Features Book Reviews Published 7 May 2011

The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900

Companion volume to the V&A’s current exhibition.

Natasha Tripney

Art for art’s sake, the aesthete’s credo, is a translation of the French ‘L’Arte pour l’arte’. The English form lacks the same sweeping, all consuming connotations, something that could be argued about the English Aesthetic Movement as a whole, certainly when viewed through the filter of the V&A’s current exhibition, of which this book is the companion volume.

These mid to late Victorian aesthetes believed that art should serve no moral or narrative purpose. Art’s only concern should be beauty. And beauty, by turns, should be something deeper than just a visual condition: a code to live by, something one breathed, like air. One didn’t just surround oneself by beautiful things, one aimed to live beautifully – though the things, of course, helped in this regard. For most, the things were – well – the thing.

This shift in tastes was, in part, a reaction against the Great Exhibition of 1951, with its emphasis very firmly on solidity and practicality in British manufacturing, though there had already been a noticeable drift towards the delicate and the ethereal in the art world in the work of the Pre-Raphaelites.

Walter Pater would later give aestheticism a voice, articulating its beliefs in the conclusion to his work on The Renaissance and advocating sensuousness in all aspects of life (views he would later be obliged to recant), and Oscar Wilde would become one of its most prominent espousers, his visibility also making him the subject of parody and lampoonery – sometimes deserved, sometimes encouraged – though it seems the protagonist of Patience, Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1881 satire of the movement, was more likely to have been modelled, at least in part, on Swinburne.

The role of the Grosvenor Gallery, explored here in an essay by Barbara Bryant, was particularly significant. The relationship between both patron and artist and artist and spectator was evolving. The environment in which a work of art was displayed was becoming as important as the work of art itself and artists, Whistler among their number, were charged with the design of the homes of wealthy patrons and collectors. The Grosvenor Gallery, founded by Sir Coutts Lindsay and opened in 1877, magnified this attention on surroundings and the way in which work was displayed.  Wilde described the gallery’s interior as having “walls hung with scarlet damask above a dado of dull green and gold; there are luxurious velvet couches, beautiful flowers and plants, tables of gilded and inlaid marbles, covered with Japanese china and the latest ‘Minton,’ globes of ‘rainbow glass’ like large soap-bubbles, and, in fine, everything in decoration that is lovely to look on, and in harmony with the surrounding works of art.”

In a way that was then novel, the works of a particular artist were grouped together, removing the need, as Wilde pointed out, to “struggle through an endless monotony of mediocre works.” The opening exhibition showcased work by G.F Watts (including a large portrait of Lindsay’s wife, Blanche, playing the violin), Burne-Jones and the ‘dark master’, Whistler.

The blurring of the lines between art and its surroundings was something that characterised the movement. Though the Aesthetic Movement touched both the stage and page and, to lesser extent, architecture, the aesthetes were most concerned with matters interior: with furniture, ceramics, textiles, wallpaper, ornaments and the blue-and-white china so adored at the time. Peacock feathers predominated and sunflowers were worshipped and displayed like a badge of belonging.

The movement bloomed in South Kensington and Chelsea, areas of London that were still emerging and not yet part of the city’s vast homogenising sprawl. Lord Leighton’s glorious Holland Park home with its Moorish chamber, dazzling peacock blue hallway and silk-lined walls remains a temple to this particular idea of the beautiful.

Though the exhibition is entitled ‘The Cult of Beauty’ it might just as well be entitled ‘The Cult of Stuff,’ for this is a definition of beauty that’s stuffed with stuff. One could never have enough things. (It is telling that Leighton’s own room, his sole private space in a house designed for display, is almost monastic in its simplicity). They also had to be the right things. This was an age when the popularity of the household manual exploded; never before was there quite so much advice on how to decorate one’s home. Among them was Charles Eastlake’s Hints on Household Taste which scolded women for their aesthetic lapses and urged them to do better. And women were not just under pressure to make their homes beautiful, but also themselves. The dominant view of female beauty was one of delicacy and youth; she was to be girlish but still sensual. This was also an age that encouraged the idea of woman as ornament, woman as a component of a visually pleasing backdrop (as they are in Albert Moore’s painting, Reading Aloud).

The period spanned by the V&A’s exhibition – and made digestible here by division into seven thematic sections – concludes at the turn of the century though the movement’s influences lingered. It cemented the idea of the aesthete as a ‘type’. Allan Monkhouse’s 1911 play, Mary Broome, recently revived by the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, features a rather Wildean young man who is much concerned with surface and sensation, less so with the emotional fallout of his actions. And, while knee-breeches and sunflowers are no longer flaunted, characters like the Crane brothers in Frasier are modern incarnations of this particular type.

Christopher Breward’s essay, ‘Aestheticism in the Marketplace’, also posits the idea that the Aesthetic Movement sowed the seeds for what we now think of as ‘lifestyle’, the idea that things we surround ourselves with must express our inner nature, the beginning of a pernicious Sunday supplement culture. But what lingers longest is this idea of the fluid, evasive nature of beauty. Some of these objects remain truly striking, appealing to the senses, attractive to modern eyes, while others speak only of fuss and clutter.

The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 is at the V&A from 2nd April until 17th July.

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Natasha Tripney

Natasha co-founded Exeunt in 2011 and was editor until 2016. She's now lead critic and reviews editor for The Stage, and has written about theatre and the arts for the Guardian, Time Out, the Independent, Lonely Planet and Tortoise.

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