The first major exhibition dedicated to Aestheticism highlights the spectacular work produced by the artists, designers and architects of the late 19th-century, including James McNeill Whistler, William Morris and Thomas Jeckyll.
Lead curator Stephen Calloway and other experts lead us through 'A world of beauty, flamboyance and faint danger ...' via the work of Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Oscar Wilde.
Stephen Calloway: The way in which the aesthetic movement emerged is really fascinating and complicated. You have to think back to the Great Exhibition in 1851 and a lot of people at that time felt that what was on show there was somehow ugly and meretricious. A lot of goods made by machinery. Artists somehow felt that beauty had got lost.
The prime movers in the aesthetic movement are artists, poets and designers. We’re thinking about people like Dante Gabriel Rossetti who’d been one of the pre-Raphaelites, but who by the 1860s had moved on exploring, looking for a new kind of beauty. Painters like Lord Leighton with his grandiose ideas of classical imagery.
Daniel Robbins: Leighton was born in 1830 and he rose to become the President of the Royal Academy and probably the most eminent artist of his day. He lived here for 30 years. He started building in the mid-1860s and he was still working on it almost at the time of his death. So what started off as a quite a modest house, became what was described as a private palace of art. I suppose what is also so noticeable about it as a piece of architecture is that it draws its influences from such a wide range of sources, so it’s partly Italian Renaissance, partly the architecture of the near east. So it was a very eclectic set of sources, but brought together as this one artistic or aesthetic statement.
Stephen Calloway: The key thing about the aesthetic movement is that it didn’t just present a single picture on one hand, a single piece of furniture. The key to it was the way in which things were brought together. The assembling of the complete room with all its decorative elements, all the beautiful objects in it became an expression of taste and of cultivation. And we still have that, I think, as a basis of how we live.
Another fascinating thing about the aesthetic movement is the way it develops over the few decades from the 1860s. From the first group of friends it extends out to include painters like Burne-Jones, but other figures come in like Oscar Wilde.
Christopher Breward: Oscar Wilde was really the pin-up boy for the aesthetic movement. He was an Oxford undergraduate at the time that aesthetic ideas were starting to infiltrate public consciousness. And he immediately turned himself into the celebrity who was associated with aesthetic ideas. And I think that all that early experimentation in the 1860s and 70s with aesthetic ideals allowed Oscar Wilde to become the man who’s so celebrated and so famous and infamous today.
Stephen Calloway: I think one of the intriguing things is that the aesthetic movement actually looked back to the art of the past and particularly, perhaps, to Renaissance painting where manly beauty was every bit as important as female beauty. It had this extraordinary effect of creating a new kind of fashion in which the peacock male could dress flamboyantly.
Christopher Breward: I think people argue about what the characteristics of a dandy are. It’s about an attitude towards life that’s based on an understanding of elegance. So the way that you behave, the way you appear to others becomes much more important that what you actually do. I think men involved in the aesthetic movement who tended to be artists or people associated with the artistic life, the way they dressed was sort of a badge of belonging, belonging to the aesthetic gang. So it was a very Bohemian way of dressing.
Stephen Calloway: One of the fascinating things is the way in which painters had an enormous effect, as it were, not just on their art, but on the way people looked because people wanted to look like the pictures. Painters like Leighton particularly and Rossetti especially sought out models of very unconventional beauty. So Rossetti’s early paintings of Elizabeth Siddal, for example, with her very pale skin but red hair was an extraordinary choice at that time. She would have been considered not just not beautiful, she would have been considered possibly even ugly by the standards of the day. It’s the power of art which transforms the look.
Judith Watt: The history of red hair for both men and women is complex, but really the change in attitude towards them came about with the pre-Raphaelite movement. Who was very important in that was Elizabeth Siddal – really erroneously called the first supermodel, but she was certainly the first in Britain famous artist model at a time when their role was ambiguous. By the time we begin the 20th century, the idea of red hair as being beautiful and socially and morally acceptable is established. That really begins with Rossetti and Elizabeth Siddal.
Stephen Calloway: I think that in fact actually many of the ideas and styles continued with some degree of popularity probably up until the First World War.
Christopher Breward: As the 20th moves on after the Second World War, we get a re-emergence of ideas of peacock dressing in the 1960s when men, again young men, feel comfortable with their sexuality, with expressing their identity through flamboyant clothes. So it’s almost 100 years later that we get a new interest in the aesthetic movement and that’s reflected in new ways of dressing.
Stephen Calloway: In a much more broad way, it’s really intriguing that the ideas of the aesthetic movement, the idea that art is of great importance, the idea that art should be, as it were, severed from notions of morality, that pictures don’t have to preach or tell stories, is actually fundamental to the whole development of the 20th century and remains with us today. The aesthetic movement gave us an absolute lasting legacy of suggesting the primacy of art, the importance of art in everyday life. This notion that beauty should inform everything we do, all the ways in which we live, is absolutely crucial. You can say effectively that the aesthetic movement was the first lifestyle revolution.