The Cult of Beauty: The peacock artists who ruffled feathers

As a new exhibition reveals, the Aestheticists aimed high but succumbed to blackmail, adultery, and drugs.

Peter Watts
Sunday 20 March 2011 01:00

Beauty can be found in the most unexpected places. One of the least noticed examples sits in the middle of a smog-choked roundabout in London. Eros, the landmark statue at Piccadilly Circus, is a classic piece of sculpture influenced by the Aesthetic Movement, the small group of promiscuous and eccentric artists who operated in London in the second half of the 19th century. Eros was made in 1893 by Alfred Gilbert, and a cast of the statue features in the V&A's forthcoming Cult of Beauty exhibition.

"Everybody meets their friends underneath Eros," says Stephen Calloway, the show's curator. "But nobody looks up and recognises that it is a wonderful item. Technically it's daring and innovative because it's made of aluminium, which means it's so light it can balance on one foot."

The phrase "art for art's sake" was attributed to the French writer Theophile Gautier, but became attached to the Aesthetic Movement after it was used by critic Walter Pater in a review of William Morris's poetry, in 1868. Aesthetes believed that art should serve no moral, propaganda or narrative purpose: it should just be beautiful. The movement began with artists such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, James Whistler and Frederic Leighton, who painted unusual models, revelled in rich bold colours, especially yellows and greens, and venerated objects of natural beauty such as the peacock and the sunflower.

It then moved into design, fashion and architecture, as Morris and Edward Godwin applied a similar philosophy to furniture, jewellery and fabrics, glorying in the hand-made and rejecting what was seen as the crass commercialism of industrial production.

They particularly reviled the Royal Academy, the dominant artistic establishment of the day, which encouraged competitiveness and celebrated the sentimental style of art that they detested.

"The Aesthetic Movement was a rejection of the popular art of doe-eyed animals and chubby babies," says Calloway. "The aesthetes wanted to escape the ugliness of contemporary life. Their belief was that the aim of all art should be the creation of beauty. Beauty became a sort of religion in itself."

The aesthetes were also extraordinary personalities. For them, Aestheticism was more than an abstract philosophy, it was a way of life, and an increasingly bizarre one in some cases. Among this group of velvet-suited lily lovers you will find adulterers, blackmailers and drug addicts, stories of unexpectedly redecorated rooms and disinterred corpses, as well as the extraordinary tale of the missing armadillo.

Gabriel Dante Rossetti

The English-born artist and poet Rossetti helped define the Aesthetic Movement in 1859 with Bocca Baciata, a painting of his voluptuous red-headed mistress Fanny Cornforth. Rossetti also painted the other women in his life, his wife, Elizabeth Siddal, and his mistress Jane Morris, the wife of William Morris. When Siddal died of a laudanum overdose in 1862, the grieving Rossetti abandoned poetry, and put the only copies of his poems in her coffin. Seven years later, himself addicted to laudanum, he changed his mind and had his agent Charles Augustus Howell exhume her corpse to retrieve the poems. Howell was a character in his own right, a blackmailer and forger, who was discovered dead in 1890 with his throat cut and a gold coin between his lips. Rossetti's other weakness was animals. He kept a menagerie at his Chelsea home, including wombats, salamanders, kangaroos, bulls, peacocks and armadillos. The armadillo tried to escape by burrowing under the fence into Thomas Carlyle's garden. "Carlyle's wife was found standing on the kitchen table, screaming at it," says Calloway.

Frederic Leighton

Leighton's Pavonia from 1859 was another key early Aesthetic painting, depicting a sultry Italian model holding a fan of peacock feathers. In fact, Leighton loved peacocks so much he had a stuffed one in his home. His neighbours should have been grateful it was dead. Rossetti's live peacocks made so much noise the birds are still banned from Cheyne Walk. Leighton embraced Aestheticism to such an extent he had his entire home in Holland Park decorated along Aesthetic principles. Now the Leighton House Museum, it was designed by architect George Aitchison and blends Moorish, Venetian, Victorian and Classical styles in an extravagant display of silk wall-hangings, Islamic tiles and gilded ceilings. Rossetti's house also showcased his beliefs. His bedroom, reconstructed for the exhibition, was filled with pictures, blue-and-white china and antique furniture. Leighton became President of the despised Royal Academy in 1878, but never abandoned Aestheticism, painting masterpieces such as The Bath of Psyche in 1890, six years before his death. His 1855 sculpture The Sluggard opens the exhibition.

James McNeill Whistler

American-born Whistler also embraced Aestheticism to an extent that went beyond art works, insisting at one point that the walls of his favourite gallery, the Grosvenor Gallery, be repainted so they did not clash with the paintings. His greatest contribution to Aestheticism, the Peacock Room, is represented by a 360-degree digital projection in the exhibition. "It's an amazing story," says Calloway. "A millionaire, Frederick Leyland, lived off Exhibition Road. He had a superlative art collection including paintings by Rossetti and Whistler. The walls in the room were antique stamped leather with gilded flowers, and Whistler thought the colour of the flowers would overpower his picture, so he asked Leyland if he could 'touch out' the flowers."

Leyland agreed, then went away on business. When he returned, he found that Whistler had moved in, held huge parties, developed a close friendship with Leyland's wife, and repainted the entire room in green and gold. He'd also painted two peacocks on the wall, one holding a bag of money, the other a paintbrush. Leyland was furious, especially when Whistler handed him a bill for 1,000 guineas.

"Artists were paid in guineas, but Leyland deliberately settled the bill in pounds, the tradesman's currency," says Calloway. The Peacock Room is now in the Freer Art Gallery in Washington DC.

William Morris

Morris realised that if you could paint a scene in a picture, there was no reason you couldn't recreate the setting – the furniture, walls and fabrics – and in 1861 he founded a design company to do just that with Rossetti as one of the partners. Morris made everything from wallpaper, fabrics and tapestries to illuminated manuscripts and printed books. Eventually, Morris bought out Rossetti and his other partners and went alone, partly in reaction to the affair between Rossetti and Morris's wife Jane that culminated in Rossetti's intense 1880 painting "The Day Dream". Morris's style was imitated by other designers, including Lewis Day and Walter Crane – there are objects by all three in the exhibition – and was brought into the public sphere with the opening in 1875 of Liberty, which sold Morris-style fabrics. Of all the aesthetes, Morris has had the most influence. "Morris said, 'Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful'," says Calloway. "That is adhered to by most designers to this day."

Oscar Wilde

By 1881, the charismatic intensity with which the aesthetes lived their lives was deemed worthy of satire in Gilbert and Sullivan's opera Patience. This featured a society poet who struck classical poses and mooned over sunflowers. But would audiences get the joke? "They wanted to send Patience to America, so impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte arranged for Oscar Wilde to undertake a lecture tour to make sure everybody understood what it was about," says Calloway. Wilde's first published work had been a review of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877, so he was familiar with the ideas of Whistler and Morris, whose words he merrily plagiarised during his 1882 tour as his ostentatious style went down a storm. "The whole idea of him adopting the aesthetic outfit – the velvet suit and knee breeches – was really a form of advertising." Entertaining though it was, such knockabout excess signalled the beginning of the end of the Aesthetic Movement.

'The Cult of Beauty', Victoria and Albert Museum, London, 2 Apr to 17 Jul

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