Cranleigh Arts Centre
West Surrey Area
Museums & Art Galleries
and the Aesthetic Movement, and the Cult of Beauty in Art and Design
Report of the lecture given by
Dr Anne Anderson BA PhD FSA
on 26 January 2011
Anne Anderson gave us an exuberant, beautifully illustrated lecture on the topic
of Oscar Wilde and the Aesthetic Movement, and the Cult of Beauty in Art and
Design, which was an updated version of the publicised lecture, entitled "Sunflowers
and Old Blue: Oscar Wilde and the House Beautiful"
Aesthetic Movement believed that art in its various forms should not seek to
convey a moral, sentimental or educational message but should give sensual
pleasure. Their aim was "to exist beautifully": Art for Art's sake.
It ran from about 1860 to 1900.
The friendship and rivalry between
Dante Gabriel Rossetti and James McNeill Whistler, a revulsion against current
Victorian style and the new influence of Oriental design led to the foundation
of the Aesthetic Movement in Britain. Dr Anderson described Rossetti as the
Johnny Depp of his time, and both he and Whistler were flamboyant figures.
Whistler signed his paintings with a butterfly with a sting in the tail which
perfectly described his quarrelsome personality. He was originally a mentor and
close friend of Oscar Wilde, eventually falling out with him at the time of his
trial. Both were renowned for their wit. Oscar Wilde is alleged to have
commented "I wish I had said that" in response to a quip of
Whistler's, to which Whistler replied "You will, Oscar, you will".
Oscar Wilde was the son of Ireland's leading eye surgeon. After going to
university in Dublin he went on to Oxford where he became interested in the
Aesthetic Movement. He left with a double first in Greek and Latin and appeared
on the London scene in the early 1880s with no knowledge of art or published
works to his name, describing himself as a Professor of Aesthetics and an
arbiter of taste. He became an art critic. Ever a great self-publicist, his
appearance on the scene gave the movement a new lease of life. William Powell
Frith's painting of 1881 entitled "Private View at the Royal Academy"
shows a very tall Oscar Wilde surrounded by a group of adoring women. They are
dressed in the flowing draperies of the aesthetes, one of them carrying a
sunflower, which present a striking contrast to the formal styles of the other
women. Sunflowers were seen as representing female longing and hopeless love,
peacock feathers as symbols of eternal life and beauty. Lilies were also
View at the Royal Academy" by William Powell Frith|
Anderson described the women of the movement as wearing long diaphanous clothes,
being very thin and intense with little bosom. Red hair was very much admired.
Jane Morris, William Morris's wife and Rossetti's model, embodied their ideal of
beauty which was very different from the accepted Victorian view of feminine
beauty. The men were "wispy", narcissistic and solipsistic. Long
hair, sage green britches and extravagant jackets were popular and the wearing
of green carnations suggested ambiguous sexuality. They drawled, had curious
catchphrases, and were accused of having bizarre and grotesque taste even when
it came to beauty.
The 1858 Trade Treaty with Japan had opened the West up to Japanese ideas of
abstract ways of looking at nature and Whistler, in particular, was much
influenced by this. In 1875 he painted "Falling Rocket" which Ruskin
described as "throwing a pot of paint in the public's face". Whistler
sued for defamation of character and was awarded a farthing's damage, which he
for ever after wore on his watch chain.
The Grosvenor Gallery opened
to exhibit such avant garde work and was a direct challenge to the more
traditional Royal Academy. "No more than wallpaper" was an expressed
Similar new ideas were being expressed in design, furniture
and fabrics, as demonstrated, for example, by William Morris, William de Morgan
and the architect and designer, E W Godwin. Handmade articles were considered
superior and there was a cult of mediævalism, which later led to the Arts
and Crafts Movement. In 1875 Liberty's opened, creating an outlet for Eastern
artefacts and, influenced by Japanese and Chinese ceramics, blue and white china
became very popular. Whole rooms were designed around blue and white china, one
of which (the Peacock Room) resulted in an appalling row between the designer,
Whistler, and his client who refused to pay him.
aesthetic ethos challenged Victorian thinking and experience and baffled the
general public. George De Maurier published a series of cartoons in Punch in
1879, entitled "Nincompoopiana" ridiculing their ideals and in 1881
Gilbert and Sullivan wrote "Patience" which mocked the pretensions of
the Aesthetic Movement with lightly disguised characters representing Whistler
and Wilde. Royal Worcester then produced the bizarre Patience teapot half of
which represented a female aesthete and the other a male. The publicity
enhanced rather than diminished Oscar Wilde's popularity. As a result, D'Oyly
Carte, the producer of Patience, sent Wilde on an American tour lecturing of
aesthetic and design concepts which he much enjoyed and for which he was paid
He eventually became the editor of "The Woman's World"
doing much to promote the ideas promulgated in "The House Beautiful",
a book written by Clarence Cook in 1871. This proposed that the aim of the
aesthete was to create one's own palace of art and an artistic and superior
environment. It gave what was basically a checklist for what was desirable in
interior design based on such ideas. Oscar Wilde gave up the editorship of "Woman's
World" in 1889 when he began to achieve fame as an author and playwright.
Aubrey Beardsley produced drawings for Wilde's "Salome", which were
considered decadent and shocking, and at his trial in 1895, Wilde carried a
yellow book which was presumed to be a copy of "The Yellow Book" of
which Beardsley was editor. It was actually a French novel but this
misapprehension further alienated public opinion. He was sentenced to two
years' hard labour for gross indecency. When he was released from prison he
went to France and never returned.
The death of Oscar Wilde in 1900
is seen by many as marking the end of the Aesthetic Movement.
The subject of this lecture can be pursued in greater depth in the
Victoria and Albert Museum's forthcoming exhibition entitled: "The Cult of
Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900". It runs from 2 April to 17 July
Members of the Committee talking with Anne Anderson, sporting
topical green carnations(!).