The Aesthetic Movement – England’s Beautiful Cult of its Own

Flaming June Crop

2006AL4883The Aesthetic Movement during the last half of the nineteenth century in England would become enormously influential. It drove a whole generation forward to create a new kind of art, one that filled the next half century with both beautiful, and thought provoking works.

At this time it became an irrefutable ideal. It was all about helping to find a way out of industrial ugliness back to the bounties of a golden age.

While the movement itself is defined by scholars as having only spanned forty years, it inspired and motivated many of them to imagine the future. All the works of Frederick Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton (1830-1896) works displayed the brilliance of his technique and the depth of his intellectual sophistication.


Flaming June is the personification of beauty itself and Frederick Leighton helped make the aesthetic movement in England a beautiful cult of its own.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways’ prominent poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) wrote in her now famous ‘Sonnets of the Portuguese’ first published in 1850.

In 1861 Frederick Leighton designed Elizabeth’s tomb for her grieving husband, fellow poet Robert Browning. It is in the English Cemetery at Florence.

Leighton imagined a scene of classical world of order and plenty one that was designed to evoke a sense of beauty rather than just representing stories or events pictorially or sculpturally.

This is the period when the Pre-Raphealite Brotherhood was formed and talented painters such as Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti defined what beauty was, at least poetically on a canvas.

They may not have been aesthetes themselves, but they were at the movement’s heart and soul.

The spectacular Arab Hall at Leighton’s House, now a Museum

At London in Leighton House, now a Museum reopened in April 2010 after a £1.6 million refurbishment, is a stunning hall featuring Leighton’s collection of beautiful sixteenth and seventeenth century ceramic tiles brought back from Damascus in Syria.

It is an extraordinary evocation of the Arab world sited in the midst of London. The interior is exotic on a grand scale. It is without doubt an amazing place with its oriental designs by George Aitchison, who turned it into a palace devoted to art.

Ceramic artist William de Morgan (1839-1917) also produced exotic peacock blue tiles for its other richly decorated interiors.

de Morgan was a lifelong friend of designer William Morris (1834 – 1896), who was also a social activist. Morgan made his tiles for Morris & Co from 1863-1872, based on medieval designs or designs inspired by the Ottoman court.

Morris led the ideas and insights that inspired the Arts and Crafts movement. His designs celebrated chivalry at a time when knights on horseback were meant to rescue damsels in distress.

2006AL4883Along the way he defined what a beautiful house should be, producing the designs for all the paraphernalia required to fill it.

Morris said “The past is not dead, it is living in us, and will be alive in the future, which we are now helping to make”

Walter Crane was one of the artists who contributed work to ‘the Firm’ as Morris company became known.

His designs also combined use and beauty, with an aim of fostering and maintaining high standards of design and craftsmanship’.

The promotion of this new ‘aesthetic’ was taken up in America by the magazine The House Beautiful released in 1881. Walter Crane illustrated his idea of what the Aesthetic Interior should look.

In an artists hands the design style becomes clearly defined. It does not suffer from any of the confusion of the high Victorian style and Crane’s influence was considerable.

The room shows the perfect new hostess, dressed in the latest mode, preparing tea.

The chair on the right is similar to designs by Morris, the use of blue and white avidly admired. The mantelpiece and its decorative elements are symmetrical although the fans placed each side of it show the influence of another east, that of the Far East at Japan.

William Morris and his team of arts and crafts workers left lasting impressions with those defining just what a modern movement meant well into the twentieth century.

Beauty and innovation were important aspects of La Belle Époque, the so-called beautiful era, that period in Europe from c1890 to 1914 when France and its European neighbours were at peace.

It was also a time of great political and social contrasts.

At Paris the Cabaret and Can Can thrived and the term ‘Impressionism’ was given to a new style of painting whose deft brushstrokes amd lively colors emphasised light in all its changing qualities.


Afternoon dress (c. 1884) WORTH, Paris (couture house) Jean-Philippe WORTH (designer), silk (satin, cut velvet), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne The Dominique Sirop Collection. Purchased with funds donated by Mrs Krystyna Campbell-Pretty in memory of Mr Harold Campbell-Pretty, 2015 courtesy National Gallery of Victoria

Women of the era at Paris and London just loved Charles Frederic Worth (1826-1895) now considered the father of Haute Couture.

