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13 November 2020Oscar Wilde and the Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement
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Oscar Wilde and the Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement Dr Anne Anderson Friday 13 November 2020

The Cult of Beauty dominated the second half of the 19th century, which was for some akin to a religion.  The priesthood originally consisted of John Ruskin, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris and Walter Pater but by 1880 its leading spokesperson was Oscar Wilde.  As self-appointed Professor of Aestheticism Oscar became an important tastemaker.  Oscar made his debut, as an art critic, in 1877, with his review of the Grosvenor Gallery.  His downfall came in 1895, when not only Oscar but also Art itself was put on trial and found to be morally corrupting.  Oscar was blamed for leading astray the youth of his day, for turning young men into effeminate fops and young women into emancipated viragos!   The Aesthetic male was too concerned with his china, carpets and curtains, while the High Art Maiden was too caught up in the pursuit of art to worry about a husband or children.  The Aesthetic movement encouraged everybody to consider themselves as artists, even if it was only in terms of personal dress and home decorating.  Homes were transformed into Palaces of Art, while shopping, at Liberty’s of Regent Street and Morris and Co., was raised to an art form in its own right.  


Gilbert and Sullivan’s Patience, with its rival egotistic poets and train of lovesick maiden, sent up the whole fashion for lilies, sunflowers, peacock feathers and Old Blue china. Oscar’s posing and pretensions, claiming he found it hard to ‘live up’ to his Blue china, brought condemnation and accusations of being a sham.  Ridiculing the Aesthetes proved easy and lucrative for George du Maurier and Gilbert and Sullivan; Oscar was despatched to the USA to explain the jokes in Patience (1881).  On his return he made money lecturing on his experiences in America; he married and settled in Tite Street, Chelsea.  He had yet to write anything of real significance; the late 1880s saw him editing The Woman’s World.  But the 1890s saw the publication of his only novel, Dorian Gray and the stage plays that have secured his posthumous fame as a writer. Just as success was in his grasp, nemesis appeared in the form of the Marquis of Queensbury.  Oscar was dammed but his downfall signalled not just a condemnation of his sexual licence; it also found Art guilty of moral corruption.    


The lasting legacy of the Cult of Beauty was the concept of the House Beautiful, the idea that an interior could be a work of art and that it could express personal tastes.  In effect the drawing room became a battlefield in the war of Good and Bad taste; moreover as ‘taste’ expressed the creator’s individuality, the homemaker found themselves measured, and often found wanting.  They turned to professionals for help, especially home decorating manuals penned by architects and ‘lady experts’. Above all artists were deemed to be the foremost tastemakers. Until his death in 1896, Lord Leighton ruled the roost as President of the Royal Academy.  He headed an elite group of Victorian painters who colonised Holland Park- George Frederick Watts, Luke Fildes, Marcus Stone, William Burges, Hamo Thorneycroft and Valentine Prinsep.  On the fringe of this clique lived Linley Sambourne, the Punch cartoonist, who did his best to keep up with the ‘Burne-Joneses’!  In St John’s Wood, Lawrence Alma Tadema and J.J. Tissot lived in exquisite surroundings.  The studio-houses created by these tastemakers set the standard of the day.


‘Let us Live Up to It!’, Oscar Wilde’s most famous aphorism, was directed towards a blue-and-white teapot in Du Maurier’s famous Punch cartoon.  The butt of the joke was chinamania, the passion for collecting china and pottery.  Blue-and-white was the collectable, from cheap and cheerful Old Willow to rare and expensive Chinese Ming but what made blue-and-white so desirable?  Was it because Rossetti and Whistler had collected it since the 1860s or because it went with sage green walls, sunflowers and peacock feathers?  Whatever the case you needed lots of Old Blue to be cool in the1880s!



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