The Aesthetic Movement used sensual, exotic art and interior design to declare its opposition to vulgar materialism. Now a new V&A show examines this revolution in our ideal of beauty. Martin Gayford reports.
By Martin Gayford
As Oscar Wilde lay dying in 1900 in Paris at the dingy Hôtel d’Alsace, his eye fell on the ghastly wallpaper in his room. Then he is supposed to have muttered: “One of us two must go”. Whether true or not, it is a poignant joke, and a plausible one, because Wilde belonged to a world in which such things as wallpaper mattered intensely.
He had made his name in 1882, on a lecture tour of the United States in which he may or may not have remarked at customs that he had nothing to declare but his genius, but he certainly travelled through the US giving lectures on such subjects as “The House Beautiful” and “The Decorative Arts”.
Wilde was both famous and infamous as an “aesthete”. That is, he was one of the public faces of the cultural and artistic revolution that is the subject of a major exhibition at the V&A this spring The Cult of Beauty: the Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900. This was a moment in history at which art and interior design were strangely entangled with questions of morality, sexuality and personal liberation. The patterns on your walls said a lot about you.
Interior design obviously divided people in late 19th-century Britain, but it did so partly because – like long hair in the Sixties – it was a symbol of something else. Aestheticism was a revolt in which the symbols of mutiny were strangely pacific: poetry, oriental china, and lilies among them, but it was a revolt none the less.
What it was reacting against is suggested by a famous passage in Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times (1854). A pupil at Mr Gradgrind’s school in Coketown, Cecilia Jupe, is asked whether she would carpet a room. “Would you use a carpet having a representation of flowers upon it?” Cecilia, who stands for imagination and hope, says she would: “If you please, sir, I am very fond of flowers.”
Even though, was the response, people would walk over them with heavy boots? Yes, she replies: “They would be the pictures of what was very pretty and pleasant, and I would fancy…”
“Ay, ay, ay! But you mustn’t fancy,” came the reply from Gradgrind. “Fact, fact, fact!” was all that was required.
Mid-19th-century Britain was a place that was experiencing very rapid urbanisation, industrialisation and – for some – a rapid increase in wealth and comfort. With that new wealth came brashness, arrogance and – in the eyes of some – utter lack of taste. As Stephen Calloway, curator of the exhibition, puts it, the Aesthetic Movement expressed “the desire to escape the ugliness and increasingly vulgar materialism of the age and create a new ideal of beauty”.
Beauty – in wallpaper, painting, architecture, textiles, poems – was the keynote. William Morris and his friends began to design furniture and fittings in a romantically medieval style. Soon this developed into a novel decorative style emphasising natural patterns and richly harmonious colour.
The houses of artists such as Morris, Frederick Leighton and Whistler became works of art in themselves. At Oxford in the mid-1870s Wilde decorated his room with peacock feathers and oriental porcelain, claiming, “I find it harder and harder every day to live up to my blue china.” There he came under the influence of Walter Pater (1839-94), a fellow at Brasenose who was one of the ideological fountainheads of Aestheticism.
Pater’s The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry was, Wilde noted, a “book that has had such a strange influence over my life”. Ostensibly about 15th and 16th-century Italian painting, this famous work contained some celebrated remarks on how to live. Existence was short; the point was to enjoy it with maximum intensity. “To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.” A sign of Pater’s membership of the Aesthetic Movement was the Morris wallpaper on the walls of his house.
Pater was denounced by the Bishop of Oxford and hauled before the university authorities, who suspected – rightly – that this kind of talk would have an affect on the young. Burning with a “hard, gemlike flame” sounded suspiciously like a recipe for ignoring conventional morality and existing for the sensation of the moment. It was a 19th-century equivalent to Timothy Leary’s celebrated formula “Turn on, tune in, drop out” (it is no accident that the Sixties counterculture was obsessed with the final phase of Aestheticism, namely decadence).
