Dear reader, I’m sorry, I’ve been writing all about aesthetics in art, assuming (by ignorance), that you all know what I’m on about.
What was the aesthetic movement?
The movement started in a small way in the 1860s in the studios and houses of a radical group of artists and designers, including William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. These were angry young reformers who explored new ways of living in defiance of the horrendous design standards of the age as revealed in the 1851 Great Exhibition.
The Little White Girl: Symphony in White, No 2, by James Mcneill Whistler. Photograph: Tate London.
Over the next two decades aestheticism burgeoned, drawing in architects and craftworkers, poets, critics and philosophers to create a movement dedicated to pure beauty. The aesthetic movement stood in stark and sometimes shocking contrast to the crass materialism of Britain in the 19th century. “Art for art’s sake” was its battle cry, a slogan that originated with the French poet Théophile Gautier.
Aestheticism spread with a speed of conspiratorial excitement that reminds one of the radical art movements of the 1960s. Emilia Barrington, biographer of Frederic Leighton, himself a leading aesthete, gives a wonderful definition of the “craze”:
Burne-Jones painted it, Kate Vaughan danced it, Maeterlinck wrote it, the “Souls” (rather unsuccessfully) attempted to live it, the humorists caricatured it, the Philistines denounced it as morbid and unwholesome.
There was indeed a conscious gloom to a form of art that revelled in love-sick wistfulness and tormented reveries. It eschewed mid-Victorian heartiness and cheeriness. This was a counter culture. Pickwickian it was not.
The cult of beauty expanded way beyond the gallery. One of the main tenets of aestheticism was that art was not confined to painting and sculpture and the false values of the art market. Potential for art is everywhere around us, in our homes and public buildings, in the detail of the way we choose to live our lives. Art had to do with architecture. The new Queen Anne style is visible to anyone who walks around the areas of London that were the main enclaves of the aesthetic movement: Bedford Park, Holland Park, Cadogan Gardens and Queen’s Gate. Red brick, demure and pleasing: this was the architecture of the children’s story book.
The relatively plain Queen Anne houses of the period opened out into often breathtaking interiors. The aesthetic movement was lifestyle with a vengeance. It was Rossetti in his beautiful tenebrous house in Cheyne Walk, furnished with an eclectic mix of old and new and an ever-changing entourage of rather mangy animals, who invented the style later known as shabby chic. Following his lead, art became self-definition. Your choice of paintings, objects and interior decoration told people who you were and indeed who you were not.
The most marvellous example of aesthetic movement interior decoration was Whistler’s Peacock Room designed for the wealthy (and famously unpleasant) shipping tycoon Frederick Leyland. The large scale frieze of stylised peacocks, gold on turquoise blue, wound around the walls of the dining room in Leyland’s palatial house in Prince’s Gate, giving his guests something sensational to look at while they ate. These days you have to travel to the States to see this masterpiece which, after Leyland’s death, was sold to the American collector Charles Freer and is now installed in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington.
In 1865 from William Morris’s decorating firm created The Green Dining Room for what was then the South Kensington Museum as part of a new complex of public refreshment rooms. What Morris envisioned as a place of enchantment, giving its customers the feeling of entering a mysterious green bower or a hidden chamber in an enchanted palace, as described in one of Morris’s own poems. With its green stained oak panelling, its layer upon layer of texture and pattern, Burne-Jones’s painted panels and stained glass, this is a prime example of the style of decoration that would soon be filtered down to middle-class “artistic” homes, not just in sophisticated central London but throughout the suburbs of most large provincial towns.
As a style aestheticism was elaborate, allusive, extravagantly literary, infused with a love of the medieval, going overboard for the exotic and outlandish. But excess has many mansions. Another of its signs was an equally startling reticence and purity of whom the great exponent was EW Godwin, the architect-designer: Godwin’s artist’s house for Whistler, the White House in Tite Street, Chelsea, was an early example of fashionable minimalism, with its built in furniture and Japanese-style matting on the floor.
Seeing it today Godwin’s pared-down furniture has a peculiar modernity. His famous black ebonized geometric sideboard could almost be the work of the Dutch De Stijl designer Gerrit Rietveld. Similarly Christopher Dresser’s beautiful angular aesthetic movement teapots could have emanated from the Bauhaus metalworking school. Dresser’s almost modernist designs were taken up by 19th-century Sheffield manufacturers and made in some quantity, though still mainly by hand.
