During the nineteenth century an awareness had developed that national style reflected the moral values of a society: if a society was unable to produce good design then the fault lay in its ethical system – a nations art was a symptom of its moral health. The arts and crafts movement combined this feeling with its own social aims, finding a perfect symbolism in the return to medievalism. Fine craftsmanship was never in jeopardy, but the need for ‘an English art for England’, culminating in the adoption of Gothic as the best national idiom, gave the men of the arts and crafts movement, the majority of them architects, the necessary representation of a popular art and allowed them, in rejecting more traditional styles, to bring back to the people whom their political aims supported. Their furniture reflected in concrete form the way of life of the craftsman, stressing the honesty of production with structural features becoming often the focal point of the decoration. ‘Fitness for purpose’ became an element of style, and although the same principle was held by designers whose work was machine made, in the arts and Crafts doctrine ‘purpose’ was defined in relation to everyday life among the wood shavings, and the smell of resin, in the silvershop or blacksmith’s and not to the world of industry, commerce and ‘laisser-faire’. Arts and Crafts, Anscombe and Gere.
The arts and crafts movement was, first and foremost, an effort to reform the domestic environment. ‘Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful,’ Morris advised. And design reformers obliged by eliminating the superfluous and the unsightly from their surroundings. They were single minded in their purpose, hoping to improve living conditions, and, thereby, to strengthen the character of the individual. But they differed in their approach, as there was no clear-cut path to follow in achieving their goal. Consequently, arts and crafts interiors vary greatly, from minute detail to overall character. They are similar in that all unite the useful with the beautiful. Yet they are different, as each is a unique expression of a particular set of influences, including designer, client, time period, location and cultural milieu.
‘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
On the night of October 16th 1834, the citizens of London were treated to a magnificent spectacle. The Old palace of Westminster was irrecoverably in flames. After the usual bewilderment a parliamentary committee was appointed to consider the question of rebuilding; and in the following June they announced a competition for a new design. The site was to be that of the old Palace; the style Gothic or Elizabethan. The most important building in England was to be Gothic’.
Kenneth Clarke, The Gothic Revival.
‘On the night of October 16th 1834, Mr. Charles Barry, returning to London on the Brighton Coach, saw on the horizon in font of him a great red glare. It was the introduction to an opportunity such as befalls few architects. The Palace of Westminster was being destroyed by fire’. Trappes-Lomax, Pugin.
‘To his contemporaries and immediate successors Pugin’s significance was self-evident. Burges described him as ‘that wonderful man’, and Gilbert Scott wrote: ‘I did not know Pugin, but his image in my imagination was lie my guardian angel, and I often dreamed I knew him…..I was awakened from my slumbers by the thunder of Pugin’s writings.’ Owen Jones, Christopher Dresser, William Morris, Philip Webb, Richard Norman Shaw – all the leaders of stylistic change in the half century following Pugin’s death in 1852 – publicly acknowledged his primacy. Writing in 1904 Hermann Muthesius confirmed that ‘Pugin’s work stands supreme…..he combined inexhaustible imaginative power with thorough knowledge of the medieval repertoire of forms, so that it was child’s play to him to find forms for every sort of commission’ Jeremy Cooper, Victorian and Edwardian Furniture and Interiors.
Pugin was a man of precocious talent and prodigious originality. His short life is a catalogue of astonishing achievement. As an architect he designed cathedrals, churches, colleges, convents, and a wide range of domestic buildings, revolutionary structures that established Gothic as the national style for England by linking it firmly to its medieval roots. His books made his design principles and vision of a new Gothic world accessible to a wide audience. In his Medieval Court at the Great Exhibition, held in 1851 he worked closely with leading industrialists to make Gothic a truly universal style.