The young aesthetes were enthusiastic about Edward Fitzgerald’s translation of the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (1859), especially the stanza that runs: “A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,/A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread — and Thou/Beside me singing in the Wilderness —/Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!” That sounds very much like a call to drop out and forget about Victorian industry, enterprise and morality, let alone Mr Gradgrind’s “facts, facts, facts”.
The leading poet of the movement was Algernon Charles Swinburne (1839-1909), whose Poems and Ballads (1866) caused a huge sensation because of the sexuality of some of the contents. Swinburne was considered the leader of “The Fleshly School” of poetry (with Rossetti another member). Naturally, this attitude was not only scandalous but also highly fashionable. In Gilbert & Sullivan’s Patience (1881), the poet Bunthorne is partly based on Swinburne. He and another poet, Grosvenor, declaim their works to an adoring audience of women.
Two military men, out of favour, complain, “It’s quite clear that our only chance of making a lasting impression on these young ladies is to become as Aesthetic as they are.” They try some “medieval” poses: “By hook and crook you try to look both angular and flat.”
Swinburne took his cue from the French poet Baudelaire, who extolled sex and drugs (rock and roll not having yet been invented). The Parisian doctrine of L’art pour l’art, translated into English as “Art for Art’s Sake”, was the slogan of the Aesthetic avant-garde. In painting, for example, it meant leaving behind the old-fashioned belief that art should contain some religious truth or improving moral message.
As far as an artist such as Whistler was concerned, it was all about form and colour. It was not even about the careful imitation of nature. To ask a painter to copy nature as it is, he thought “is to say to the player, that he may sit upon the piano”. The point was to make a harmonious or melodic arrangement on the canvas. Pater had suggested that “all art aspires to the condition of music”; Whistler accordingly gave his works musical titles: Symphony in White, Harmony in Blue and Gold.
The Aesthetic movement was, in part, a development towards abstraction and what became modern art. Paradoxically, however, it also led to a shopping opportunity. In about 1865, Lady Temple Mount’s house was decorated in what she regarded as charming French wallpaper, until poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti came to dinner.
“Instead of admiring my room and decorations, as I expected,’’ she recalled, “he evidently could hardly sit at ease with them.” She asked him to advise her on how to improve things. He replied, “Begin by burning everything you have got.” Soon her house was redone, with William Morris’s wallpapers in the hall. After that, ”all our candid relations and friends intimated that they thought we had made our pretty little house hideous.’’
But probably her circle soon changed their minds. The later 19th century was a golden age of style manuals, beginning with Charles Eastlake’s Hints on Household Taste in Furniture, Upholstery and Other Details (1866). A stream of books on interior decoration appeared, advocating – in the title of one of Wilde’s lectures – ”The House Beautiful’’.
This was the first age of designer chic. E W Godwin – the architect of Whistler’s White House and the interiors of Wilde’s home on Tite Street, Chelsea – also designed wallpaper and textiles. He became consultant to Liberty’s dress department. In Italy, what we call art nouveau is dubbed lo Stile Liberty, which is a tribute to the kudos of that shop.
The Aesthetic movement remains influential. In 1880 William Morris advised, “have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”. We may not keep to that, but we are still buying Morris wallpaper.
Reader offer: save at Liberty, flagship store of Aestheticism
In 1874, Arthur Lasenby Liberty took on the lease of half a shop at 218a Regent Street in London. Liberty’s specialised in ornaments, homewares and fabrics for dresses and furnishings, many designed by leading lights of the Aesthetic Movement. In 1887 Arthur Silver devised this stunning peacock-feather motif, known as Hera after the Greek goddess of women. It remains one of the most enduring images of the period, and a bestseller at Liberty. For the duration of the V&A show, Liberty has displays and promotions of merchandise inspired by the Aesthetic Movement, and Telegraph readers can benefit from a discount of £30. Just present the coupon on p3 of today’s Review, which details the full terms and conditions.