The Cult of Beauty

The Cult of Beauty

On Friday 11th March, Liberty London unveiled their street windows in dedication to the upcoming Cult of Beauty Exhibition at the V&A ( 2nd April – 17th July, 2011 ) .

Liberty’s beautiful new windows for their furniture and lighting department make brilliant use of the small space available. The new windows depict the themes of the Aesthetic Period in a contemporary and almost irreverent way.

Some windows feature the ubiquitous Aesthetic movement motif of blue and white china. The china is fashioned in to wall tiles with key 20th and 21st century happenings and figureheads on them ( Superman sits next to recent cult figure Rastamouse and Albert Einstein adjacent to King Kong ).

Another window has upholstery moulding up from the ground, morphing in to a chair and covering a pre-Raphaelite mannequin. A further window which features another common Aesthetic motif, this time the Sunflower. Seeds form a carpet with one giant Sunflower rising up to fill the window.


To accompany the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Cult of Beauty exhibition, Liberty illustrator Matt Blease  created a wallpaper made from cartoons of design greats and celebrities, which will form a backdrop at Liberty’s V&A Cult of Beauty windows at its store in London.

All of the characters are linked to the store in some way. Grayson Perry was commissioned to create a Liberty print for the stores and Tom Dixon has worked on a number of interiors projects for the store, including the Liberty Café. The windows feature Punch cartoon wallpaper with caricatures of modern media icons such as Kate Moss, Meg Mathews, Tom Dixon, Jefferson Hack, Grayson Perry, Katie Grand and Tracey Emin

Blease says, ‘The cult of beauty exhibition looks at the aesthetic movement from 1860 to 1900. One of the things that I loved from this time was the weekly magazine Punch. It created humorous and satirical illustrations of popular figures, I though it would be nice to look at this again, but with a modern twist.’ This creates the backdrop for a selection of both Aesthetic Movement and complementary modern furniture.



From 2 April – 17 July 2011, the V&A’s spring exhibition brings together many of the greatest Aesthetic paintings and finest decorative art of this extraordinary movement. Paintings by Aesthetic artists such as Edward Burne-Jones and James McNeill Whistler are displayed alongside the work of leading designers including William Morris and E. W. Godwin.

As well as paintings, prints and drawings, the show will include examples of all the ‘artistic’ decorative arts, together with drawings, designs and photographs, as well as portraits, fashionable dress and jewellery of the era. Literary life will be represented by some of the most beautiful books of the day, whilst a number of set-pieces will reveal the visual world of the Aesthetes, evoking the kind of rooms and ensembles of exquisite objects through which they expressed their sensibilities

This is the first major exhibition to comprehensively explore Aestheticism, an extraordinary artistic movement which sought to escape the ugliness and materialism of the Victorian era by creating a new kind of art and beauty.

It shows how Aesthetic artists, designers, poets and collectors promoted the idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ and how the idea of the ‘house beautiful’ became a touchstone of cultured life.

Organised with the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco in collaboration with the Musée d’Orsay, Paris

exhibition catalogue

This beautiful book also reveals how artists’ houses and their extravagant lifestyles became the object of public fascination. The influence of the ‘Palaces of Art’ created by Rossetti and Morris, Lord Leighton and others led to a widespread revolution in architecture and interior decoration, while Oscar Wilde made his name promoting the idea of ‘The House Beautiful’.

The exhibition will be arranged in four main chronological sections, charting the development of the Aesthetic Movement in art and design through the decades from the 1860s to the 1890s.

The Cult of Beauty focuses on a period at the end of the nineteenth century when a group of artists, architects and designers found themselves linked by the search for a new Beauty.

The Aesthetic Movement, as it came to be known, united romantic bohemians such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, along with maverick figures such as James McNeill Whistler.

The Cult of Beauty brings together the finest pictures, furniture and decorative arts of this extraordinary era, setting them in the context of this glittering cast of characters.

