Friday, 6 May 2011

Beauty for Beauty's Sake

It is 150 years since the establishment of the Aesthetic Movement, the first ever artistic movement to inspire an entire lifestyle and revolutionise the way we think about and decorate our homes. This month sees two events celebrating the occasion.

The Aesthetic Movement anniversary is being marked by two important events for the interior design world, a major exhibition at the V&A and the launching of a retrospective fabric and wallpaper collection featuring the designs of William Morris.

The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 runs until the 17th July at the V&A.  It is a visual treat that I would highly recommend as it has gathered for the first time many of the greatest masterpieces in painting together with sculpture, design, furniture and architecture as well as fashion and literature of the era.

Aestheticism was borne out of a reaction against the art and strict ideas of the Victorian establishment.  The movement sort to promote “art as important for its own sake" and that beauty should be valued for itself alone.

The movement also helped create the phenomena of celebrity watching as the public developed an unprecedented fascination with the lives of the artists and their exhibitions.  The personalities involved still remain household names: including Oscar Wilde, Dante Gabriele Rossetti, Edward Burn-Jones and William Morris.

This group developed from the romantic bohemianism of a small avant-garde circle in the 1860s to a cultural phenomenon.  Their style was characterised by the widespread use of motifs such as the lily, the sunflower and the peacock feather, drawing on such diverse sources as Ancient Greek art and modern day Japan.

The exhibition features over 250 objects including a number of set-pieces which evoke interiors of the day such as the celebrated Grosvenor Gallery exhibition and Whistler’s Peacock Room.  The V&A are understandably proud that this is the most comprehensive exhibition ever staged on the Aesthetic Movement in Britain.

The aesthetic style permeated all areas of life and many leading manufacturers of furniture, ceramics, wallpaper and textiles such as Liberty’s of London capitalised on the public interest by commissioning pieces by prominent designers.  The resulting products were among the first that were widely accessible to an aspiring middle class and transformed the furnishing and decoration of the home.

William Morris was a key member of the movement and arguably one of the most influential designers of the nineteenth century.  Together with the artist Edward Burne-Jones and the architect Philip Webb, he is crediting with forming the revolutionary Arts and Crafts movement.
Through Burne-Jones, Morris met Dante Gabriel Rossetti, the father of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.  After Morris married Jane Burden, one of Rosetti’s models, the couple moved into a new home, the Red House in Bexleyheath which was designed for them by Philip Webb.  Morris and his friends decided to complete the decoration in the mediaeval style creating all the furnishings including stained glass windows, murals and tapestries.  Following this successful project the group decided to found Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company (known as “The Firm”) to turn their domestic hobby into a commercial venture in 1861. 

“The Firm” aimed to create the finest hand-made fabrics, wallpapers and furnishings at competitive prices available to all – something that was considered controversial at the time – and the general home furnishings market was truly born.

To mark the 150th anniversary of the founding of “The Firm” Morris & Co. is launching four collections of wallpapers and fabrics.  In doing so they have revisited some of the best loved William Morris designs, taken reference from some of the many samples housed in the Morris Archive and been inspired by the textiles found within Morris’ residences, in particular his beloved Kelmscott Manor, now owned by The Society of Antiquaries in London.

The Archive wallpaper collection features a selection of 11 iconic designs from the Morris & Co. archive which have been reproduced as faithfully as possible to the originals in scale and colour.  Some have also been given a 21st century twist using metallics and modern techniques (from £38 per roll).

The Archive Prints collection retains the characteristics of the hand-block printed fabrics that William Morris turned his attention to after establishing his production of wallpapers.  It features some of the original colourations and designs by Morris & Co. with new designs inspired by his woven tapestries and embroideries painted by the present design teams (from £37 per m).

The Archive Weaves range includes a faithful reproduction of some of the classic jacquard weave and tapestry fabrics that Morris & Co. produced.  As with the other collections they have also introduced new jacquard and tapestry interpretations of the most loved Morris & Co wallpaper designs.  All items in the weave range are suitable for upholstery and curtains (from £42 per metre).

The fourth collection, Archive Embroideries, reintroduces exquisite designs by Jane Morris, May Morris and John Henry Dearle alongside new embroidery interpretations of wallpaper designs (from £65 per metre).

The stature of William Morris has grown throughout the twentieth century and is seen everywhere.  His work is synonymous with excellence of design and his legacy is reflected in the continuous demand for Arts & Crafts wallpapers and fabrics to this day.  Whilst the aims of the Aesthetics are as Sir Mark Jones, Director of the V&A, has commented “current again today”.

The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 has been organised in collaboration with the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and is on display at the V&A Museum until 17th July 2011.  Tickets are £12 (concessions are available).  For advance bookings visit

The Morris & Co. Archive collections are available from local stockists or directly from Jamie Hempsall Ltd.  For details call 0844 543 4749 or visit

Jamie Hempsall is a member of the British Institute of Interior Design and an award winning interior designer.  Visit his website or contact him on 0800 032 1180.

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