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.
Edward Burne-Jones - ‘Ladies and Animals’ Sideboard
Edward Burne-Jones created this piece for his own home. The painted decoration transformed this simple sideboard into a work of art.
Edward Burne-Jones - 'Merchant’s Daughter’
Edward Burne-Jones produced many designs for stained glass but they were mainly for large scale church windows, in contrast to this small panel for a domestic interior.
Julia Margaret Cameron - 'Call, I follow, I follow, let me die!'
This unconventional portrait shows Cameron's parlour maid, Mary Hillier, as the tragic heroine of Arthurian legend. Its title comes from Tennyson's poem Idylls of the King.
Frederick Sandys - 'Proud Maisie'
Sandys often returned to the subject of a woman biting a lock of curling hair.
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.
William Eden Nesfield - Screen
Nesfield inserted panels of Japanese silk paper into an ebonised wooden frame decorated with stylised chrysanthemums and other Japanese motifs.
Lawrence Alma-Tadema - Armchair
This armchair was designed for a 'Greek parlour' and belonged to Henry Gourdon Marquand, the second director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Museum no. W.25:1, 2-1980
Edward William Godwin - Pair of vases with sgraffito decoration
These are the only known examples of three-dimensional ceramics by E.W.Godwin.
Albert Moore - 'An Open Book'
Albert Moore worked out his ideas for a painting by making extensive preparatory studies. This study is for his painting Reading Aloud (1883-4).
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.
Carlo Giuliano - Brooch and hair ornaments
The brooch in this set was probably a gift from the painter William Holman Hunt to his wife Edith.
Albert Moore - Cartoons peacock frieze
The peacock frieze formed part of a decorative scheme designed by the architect George Aitchison for the home of the businessman and musical connoisseur Frederick Lehmann.
Bruce James Talbert - Design for 'The Sunflower' wallpaper
The wallpaper manufacturer Jeffrey & Co. employed Aesthetic designers such as Bruce Talbert to bring 'art' to their products.
Christopher Dresser - Teapot
Christopher Dresser embraced industrial production and new materials. The simple geometric forms of the teapots he designed for James Dixon & Sons were strikingly original.
William Blake Richmond - 'Mrs Luke Ionides'
The Anglo-Greek Ionides family were wealthy merchants and avid collectors of Aesthetic works of art.
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.
Carte de visite of Oscar Wilde. Museum no. PH.889-1956
Alfred Concanen - Sheet-music cover for 'Quite too Utterly Utter'
In the 1880s many popular songs affectionately satirised the figure of the Aesthete.
Aubrey Beardsley - 'Siegfried'
Beardsley considered this to be the finest of his early drawings and he gave it to his mentor Edward Burne-Jones.
Charles Ricketts - Cover design for 'The Sphinx' by Oscar Wilde
Ricketts designed the typography, illustrations and binding for this edition of Oscar Wilde's Aesthetic poem The Sphinx. The binding combines Byzantine and Japanese motifs.
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.