He was English born, not French, although he dominated the Parisian fashion in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Worth created a demand for luxury textiles and fashionable frocks that reached levels of demand not experienced since before the French Revolution (1789–99).

His was a meticulous fit that shaped the future of fashion.

Revolutionizing dressmaking practice single handedly, instead of letting the client tell him what to make Worth displayed his own model dresses at his own fashion shows and turned dressmaking into an art form.

Aubrey Beardsley on beauty – Isolde

The Aesthetic Movement in England had two darlings of society.

The first drew delicately at night by candlelight. Aubrey Beardsley (1872-1898) was for only a brief period, a hero of artificiality icily rejecting anything natural and striving for ultimate self-portrayal and originality in his drawings for books plays and articles.

He heightened the passion for erotic exoticism, especially the naughty niceness of his illustrations for The Yellow Book published in London between 1894 and 1897 as a quarterly periodical.

This was an age when rigid hierarchical patterns were imposed and the concept of choosing who your partner would be, gender wise, was not an option.

In that regard Beardsley was the same as his friend, the second darling and main poster boy of the moment, and for the movement, poet, writer and all time literary genius, Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (1854-1900) .


Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde (16 October 1854 – 30 November 1900)…I have nothing to declare but my genius…

William Morris had said “it took me years to understand that words are often as important as experience, because words make experience last” and, in Wilde’s case they did.

A poet in his youth, Oscar Wilde combined cleverness with creativity and a razor sharp wit that still leaves us breathless.

Oscar Wilde’s brilliant career went from poetry to prose, to drama and then on to prison.

And all men kill the thing they love,
By all let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word,
The coward does it with a kiss,
The brave man with a sword….The Ballad of Reading Gaol

While Oscar Wilde may not have been forgiven by many, he has not been forgotten. The wisdom and wit of his wonderful words still resound loudly wherever they spoken in theatres of art around the world more than a century later.

Wilde may not have walked down Piccadilly with a lily in his hand as he was often accused of, but he certainly did create an atmosphere in which many people thrived.

He said in the preface to the Picture of Dorian Gray…the artist is the creator of beautiful things. To reveal art and conceal the artist is art’s aim. All art is at once, surface and symbol.

Whistler's-Mother‘Art for Art’s sake’ was the credo of American born British based artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) . He brought his mother into the equation while she was living with him at London.

Paraded and parodied for generations, she finally appeared on a postage stamp in 1934 ‘In Memory and In Honor of the Mothers of America’ .

Today she has become an icon in the USA standing up for family values and urging and winning respect for parenting.

Statue of the messenger of the Greek Gods, Hermes (Hermes Logios – Orator) held in the Ludovisi Collection of the Palazzo Altemps (National Museum of Rome), Rome, Italy.

Whistler also became renowned for his cutting edge comments, especially when in conversation with fellow wit Oscar Wilde.

A friend of impressionist painter Claude Monet, Whistler, along with Wilde were both well known in the café society at Paris.

Wilde once responded to a remark Whistler made at a dinner party saying “I Wish I’d said that” to which Whistler bit back “You will Oscar, you will”.

In 1895 when Wilde publicly acknowledged his homosexuality, Whistler the maverick disappointed by mocking him openly.

Self Portrait with Gladioli, 1922, George Lambert, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

Self Portrait with Gladioli, 1922, George Lambert, National Portrait Gallery, Canberra

Australian painter George Lambert (1873-1930) picked up on the tenets of The Aesthetic Movement even though its era had passed, in a striking self portrait, which was the frontispiece for The Art of George W. Lambert published in 1924.

He recorded himself quite arrogantly, posing in his velvet dressing gown, not as a lily, but as a whole bunch of gladioli. It was an outrageous statement at the time, a courageous image and its careful self analysis still astounds today.

The pose he is striking may be a witty comment that he is aping the god of eloquence, the precious boy who became Hermes Logios, (orator), the messenger of the Gods, who bridged boundaries.

