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The Aesthetic Movement 

16 October to 3 November 2002

'A vital influence that tempered the appeal of Gothic just as the Arts & Crafts movement gathered pace was the Aesthetic movement…The influence of the Aesthetic movement prevented the Arts & Crafts from losing themselves in medieval nostalgia'

Isabelle Anscombe - Arts & Crafts Style

As the revolt against the Victorian pauperisation of design and manufacture that Pugin, Ruskin & Morris had set in train took hold, an 'eclectic style' developed in Britain, France and the US. It would not only become an integral part of what we now call the 'arts & crafts style' but would profoundly shape modern interior design on both sides of the Atlantic. The Aesthetic Movement.

Despite its professed decadence and 'Art for Art's Sake' credo that would have set it at odds with many in the Arts & Crafts movement (Whistler, one of the key movers in the Aesthetic Movement, would come to blows, via his infamous law-suit, with Ruskin), it provided the stimulus that would produce some of the most important artists, craftsmen and designers of the period.

The style is hard to pinpoint, indeed as others have stated, 'the style is and always will be covered in confusion; confusion is an inherent part of its charm. It borrowed from Egypt, from Persia, from North Africa, from China, and above all from Japan, sometimes reproducing its oriental counterparts… and at other times borrowing freely without too much regard for historical or geographical accuracy'. And yet amid this seeming confusion it created a unique harmony in its designs, 'unmistakably 'Aesthetic' in style'.

If the movement's protagonists took inspiration from the ideas from Theophile Gautier and Oscar Wilde, it was the forced re-opening of Japan to Western trade by Commodore Perry in 1854 and the 'torrent of Japanese products old and new' that followed which provided perhaps the largest single impulse.

It was the ability to utilise, learn and adapt from other styles that gave the Aesthetic Movement its progressive edge. It would help develop the widening space needed for British designers and craftsmen to escape the suffocating Victorian orthodoxy. Many of the designs from the period are now considered to be icons.

This introduction, like the exhibition itself, is in no way definitive. It is merely an attempt to place the Aesthetic Movement in the Arts & Crafts family for the growing number of people now drawn to what is the most important period in the development of British design.

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