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The Aesthetic Movement
The Victoria & Albert Museum's exhibition of the 'Cult of Beauty' reflects how art spread into everyday life in the Victorian period

What was the aesthetic movement? If we do not know now we certainly will within the next few weeks as the V&A's latest blockbuster exhibition gets into its stride and Londoners are overwhelmed with peacock feathers, lilies, sunflowers and blue and white chinoiserie, symbols of an art movement gorgeous in its detail, shimmering in surface and verging on the decadent. Even for its admirers the aesthetic movement comes to have a rather claustrophobic feel.

The movement started in a small way in the 1860s in the studios and houses of a radical group of artists and designers, including William Morris and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. These were angry young reformers who explored new ways of living in defiance of the horrendous design standards of the age as revealed in the 1851 Great Exhibition.

Over the next two decades aestheticism burgeoned, drawing in architects and craftworkers, poets, critics and philosophers to create a movement dedicated to pure beauty. The aesthetic movement stood in stark and sometimes shocking contrast to the crass materialism of Britain in the 19th century. "Art for art's sake" was its battle cry, a slogan that originated with the French poet Théophile Gautier.

Aestheticism spread with a speed of conspiratorial excitement that reminds one of the radical art movements of the 1960s. Emilia Barrington, biographer of Frederic Leighton, himself a leading aesthete, gives a wonderful definition of the "craze":

Burne-Jones painted it, Kate Vaughan danced it, Maeterlinck wrote it, the "Souls" (rather unsuccessfully) attempted to live it, the humorists caricatured it, the Philistines denounced it as morbid and unwholesome.

There was indeed a conscious gloom to a form of art that revelled in love-sick wistfulness and tormented reveries. It eschewed mid-Victorian heartiness and cheeriness. This was a counter culture. Pickwickian it was not.

First and foremost it was a painter's movement. Aestheticism combated the popular anecdotal, sentimental, morally sententious art of the Victorians. It had its own dedicated showplace, the Grosvenor Gallery in Bond Street, which opened in 1877. The Grosvenor was a sensuous experience in itself with its palatial décor of gilt and inlaid marble and the greenery-yallery silk walls which showed off to maximum advantage the work of its star artists GF Watts, JM Whistler, Albert Moore and especially Edward Burne-Jones.

One of the excitements of the V&A's Cult of Beauty show promises to be the reassembly of many of these then so controversial paintings. The Grosvenor held London's most must-see exhibitions and it became the fashionable talking shop. The gallery's proximity to the Royal Academy polarised opinion about the techniques and purposes of art. It was after the first exhibition at the Grosvenor that Ruskin launched his notorious attack on Whistler, accusing him of asking 200 guineas "for flinging a pot of paint in the public's face". Oscar Wilde chose the occasion of a Grosvenor opening party to make his first sensational appearance in London wearing a custom-designed suit following the contours and colour of a cello. Oh to see a photograph! The aesthetic movement frequently veered over into performance art.

The cult of beauty expanded way beyond the gallery. One of the main tenets of aestheticism was that art was not confined to painting and sculpture and the false values of the art market. Potential for art is everywhere around us, in our homes and public buildings, in the detail of the way we choose to live our lives. Art had to do with architecture. The new Queen Anne style is visible to anyone who walks around the areas of London that were the main enclaves of the aesthetic movement: Bedford Park, Holland Park, Cadogan Gardens and Queen's Gate. Red brick, demure and pleasing: this was the architecture of the children's story book.

The relatively plain Queen Anne houses of the period opened out into often breathtaking interiors. The aesthetic movement was lifestyle with a vengeance. It was Rossetti in his beautiful tenebrous house in Cheyne Walk, furnished with an eclectic mix of old and new and an ever-changing entourage of rather mangy animals, who invented the style later known as shabby chic. Following his lead, art became self-definition. Your choice of paintings, objects and interior decoration told people who you were and indeed who you were not.

The most marvellous example of aesthetic movement interior decoration was Whistler's Peacock Room designed for the wealthy (and famously unpleasant) shipping tycoon Frederick Leyland. The large scale frieze of stylised peacocks, gold on turquoise blue, wound around the walls of the dining room in Leyland's palatial house in Prince's Gate, giving his guests something sensational to look at while they ate. These days you have to travel to the States to see this masterpiece which, after Leyland's death, was sold to the American collector Charles Freer and is now installed in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington.

For the full article

The Guardian