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Charger, William De Morgan, about 1888. Museum no. C.261-1915

Charger, William De Morgan, about 1888. Museum no. C.261-1915

The search for new beauty: 1860s

In the 1860s the new and exciting 'Cult of Beauty' united, for a while at least, romantic bohemians such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti (and his younger Pre-Raphaelite followers William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones), maverick figures such as James McNeill Whistler, then fresh from Paris and full of 'dangerous' French ideas about modern painting, and the 'Olympians' - the painters of grand classical subjects who belonged to the circle of  Frederic Leighton and G.F.Watts. Choosing unconventional models, such as Rossetti's muse Lizzie Siddal or Leighton's sultry favourite 'La Nanna', these painters created entirely new types of female beauty.

Rossetti and his friends were also the first to attempt to realise their imaginative world in the creation of 'artistic' furniture and the decoration of rooms. In this period, artists' houses and their extravagant lifestyles became the object of public fascination and sparked a revolution in the architecture and interior decoration of houses that led to a widespread recognition of the need for beauty in everyday life.

Art for Art's Sake: 1860s-1870s

One of the most important examples of the mutual influence between artist and designer was the collaborative works of  James McNeill Whistler and the architect E.W.Godwin. Godwin designed the painter's studio, The White House, and created some of the most innovative furniture of the day. Characterised equally by elegance and eccentricity, Whistler and Godwin's work drew upon influences as diverse as ancient Greek art and the Japanese prints and other artifacts  just beginning to arrive in Europe.

In the 1870s, the leading Aesthetic artists, Whistler, Leighton, Watts, Albert Moore and Burne-Jones evolved a new kind of self-consciously exquisite painting in which mood, colour harmony and beauty of form were all, and subject played little or no part. The opening of the Grosvenor Gallery (with its famous 'greenery-yallery' walls) in 1877 at last gave the Aesthetic painters a fashionable and glamorous showcase for their much-discussed art. But the decade closed with intense controversy exemplified by the critic John Ruskin's savage attack on Whistler, which prompted the painter's spirited defence of the ideals of 'Art for Art's Sake' in his writings and by the staging of his own exhibitions.

Beautiful people and Aesthetic houses: 1870s-1880s

The immense success of the Grosvenor Gallery signalled the emergence of a new artistic elite whose social prestige offered an unprecedented challenge to the Royal Academy. Aesthetic painting became the fashionable enthusiasm of a circle that was grand, wealthy and intellectual. As well as buying paintings these new patrons were keen to embrace Aesthetic ideals, commissioning  portraits and even adopting the styles of 'artistic' dress.

The rise of Aestheticism in painting was paralleled in the decorative arts by a new and increasingly widespread interest in the decoration of houses. Many of the key avant-garde architects and designers interested themselves not only in working for wealthy clients but also in the reform of design for the middle-class home. The notion of 'The House Beautiful' became a touchstone of cultured life.

Attracted by the growing popularity of Aesthetic taste, many of the leading firms making furniture, ceramics, domestic metalwork and textiles courted artists such as Walter Crane and a growing band of professional designers, most notably Christopher Dresser. Co-inciding with a period of unprecedented expansion of domestic markets, the styles favoured by Aesthetic designers were among the very first to be exploited and disseminated widely through commercial enterprise.

Late-flowering beauty: 1880s-1890s

Oscar Wilde, the first celebrity style-guru, invented a brilliant pose of 'poetic intensity', but initially made his name promoting the idea of 'The House Beautiful'. By the 1880s Britain was in the grip of the 'greenery-yallery' Aesthetic Craze, lovingly satirised by Gilbert and Sullivan in their famous comic opera Patience and by the caricaturist George Du Maurier in the pages of Punch.

In the last decade of  Queen Victoria's reign the Aesthetic Movement entered its final, fascinating Decadent phase, characterised by the extraordinary black-and-white drawings of Aubrey Beardsley in The Yellow Book.

This content was originally written in association with the exhibition 'The Cult of Beauty - The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900', on display at the V&A South Kensington from 2 April - 17 July 2011.

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