Design always goes in cycles. In 1851, at the time of the Great Exhibition, women's crinolines were so wide that they had metal undercages, piano legs wore pantalettes, and rooms were so full of furniture and swathed in heavy curtains that it was difficult to move around them.
At that exhibition, British design looked tired compared with its European counterparts. Things had to change — and they did. Like walking from a dark room into the light, the change came to be known as Aestheticism.
Artists and writers rebelled against Victorianism and stuffy morality, including the painters Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Frederic Lord Leighton and James McNeill Whistler, plus designers William Morris and Walter Crane, and writers such as John Ruskin.
This interlocking group centred around Holland Park and Cheyne Walk, Chelsea (which was run-down at the time), believing in "art for art's sake". Things didn't have to have a meaning — they just had to be beautiful. As William Morris famously put it: "Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful."
These artists extended the cult of beauty to every aspect of their lives. They wanted to live and work in beautiful environments and thought everyone should do the same. For the first time in history, partly due to the circulation of magazines, and books such as The House Beautiful, people saw how artists decorated their homes and wanted the same light, pared-down, carefully coloured look for themselves.
Things didn't have to have a meaning — they just had to be beautiful
Ruskin wrote: "Beautiful art can only be produced by people who have beautiful things about them." You did not have to be rich (although some, like Leighton, became so). Whistler arrived from Paris in 1863 and took two rooms in a ramshackle house in multiple occupancy near the river at Chelsea, near to Rossetti, whose own house was furnished with the bric-abrac he bought for a song. Whistler favoured pale, plain walls tinted with paints he hand-mixed, and rooms sparsely furnished with cane furniture, screens, blue-and-white china and Japanese fans.
Rossetti's look, the forerunner of shabby chic, had a medieval feel, with sage greens and browns, velvets, caged birds and oak furniture. In each case, the artists' paintings show these styles. William Morris, who designed "art-furniture", wallpaper and tiles, also started from a medieval viewpoint, which he then simplified and stylised. His Pomegranate wallpaper, daring when first seen in 1866, can be bought at John Lewis today for £49 a roll.
Leighton was industrious and commercial. Having arrived in London in 1850, in 1866 he commissioned architect George Aitchison to design a magnificent purpose-built artist's house in Holland Park. With its spectacular Arab Hall decorated with 1,000 Iznik tiles, Leighton popularised "exotic" Eastern art. A prodigious worker, he stipulated that there would be no guest bedrooms. This stunning building, now a museum, is still worth a visit for design ideas.
Other architects made "Aesthetic" houses for smaller budgets. Bedford Park's sensible red-brick and pantile houses, with big, white-painted windows and generous gardens, epitomise Aestheticism at its best. These homes are both desirable and comfortable today.
A growing interest in interiors, in beautifully made, simply designed furniture and in striking wallpapers was catered to by design companies such as Morris & Co, or Gillow, and by magazines and books encouraging women to be more involved in decorating their homes.
Liberty in Regent Street sold both Aesthetic furnishings and Aesthetic dress. Silks in slub greens, browns, peacock blues, orange and purple, as well as quieter yellows and greys, were all part of the look. There you could buy peacock- feather fabrics, Oriental ceramics, lacquer work and all the items that made an Aesthetic interior.
Despite cartoons making fun of limp men and women in artistic dress holding wilting lilies and sunflowers, Aestheticism lasted until the new century, when it was no longer radical or reactionary, and other forms of modernism took over.
The Cult of Beauty exhibition at the V&A, full of strikingly lovely portraits set in gorgeous interiors, is a major show. Paintings, architects' and designers' original drawings, furniture, hangings, textiles, clothing and magnificent jewellery conjure up the period. This uplifting exhibition reflects the joyful impetus of the artists who were determined to find or make beauty everywhere, right down to the cups, saucers and teapots of daily life.
Get the beautiful look
Leighton House Museum, 12 Holland Park Road, W14, entry £3. rbkc.gov.uk/subsites/museums/leightonhouse museum.aspx.
WHERE TO SHOP
Liberty: a special selling exhibition of original antique Aesthetic furniture, from May 19 to June 19. Ebonized fireside chair with Mashrabiya panels (1890), £1,250; William de Morgan tile, £780; rosewood side table in style of EW Godwin (1870), £1,450; and a rare large spoon-warmer shaped like a toad (1890), £1,250.
Modern Liberty: Proud Peacock crystal dome paperweight by John Derian, £55; Peacock tapestry kit by Beth Russell, £145. liberty.co.uk.
V&A shop: hand-painted cup, £6; Aubrey Beardsley sketchbook, £7.50; Peacock design art portfolio, £20; Yellow Book tote bag, £8.50; framed offcuts of original William Morris wallpaper £140.
John Lewis: Sanderson's William Morris Pomegranate, or Pimpernel, wallpapers, from the original designs, £49 a roll. Spode's famous blue-andwhite china, such as a 'Blue Italian' cup and saucer for £21, or a Willow Pattern plate for £15. Visit spode.co.uk for other stockists.
The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement in Britain 1860-1900 is at the V&A from April 2 to July 17. Visit vam.ac.uk for details and ticket prices.
Homes & Property readers can get a copy of The Cult of Beauty, The Aesthetic Movement in Britain 1860-1900, published by V&A Publishing, for the special price of £32 including p&p (UK). Normal price £40. Call 01256 302688 and quote 5MB. Offer ends July 31, 2011.