde's death

(CNN) -- For decades, fans of Oscar Wilde have paid tribute to the Irish writer by leaving kisses on his tomb at Paris's famed Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

But years of greasy lipstick smears have badly damaged the memorial, a stone angel designed by modernist sculptor Jacob Epstein.

Now the monument has been painstakingly cleaned and restored -- and surrounded by a glass barrier to protect it from the makeup-laden pecks of passers-by.

The freshly renovated sculpture was unveiled -- on the 111th anniversary of Wilde's death -- by his grandson, Merlin Holland, and British actor Rupert Everett.

Ireland's arts and heritage minister, Dinny McGinley, said the occasion was "an opportunity to celebrate anew the life and works of one of Ireland's great modern writers, Oscar Wilde, who gave generously of his genius to the entire world."

Hopefully people will go and look, and if they feel the need to do something, they will leave a note, or some flowers -- there's no harm in that.
Donald Mead

Wilde, the dandyish author, poet and playwright, wrote "The Picture of Dorian Gray" and "The Importance of Being Earnest," in London in the 1880s and 1890s.

He moved to France in 1897, living there in self-imposed exile after serving a two-year hard labor prison sentence for gross indecency following a trial which scandalized Victorian society.

"His last few years were very sad," said Donald Mead, Chairman of the Oscar Wilde Society. "But there is always the sense that he was able to rise above his misfortunes, to remain buoyant and happy.

"His letters say a lot about his lack of money, but they are also very entertaining, full of amusing anecdotes and stories. They paint a picture of someone who was down, but certainly not out -- though of course he was 'out' in the modern sense."

He died penniless in Paris on November 30, 1900, aged just 46, and was given a 'sixth class' burial outside the city. His remains were moved to Pere Lachaise years later.

Epstein's sculpture for the site was unveiled in 1914, and has long been a site of pilgrimage for Wilde's fans. In the early 1960s, one visitor hacked off the angel's genitals, and the grave has been plagued by graffiti for many years.

The graffiti was cleaned off in the 1990s when the tomb was listed as a historic monument, but despite a sign asking visitors not to deface it, the 'tributes' have continued, with ink giving way to lipstick.

Experts fear that if the tradition continues, the sculpture may be damaged beyond repair.

"The grease base of the lipstick penetrates the stone and long after the coloring pigments have faded, a grease 'shadow' is still visible," Paris's Irish Cultural Centre said in a statement.

"The tomb is close to being irreparably damaged; each cleaning has degraded some of the stone surface and rendered it more porous and has subsequently necessitated a more drastic cleaning."

Mead said he hoped those who made the pilgrimage to the cemetery in future would pay tribute to Wilde in a less destructive manner.

"It has reached the point of no return really," he told CNN. "There has been wanton vandalism, destruction. Now the screen is up, hopefully people will go and look, and if they feel the need to do something, they will leave a note, or some flowers -- there's no harm in that."

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