‘I feel an irresistible desire to wander, and go to Japan, where I will pass my youth, sitting under an almond tree, drinking amber tea out of a blue cup, and looking at a landscape without perspective’
Letter from Oscar Wilde, 1882
Originating from the Greek, aesthetics is the name which has been given since classical times to the study of beauty and the nature of the beautiful. In the second half of the nineteenth century, fuelled by the writings of Walter Pater and Baudelaire and the art of the Pre-Raphaelites, British poets, painters, designers and architects began to turn to aesthetic concerns and to place more emphasis on ornament and the past. The result was the Aesthetic Movement and a new freedom in all aspects of the fine and decorative arts. In architecture, the dogmatism of gothic gave way to the charm of the Queen Anne. In interiors, heavy Victorian forms were replaced by the lighter, fresher Japanese-inspired shapes and in the graphic arts, innovative methods, coupled with anew approach to form led to the revitalisation of illustration and book design.
Believing beauty should permeate every sphere of life, the Aesthetes’ rallying cry was ‘Art for Art’s sake’. Oscar Wilde, one of the movements most characteristic and charismatic members, was heard to complain about the difficulty of ‘living up to one’s blue and white china’ and his flamboyant dress and lifestyle made him one of the most widely known figures of the late nineteenth century. Together with James McNeill Whistler, Aubrey Beardsley and a host of other colourful figures, Wilde felt very strongly about the elegance and richness and it was this very coherence of philosophy that held the Aesthetic Movement together and gave it lasting influence. From the languid figures of Rossetti to the sunflowers of Wilde and the flamboyance of Ellen Terry, Aesthetic motifs cannot be easily forgotten.
An era of lofty concerns, this was also a time when the cult of ‘higher silliness’ was indulged, when the sunflower and the lily and the peacock’s feather were objects of worship and Wilde is said to have sat up all night talking to a primrose.
Lionel Lambourne 1996