The search for new beauty 1860s

In the 1860s the new and exciting ‘Cult of Beauty’ united, for a while at least, romantic bohemians such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti (and his younger Pre-Raphaelite followers William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones), maverick figures such as James McNeill Whistler, then fresh from Paris and full of ‘dangerous’ French ideas about modern painting, and the ‘Olympians’ – the painters of grand classical subjects who belonged to the circle of  Frederic Leighton and G.F.Watts. Choosing unconventional models, such as Rossetti’s muse Lizzie Siddal or Leighton’s sultry favourite ‘La Nanna’, these painters created entirely new types of female beauty.

Rossetti and his friends were also the first to attempt to realise their imaginative world in the creation of ‘artistic’ furniture and the decoration of rooms. In this period, artists’ houses and their extravagant lifestyles became the object of public fascination and sparked a revolution in the architecture and interior decoration of houses that led to a widespread recognition of the need for beauty in everyday life.

Art for Arts Sake 1870s-1880s

One of the most important examples of the mutual influence between artists and designers is to be found in the startling collaborations between James McNeill Whistler and the architect E.W.Godwin who designed the painter’s studio, The White House, and created some of the most innovative furniture of the day. Characterised equally by elegance and eccentricity, Whistler and Godwin’s work drew upon influences as diverse as ancient Greek art and the Japanese prints and other artifacts  just beginning to arrive in Europe.

In the 1870s, the leading Aesthetic artists, Whistler, Leighton, Watts, Albert Moore and Burne-Jones evolved a new kind of self-consciously exquisite painting in which mood, colour harmony and beauty of form were all, and subject played little or no part. The opening of the Grosvenor Gallery (with its famous ‘greenery-yallery’ walls) in 1877 at last gave the Aesthetic painters a fashionable and glamorous showcase for their much-discussed art. But the decade closed with intense controversy exemplified by the critic John Ruskin’s savage attack on Whistler, which prompted the painter’s spirited defence of the ideals of ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ in his writings and by the staging of his own exhibitions.

Beautiful people and Aesthetic houses 1870s-1880s

The immense success of the Grosvenor Gallery signalled the emergence of a new artistic elite whose social prestige offered an unprecedented challenge to the Royal Academy. Aesthetic painting became the fashionable enthusiasm of a circle that was grand, wealthy and intellectual. As well as buying paintings these new patrons were keen to embrace Aesthetic ideals, commissioning  portraits and even adopting the styles of ‘artistic’ dress.

The rise of Aestheticism in painting was paralleled in the decorative arts by a new and increasingly widespread interest in the decoration of houses. Many of the key avant-garde architects and designers interested themselves not only in working for wealthy clients but also in the reform of design for the middle-class home. The notion of ‘The House Beautiful’ became a touchstone of cultured life.

Attracted by the growing popularity of Aesthetic taste, many of the leading firms making furniture, ceramics, domestic metalwork and textiles courted artists such as Walter Crane and a growing band of professional designers, most notably Christopher Dresser. Co-inciding with a period of unprecedented expansion of domestic markets, the styles favoured by Aesthetic designers were among the very first to be exploited and disseminated widely through commercial enterprise.

Late-flowering beauty 1880s-1890s

Oscar Wilde, the first celebrity style-guru, invented a brilliant pose of ‘poetic intensity’, but initially made his name promoting the idea of ‘The House Beautiful’. By the 1880s Britain was in the grip of the ‘greenery-yallery’ Aesthetic Craze, lovingly satirised by Gilbert and Sullivan in their famous comic opera Patience and by the caricaturist George Du Maurier in the pages of Punch.

In the last decade of  Queen Victoria’s reign the Aesthetic Movement entered its final, fascinating Decadent phase, characterised by the extraordinary black-and-white drawings of Aubrey Beardsley in The Yellow Book.

The exhibition ends with a superb group of the greatest late Aesthetic paintings, including masterpieces such as Leighton’s Bath of Psyche, Moore’s Midsummer and Rossetti’s final picture The Daydream, shown alongside the sensuous nude figures sculpted in bronze and precious materials by Alfred Gilbert and other brilliant younger exponents of ‘The New Sculpture’.

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