Lambert stands with one arm raised, as if speaking to the reporter of the Sydney Mail who reported on 13 September 1922 that Lambert scorned reference to ‘artistic genius’ preferring ‘to be told by a critic that he had “done his job well,” as one might address a bricklayer’.

edna-everageHis much celebrated creative conceit was also picked up on oh so gloriously another generation later by Australia’s Dame Edna Everage (comedian Barry Humphries), reflecting how they both ranked delightfully ‘as apostles in the high aesthetic band’.

Beauty and spirituality exploded onto the world with heightened glory with William Blake’s beautiful words that had been neglected for nearly until the publication of his biography in 1863.

His preface to his epic poem about seventeenth century poet John Milton was a patriotic anthology, written and illustrated between 1804 and 1810.

When the words were combined with beautiful music composed by Sir Hubert Parry in 1916, it brought a nation together to win World War I (1914-1918) returning western civilisation to a period of peace, that only lasted for a generation.


Rupert Bunny: Dame Nellie Melba

…I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green and pleasant Land

During its highpoint The Aesthetic Movement brought forth significant sounds that evoked special memories or helped make new ones. The soaring sounds of opera, its words and melodies inspired nations.

Composed by Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi (1813-1901) or Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) they were interpreted by such great singers as tenor Enrico Caruso (1873-1921) who sang to great acclaim at the major opera houses of Europe and North and South America and, Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931) who enjoyed ‘super star’ status, establishing herself as Covent Garden’s prima donna and ‘Queen of Song’.

Then there was musical theatre designed for laughter. The partnership of operetta composer and lyricist, Gilbert and Sullivan (G & S), brought forth memorable melodies and wonderous words. G & S became the two high priests of the fashionable set with their running commentary on society and its fancies, follies and foibles.

…Though the Philistines may jostle, you will rank as an apostle in the high aesthetic band, If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your mediaeval hand. And every one will say, As you walk your flowery way, ‘If he’s content with a vegetable love which would certainly not suit me, Why, what a most particularly pure young man this pure young man must be!’ (Patience)

As Mike Leigh, British writer and director revealed in “Topsy-Turvy (1999) the world of G & S was one in which ‘fairies rub elbows with British lords, flirting is a capital offence, gondoliers ascend to the monarchy, and pirates turn out to be noblemen gone wrong’

Anyone for Tea - completely wonderful Aesthetic Teapot

Living up to One’s Teapot – probably the most famous figural teapot is the “Aesthetic” movement teapot made in 1882. The clever, two-sided pot depicts a man on one side, a woman on the other.

Ultimately The Aesthetic Movement, and its love of beauty and exoticism in the middle and far east, led on to the classic and streamlined movement now known as Art Deco. It sought to bring back a period of fleeting beauty between the two world wars.

Gold Masks of Psusennes 1 and Tutankhamun

Gold Masks of Psusennes 1 and Tutankhamun

This is when discoveries such as the glorious golden treasures in the tomb of the Pharoah Psusennes 1 and of the boy King Tutankhamun celebrated being civilised.

If you are going to Egypt to find the source of such beauty then you must be sure that you pack your fabulous aesthetic teapot to go.

Then you can enjoy some of your favourite blend from Fortnum and Mason’s famous tea department on the way. The design of this much desired collectible, was inspired by the Gilbert and Sullivan’s delightful operetta Patience.


Albert Moore, “Midsummer,” 1887, Oil on canvas, Russell-Cotes Art Gallery & Museum, Bournemouth.Courtesy of Mitsubishi Ichigokan Museum, and Windam Inc., Tokyo, Japan

It satirized the aesthetic movement generally and, all of its protagonists in particular. Then there are those delightful ditties from at the Drop of a Hat by Flanders and Swann you can listen to on your iPod. Inspired by all those who came after our celebrity aesthetes, these were all about design for beautiful living.

…it’s fearfully Maison – Jardin at number 7B.
We’ve rediscovered the chandelier:
Très, très very contemporary.
We’re terribly House & Garden though at last we’ve got the chance.
The garden’s full of furniture and the house is full of plants.
It doesn’t make for comfort but it simply has to be
‘Cos we’re ever so terrible up-to-date, contempo-rar-ary

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011 – 2014

*Khalil Gibran

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