Historical Property

The English Country House

The Aesthetic Movement

by Kevin Murphy

Oscar Wilde

The culture and society of the the English country house embraced a variety of architectural and design movements from the Italian influenced Baroque design motifs in the 17th century to the Rococo and the Oriental design elements of Chinoiserie in the mid 1750’s.


In 19th century England a new movement would take place in the design and style of the English country house, known as the ‘aestheticism movement’ (1860 – 1910) and its influence would dramatically change the role of Victorian society in the arts, design and literature.


The movement had its beginnings with a group of English artists and intellectuals that had become weary with the rigid prim and proper Victorian society and wanted a less restrictive culture. The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood was created by Dante Gabriel Rosetti, William Holman Hunt, and John Everett Millias who favoured a reliance on hand crafted wares and a clothing style from the late Middle Ages with fabrics with natural dye colours. Their message was clear ‘Beauty for the sake of beauty’ with the new artwork style known for its beauty and not based on political or moral values.


The aesthetic movement was perhaps not so much about architectural designs but about the contents and style of decorating inside the home but would have important impact on the arts clothing and literature. At this time writer Oscar Wilde adapted his personal lifestyle to be associated with the aesthetic movement and wrote about the style with advice on decorating the aesthetic home. 


The Aesthetic style was to promote the design principles of good taste, asymmetry, unity, harmony and contrast. Eventually these influences would be associated with the Queen Anne and Old English house styles.The new style for artwork was also a departure from the Victorian decor of curvaceous forms and details but rather an emphasis on subdued colours, geometric elements and simplified linear forms. 


Becoming increasingly popular and commercially lucrative the aesthetic style found its influence on furniture, metalwork, ceramics and textiles from designers Lewis Foreman Day, Bruce Talbert and Christopher Dresser. During this period publications raising the awareness about aesthetic styling of homes became popular and by the 1870’s and 1880’s the middle classes would have access to detailed published books on decorative advice, illustrations, trade guides and design ideas.


The interior of the home would become more ‘Artistic’ and the style in furnishings by designers including William Morris would bring a reform to chairs and tables to become known as ‘Art Furniture’. The refining of furniture in a more artistic style would have the colours and quality of construction brought to a new level with those of painting, sculpture and architecture.


William Morris, an artist and textile designer, had founded the Arts and Crafts Movement in 1862 with the assistance of artist Dante Gabriel Rosseti to challenge mass production and industrialisation. Morris had found an appreciation for individually created fine crafts created in the Middle Ages by skilled craftsmen that had been replaced by poorly paid and unskilled labour working in less than satisfactory conditions. For Morris his real dissatisfaction was with the use aniline dyes that had been replaced in the mid century with organic dyes made from vegetable matter and minerals. Morris detested the colour of the new aniline dyes and by the 1870’s he was able to to use a limited production of older organic-style dyes which his skilled weavers would use to produce high quality materials for fashion and interior design


A prominent member in the Arts and Crafts Movement was designer Philip Webb. Originally trained as an architect he had worked with the George Edmund Street firm with their Gothic Revival movement and was architect of the Royal Courts of Justice in London.


During this period he became acquainted with William Morris who had joined the firm of George Edmund Street in 1865 as a trainee. Almost two years later Philip Webb established his own architectural practise and in 1859 designed his first and most famous building the Red House in Kent that was for William Morris and his wife, Jane.


The Red House was designed to be flexible as both a family home and workspace. The design also was to accommodate visitors of Morris’s closest associates and friends that helped Morris in decorating and furnishing with hangings and embroideries by William and Jane Morris. Additional elements for Red House included tiles and murals by Edward Burne-Jones with furniture, tiles, metalwork and tableware by Philip Webb.


Red House was a departure from the more traditional Victorian style with a rejection of the contemporary and common designs and lavish styles. Nonetheless the house was grand in with its own style of traditional construction techniques with red bricks, sloped roof, tall chimneys and pointed window arches.


Unlike previous styles of furniture with their features of heavy ornamentation and Louis XIV curves enjoyed by Victorian consumers the new artistic furniture would be elegant but with an ordinary and simple utilising designs taken from Asian, Egyptian, Greek, vernacular and 18th century English designs. The most common furniture types included sideboards, cupboards and overmantels mainly to display various items particularly the popular blue-and-white china.


Perhaps one the most well known and essential interior features of Aestheticism for the English home was in the design and use of wallpaper which had seen a decline in design and quality. The designer William Morris is often credited for making wallpaper a popular interior feature and created a series of new wallpaper designs that emphasised a new naturalistic pattern most notably ‘Jasmin’ in 1872 with its two interwoven layers. This wallpaper production process of layered foliage pattern would become the standard for English homes. 

The influence of aestheticism found its designs in the art of ceramics and by the 1870’s the number of historic styles available was almost overwhelming. The use of popular imagery or ‘motifism’ included peacocks, owls, fans and sunflowers.

Also departing from the Victorian influence along with ceramics and wallpaper was the aesthetic style found in artwork that would be more about beauty rather than about morality or other narratives. As a result the art style also influenced the simplicity of the aesthetic style including not just for art but literature and lifestyles. The aesthetic style for art was to no longer to tell a story but be about an expression of mood or something beautiful.


In the 19th century the aesthetic art style found its way to the United States with one of the most famous artists being an American, James Abbott McNeill Whistler and his painting Symphony in White # 1 : The White Girl which depicted a women in white dress in front of a white curtain only to be rejected by the Salon in Paris and the exhibition at the Royal Academy as it was ruled to be too ‘unique’ for traditional Victorian audiences. 


Perhaps one of the most notable aesthetic influences was on fashion, particularly for women and in 1851 The Great Exhibition in London showcased the the latest technological developments for design and mass manufacture of textiles.


The creation by artists John Everett Millais, and Dante Gabriel Rosetti of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood found its inspiration from the art of late medieval and renaissance periods.


This was to be what the artists visioned as a more naturalistic style when it came to dress. The early styles consisted of flowing fabrics and necklines with soft pleats. The sleeves were the most well known feature with puffs in the fabric in the sleeve head or down the length of the arm. At this time the use of a corset had been abandoned due to what some designers described as having damaging effects with the new design allowing for better movement. In 1890 the movement allied itself with the new Healthy and Artistic Dress Union for new design ideas for the journal Aglaia. 

In 1862 The International Exhibition in London showcased oriental other foreign goods by Arthur Lasenby Liberty who at the time was an employee of the Regent Street shop of Farmer and Roger's Shawl Emporium. Liberty convinced the owners to open a department for oriental goods. Eventually in 1875 Liberty went off on his own and stated his own store, the East India House, thanks to the success he had at his previous employer. His imported fabrics and artifacts became popular and caught the attention with artists George Frederick Watts, James Whistler, and Frederick Leighton. In 1884 opened a dress making department in his store producing his own fabrics with architect and secretary of the Costume Society E.W. Godwin.


The popularity of the aesthetic fashion made its way to America but as a new century approached the radical style that was the Aesthetic dress began to wane the but the impact would last well into the twentieth-century with designers.


Vase, Elkington & Co., 1876, Birmingham, England. Museum no. 62-1877. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


Peacock Motifs in aesthetic movement. http://victorian-era.org/victorian-eraaestheticism.html.


Oscar Wilde-creative commons.Wikipedia.

Dress-Victoria and Albert Museum. vam.ac.uk.

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