The Cult of Beauty, currently at London’s V & A museum but touring Europe from July, is the first exhibition in the world devoted to the Aesthetic movement, which flourished in the late Victorian period. The exhibition is a must for collectors of Arts & Crafts furniture in Cumbria, as A & C designers William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones – whose works are featured in the exhibition – were regular visitors, and responsible for many of the area’s interiors and furnishings.
The exhibition is divided into chronological sections, and features one important Aesthete in particular – Oscar Wilde. A fervent supporter of artistic furniture, he coined the term “The House Beautiful”, taking the idea of painted Victorian dining chairs and Astral bookcases to a wider audience. Although the Aesthetic movement is symbolised by the Arthurian fantasies of Pre-Raphaelite artists like Dante Gabriel Rossetti, it is also seen in Whistler’s Art Nouveau peacock doors, and even the antique desks of Lancashire furniture makers such as Gillows.
The Aesthetic Movement began in 1860. One of Morris’ earliest forays was a painted Victorian dining chair with a willowy maiden back panel, although he mainly stuck to textiles from then on. While there are lavish examples of Aesthetic painted furniture (Tadema’s OTT carved and painted armchair in the V & A gallery being a case in point) the majority of aesthetic furniture was more restrained and down-to-earth, fitting well into the average home.
When searching for Aesthetic inspiration in Cumbria, look for antique desks in ebonised (dark painted) wood – Japan had a big influence on designs late Aesthetic design. Preston antique dealers also sell Victorian dining chairs of Gothic design, or with seats upholstered with Morris fabric.
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