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Antiques & Collecting: Discovering the world of the Aesthetes; Richard Edmonds on the The Aesthetic Movement, an arts and design phase in British history, favoured by the middle classes and Oscar Wilde.

Byline: Richard Edmonds

When I was browsing in Part Two of the August NEC Antiques Fair, I came across several aspects of the tea ceremony. They included serviettes in linen, sets of teaspoons from different periods and little sugar boxes dating from the 1930s, some marked ``Made in Japan''. But I also found a ceramic teapot and silver-plated tea kettle with a spirit burner. Both of these items were late 19th century examples of work known today as The Aesthetic Movement.

The teapot was very ugly. The basic colour was what we used to call ``lavatory green'', before the paint charts redefined it as ``laurel''. But at least it was perfect. It was over 100 years old and seemed an excellent buy at pounds 38. The tea kettle rested on its original trestle modelled in the rustic style suggesting twigs. It was very pleasing. On the cannonball body of the kettle itself were stylised bamboo leaves and the finial was a flower. It had a price tag of pounds 125 which seemed not over-expensive.

The Aesthetic Movement was a remarkable phase in British art and design. It affected everything from fashion clothing to wallpaper to porcelain; it included book design and it opened up a completely new freedom in the decorative arts.

The middle classes who took up the movement as a war cry were called the ``Aesthetes''. Along with Oscar Wilde, who was their leader, they believed that art should permeate every aspect of life, and their rallying cry was, Art for Art's Sake -- or Ars Gratia Artis -- a slogan which appears beneath the MGM roaring lion.

Oscar was one of its most industrious members and his work -- particularly Salome -- was illustrated by another Aesthete, Aubrey Beardsley. Prints from Salome were offered in London last week by Henry Sotheran, the Piccadilly book dealers for, reasonably, under pounds 200.

Aesthetic homes collected Japanese porcelain, and it was Wilde who lamented at one time the ``difficulty of living up to one's blue and white china''. And of course Wilde's flamboyant lifestyle, reflected in his brilliant plays, made him a focal point of the Aesthetic Movement.

From the languid women in Rossetti's paintings, to the sunflower motifs of Wilde himself, and the elegantly beautiful bookbindings of Charles Ricketts (available today from discerning book dealers at prices around pounds 80), the movement spread in every direction.

It touched upon silver and silverplate from all the great manufacturers; glass from James Powell and furniture by Godwin and Morris. Then there were hundreds of biscuit tins and bookbindings of a lesser kind which sat in many a drawing room among the potted palms and exotic flowers which were set against wallpapers, also from Morris, upon which might hang pencil drawings by Burne-Jones.

This was the period when there seems to have been a madness for blue and white china -- advocated for progressive Aesthetes by the painter, Whistler. The craze for it swept England and no aesthetic house was complete unless it had wallpapers and hangings by Morris, the odd painting by Whistler or Tissot, and of course blue and white china in abundance. Much of it came from Japan which at that time was just opening up to the West.

This was also the time when lacquered photograph albums appeared on drawing room tables filled with pictures of the family at Bognor or Weymouth, but also albums which contained views of Japan.

Many of these things -- especially blue and white china -- continues to fill the stands at many an antiques fair and some of the pieces are less than pounds 100.

It does give you an idea of the quantities of items from fire screens to kimonos and the other things I have mentioned which poured in from the East during the 19th century in order to satisfy fashionable appetites.

``I feel an irresistible desire to wander, and go to Japan'', wrote Oscar, ``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.'' This was the time when the Queen Anne style was revived by British architects and it was the perfect model for the houses wherethe Aesthetes took up their abodes and where they were hell-bent upon living up to their teapots and fashionable blue and white ginger jars.

Even the names on the doorposts of these elegant houses reflected the arty theme. ``Plesaunce'', ``Kirk Lees'', and ``Ye Denne'' are just some examples.

Norman Shaw who was an architect in tune with the fashions of his time provided quaint ``olde worlde'' village settings in which middle class intellectuals could sip tea in the evening beneath a signed Burne-Jones print,perhaps depicting King Cophetua and The Beggar Maid. They may have passed the evening reading the poetry of Rossetti or Tennyson by the light of a Japanese lamp. Obviously, they were all dressed in advanced clothing which for women freed them from the corset and the whalebone collars of the time. Diamonds were out and smooth cabochon cut garnets, moonstones and opals were in. Gold was thought to be vulgar and so silver or platinum was the Aesthetic choice.

For two or three years Oscar Wilde was a great friend of Whistler and everyone who went to Whistler's studio to negotiate a painting found Wilde there, just as everyone who went out into polite society saw them together. This intimacy with the painter certainly gave Wilde the entree to the houses of all Whistler's artistic friends and his patrons. It was a charmed circle which encompassed the chi-chi world of the Grosvenor Gallery and the blue and white maniacs. These were also the people who went to Wilde's plays and probably tittered at his caricature of the upper class.

The Grosvenor Gallery was almost like a private club, the Aesthetes approved of the Hellenic themes used by artists such as Walter Crane and George Frederick Watts. There were homoerotic undertones to some of it. But for the advanced Aesthete this only heightened deliciously a feeling of nervous tension and in case an Aesthete grew a little nervous of his inclinations there were other artists to reassure him with rather murky summer landscapes which disturbed no one and sold well.

The whole movement was mocked by W S Gilbert in Patience, ``To understand it, cling passionately to one another and think of faint lilies''.

If you move within the Aesthetic mode today you will always come across anexample somewhere -- perhaps an etching, a ceramic piece, a book by Walter Crane or silver or paintings. One of the best places today to wander among these memories is the Fine Arts Society in New Bond Street, a gallery once described by the painter Walter Sickert as ``The best art shop in London''.

You will still find regular exhibitions there and the FAS is a joy to visit because once again you are likely to find glass, silver,ceramics, furniture and marvellous paintings everywhere. Make sure you get their catalogue of future exhibitions. But armed with a few of the ideas I've set out in today's column you might still profit from a visit to your local antiques market where you never know what is lying in the dust in a corner. ``Don't despair -- look forward to a life filled with art and design'', which is what one Aesthete probably said to another.


Isabella, by John Melhuish Strudwick, sold by Christies in November for pounds 433,000. The clothes worn in the picture reflect the Advanced Costume favoured by female Aesthetes.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Dec 15, 2001
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