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Oscar Wilde
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

Dr 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"

The 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 popular.

"Private View at the Royal Academy" by William Powell Frith

Dr 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 view.

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.

The 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 $6,000.

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.

In 1894, 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 2011.

Ann Brookes

Members of the Committee talking with Anne Anderson, sporting topical green carnations(!).