Specialist shops opened to supply a movement which was all about individuality of choice. Here is art critic Julia Cartwright describing in her diary the delights of discriminating shopping at her favourite Morris & Co in Oxford Street: “There are lovely things at every turn, Persian potteries, hangings of every variety, cabinets and rugs and I fell in love with a sunflower paper at fourpence ha’penny a yard.”
Much the largest aesthetic movement shop, more a spectacular department store, was Liberty’s.
The shop on Regent Street opened in 1875 by the enterprising Arthur Liberty introduced London consumers to a vast array of objects and textiles imported from the Middle East and from Japan. Liberty was aestheticism gone commercial. The store registered “Art Fabrics” as a trademark. It had its own artistic and historic costume studio, specialising in free-flowing quasi-medieval Pre-Raphaelite gowns in dusky colours. You too could look like Janey Morris in a Rossetti portrait wearing a deep blue dress.
In Liberty’s wake a succession of smaller more experimental “art furniture” shops opened. Like the rush of little Scandinavian design shops that sprang up in Britain in the 1960s, a few of them flourished but most closed down fairly fast.
The movement had its own intellectual underpinning. If Wilde, “the first celebrity style guru”, became the public face of aestheticism, then its resident philosopher was Walter Pater.
The Oxford don, a nervy bachelor and specialist in Renaissance studies, was far from an outgoing aesthete in himself but he became the revered spokesman for aestheticism. The Conclusion to his book of Renaissance essays, published in 1873, was seized on for the ardour with which Pater propounds a philosophy of beauty. Life should be lived for the seizing of the moment. No chance of experiencing exquisite passion should be rejected or passed by. “To burn always with this hard gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”
This was a heady doctrine. No wonder aestheticism had its wilder shores. It so easily transmuted into decadence. It was also prone to extraordinary silliness. As a movement it was wonderfully lampoonable. It gave his material for Patience, the popular musical satire on the aesthetes which opened at the Opéra Comique in London in 1881.
Through his two central characters, Bunthorpe and Grosvenor, Gilbert gently pours scorn on aesthetic language and values and self-conscious languor, the floppiness and droopiness that characterised the craze. The costumes for Patience, which were custom-made by Liberty, derived from the flowing dresses of the maidens in Burne-Jones’s defining aesthetic movement painting The Golden Stairs.
The potential for absurdity in Pater’s definition of aestheticism was grist to the mill of George Du Maurier, whose cartoons for Punch developed a whole gallery of characters in thrall to the culture of sensibility in which “too-too-utterly” were operative words. The gaunt and gushing Mrs Cimabue Brown; the ingratiating poet Jellaby Postlethwaite; the pathetic painter Maudle; the aesthetically aspirational Jack Spratts . . . It was through this cast of characters that many people first got aestheticism’s measure in terms of its follies and pretentiousness. In one of the most brilliant of his Punch cartoons Du Maurier reworks a quip of Wilde’s about how to live up to the beauty of one’s teapot. One can think of design aficionados for whom the dilemma still exists.
At the heart of aestheticism lay the unsolved problem of how to make beauty more generally affordable. This was much debated and became a source of agony to one of the founders of the movement – William Morris – as he realised his influence had actually reached little further than north Oxford. Morris & Co’s main clients were the liberal aesthetic aristocrats and the forward thinking industrial tycoons. It was while working on the decoration of the mansion of the northern ironmaster Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell that Morris was driven to make his famous tactless outburst about “ministering to the swinish luxury of the rich”. He had by then reached crisis point in his hopes for democratic beauty. What is beauty, after all, unless everyone can share it? Final disillusionment with the prospects of art drove Morris into revolutionary socialism.
Did aestheticism lead anywhere? Of course it did. Morris’s total despair was premature. The cult of beauty was certainly destabilised by the Wilde trials of 1895 and his subsequent imprisonment, events which bore out the public’s worst suspicions of the sexual transgressiveness inherent in the movement. But this was really just a temporary blip in the socially progressive British art and design movement that gathered strength in the Arts and Crafts workshops and the garden cities of the early 20th century.
In its essence aestheticism was a movement for reform and the project to infiltrate beauty into everyday life was still very much alive in the Festival of Britain of 1951, when Atlee’s Labour government made a brave attempt to bring art to the people on a giant scale. The quest for beauty inherent in the young Terence Conran’s bid to bring good design to the high street will be clear to those of us who remember Habitat in its earlier, purer incarnation. Now more than ever we have the power and knowledge to make informed choices of the things we want to live with, on aesthetic as well as ethical grounds.