The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900

The Aesthetic Movement describes the creative gust of fresh air that redefined the artistic landscape and cultural tastes of Britain in the second half of the 19th century. A response to the stifling, tight-laced Victorian art and attitudes of the mid-19th century, it expressed a startlingly modern set of ideas that culminated in the creative flowering of a coterie of artist and poet friends – the Pre-Raphaelites. Through this elite group, who screamed ‘art for art’s sake’, existing concepts of beauty were challenged by the flamboyant and eccentric behaviour of the protagonists and their efforts in self-promotion. Their tastes for intense colours, exotic subjects and vibrant motives of nature, such as sunflowers and peacock feathers, caught the public eye and, somewhat surprisingly, its imagination. The new aesthetic rapidly diffused into the broader realms of fashion, design, architecture, music, theatre and social mores.  

The concentration of artists connected to the Aesthetic Movement in west London and the V&A’s connection with the decorative arts make this a crucial and long-awaited subject for the museum to cover. Only a few blocks away at 12 Holland Park Road, Kensington, is the house and studio of Frederic, Lord Leighton, who encapsulated the spirit of the movement. Leighton was one of several artists who opened their homes to the public in order to advertise the quest for new beauty and propagate a taste for it. His charismatic portrait Pavonia (1858-59) is the epitome of this crusade and has been lent by a private collection. The house, complete with its Arab Hall and stuffed peacock on the stairway, is a ‘must see’ destination to visit in tandem with The Cult of Beauty.

The V&A provides the overview by way of a rich blend of art and artefacts. Highlights include designs for the 1872 Peacock Frieze painted by Albert Moore, now lost, which once adorned the walls of the Berkeley Square home of businessman Frederick Lehmann and a recreation of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s bedroom in Chelsea. The exhibition has been curated by Stephen Calloway, the V&A’s in-house aesthete and expert on romanticism and decadence, together with Lynn Federle Orr of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, where it moves later in the year.

Image: Frederic, Lord Leighton, Pavonia, 1858-59. © Private Collection c/o Christie’s