The Cult of Beauty Exhibition: An inspiration and a gentle nudge…

Exhibition at the V&A - The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860 - 1900 (picture: Victoria & Albert Museum London)

As I happened to be in London the other day, and found myself with some time to spare after my appointments, I hightailed it to the V&A where I knew there was an exhibition celebrating The Cult of Beauty (the Aesthetic Movement).  What a treat!

I was a great, a HUGE fan of the Pre-Raphaelites when I was a teenager, an avid collector of William Morris designs, I literally gobbled up anything to do with them, covered my school exercise books in William Morris wrapping paper, blu-tac-ed Pre-Raphaelite postcards all over my walls.  With time, and I think this happened to a lot of people as the enthusiasm for all-things-Morris faded away for a while (although it seems to be undergoing a revival at the moment – even the Chelsea Flower Show was talking about him yesterday!) I sort-of grew out of the Pre-Raphaelites. Whilst I will always appreciate their style and love to come across their hallmarks in design, especially in architecture, I gradually put them to one side as a direct influence on my Art or interiors, moving onto the Bloomsbury set and onwards in my taste.

This exhibition, which is much broader than a celebration of the Pre-Raphaelites, covering the whole Aesthetic Movement and how it related to literature, fashion, interiors and, indeed, a whole way of life, reminded me why this held so much appeal for me at a time when my awareness of Art in all its permutations was coming into fruition.  In essence, the Aesthetic Movement’s mantra that there should be “Art for Art’s Sake” imprinted itself into my pysche because it resonated exactly with what I believed deep down – second only to William Morris’ firm belief that you should “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful”, something which really resonated with me both then and at all times since!  Not only did the Aesthetics generate a whole explosion of Art that was free of moral codes, cultural ideas or a “message” but they applied it to everything that they possibly could from the Art on the walls down to the wallpaper, the occasional tables, the books they read and even (probably) the slippers on their feet as they sat there enjoying this marvelous aesthetic universe they had created to immerse themselves in. Brilliant!

The exhibition is testament to that very fact, covering all aspects of what I have just said -as well as an amazing drawing together of some of the most recognisable Art of the era, there is, yes, plenty of wallpaper and furniture to see, clothing (at last, thankfully – and long before its time – designed to be worn without corsets!), books, useful items a-plenty (teapots, candles and so on) and more frivalous ones such as theatre programmes and pamphlets. There are even some of the very first examples of what we now know as Interior Magazines, something we take for granted in their piles on the shelves of WH Smiths today but which, at the time, were the height of innovation, advising on such pressing issues as candlesticks and how to arrange things on your mantlepiece (no different, in essence, to the kind of advice contained in today’s interior mags…)  The book accompanying the Exhibition (ed.Stephen Galloway & Lynn Federle Orr) poses a valid question, did these decoration advice books make the Aesthetic interior popular, filtering it down to every worthy housewife, or did the Aesthetic Movement itself actually make these advice books a necessity to guide people through the minefield of how to achieve the style they advocated?

We will never know, but whichever way it happened, interiors (and a great many other things) were destined never to be the same again. The application of Art to all things, even the domestic, without this being seen to be demeaning in any way, either to Art or those artists who applied their abilities in these new ways, meant nothing less than a revolution. It was an opening of the way for those like myself who seek to apply Art and their artistic abilities to whatever they can turn their hands to and to live by the same aesthetic principles that they apply to their Art. These people were, literally, the Emmeline Pankhurst for me and my kind.

Charlston Farmhouse (picture: Charlston)

As I’ve said, time marched on for me and by my early 20s I had discovered the Bloomsbury set who, in a not dissimilar manner, sought to paint literally every surface that they could, spilling forth from their canvases to walls, floors, tiles, fixtures and fittings in the most mad-cap way imaginable.   No wonder they appealed to me back then (and still do deep down – I hope to visit Charlston again next month) and I would say my own style truly evolved from their starting point.  In fact, I loved them so much, I managed to write my university dissertation about them and their interiors, something of an achievement given I was meant to be doing a Literature degree!  William Morris and his cronies still grab my attention and always will; with all those muted jewel-shades and organic patterns based on recognisable flora and fauna I will, quite simply, love Pre-Raphaelite fabric and wallpaper designs forever and a day… I’m just not sure they would work in my very un-Victorian house and I still lean towards early twentieth century Art, including its applied form (I’ve just ordered some wallpaper that could have come straight out of a 1920s design book).

More than just the sheer enjoyment factor, The Cult of Beauty Exhibition served as a timely reminder of my mission statement (and where it all came from) and so as a nudge to keep working at applying my Art in far more ways than simply on canvas hanging on a wall – not a bad thing to be reminded of given I have been playing with the germ of an idea to start printing some textiles using my own designs, taking my Art off the walls and literally making it into some “things” that, hopefully, will be both beautiful and useful.  Perfect!

The Cult of Beauty Exhibition is on at the V&A Museum London until 17th July

Charlston Farmhouse (home and meeting place of the Bloomsbury Group) Lewes, East Sussex

About Helen White

Helen White is a professional artist and published writer with two primary blogs to her name. Her themes pivot around health and wellbeing, expanded consciousness and ways of noticing how life is a constant dance between the deeply subjective and the collective-universal, all of which she explores with a daily hunger to get to know herself better. Her blog Living Whole shines a light on living with high sensitivity, dealing with trauma and healing from chronic health issues. Spinning the Light is an extremely broad-based platform where she elucidates the everyday alchemy of relentless self-exploration. A lifetime of "feeling like an outsider" slowly emerged as neurodivergence (being a Highly Sensitive Person with ADHD, synaesthesia, sensory processing challenges and other defecits overlapping with giftedness). All of these topics are covered in her blogs, written from two distinct vantage points so, if you have enjoyed one of them, you may wish to explore the other for a different, yet entirely complimentary, perspective.
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1 Response to The Cult of Beauty Exhibition: An inspiration and a gentle nudge…

  1. Pingback: ‘Radical Bloomsbury’(?) and a Charleston pilgrimage | helenwhiteart

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