It's hard to imagine, in this day and age, that the expression of our individuality through the manner in which we decorate our households - our choice of wallpaper, curtains and china - could be interpreted by others as a sign of moral decline and a signal of our impending public ruination. However, the rise of the Aesthetic Movement, an interest amongst the middle classes in the development of personal taste and a desire for the house beautiful, inspired Victorian critics to warn of just that; it was feared that such personal expression could lead to sexual and moral disorder and social degeneration.
‘The worship of beauty (false beauty, as I hold it to be) has its victims now by the hundred, and much of the effeteness of our artists and the hysteria of our women, may be traced back, till we find its seemingly innocuous source, in art furniture and decorative hangings.’ (Harry Quilter, The Spectator, July 1880)
Men like Quilter worried that an obsession with the interior decoration of one's home (and too great a love for one's blue-and-white china) could lead to women becoming hysterical and men being stripped of their manliness. Taking too great an interest in curtain patterns was thought to be debilitating for the male mind at best... the cause of sterility at worst. The objections of Quilter, and others like him, to the Aesthetic Movement may be amusing to us now, but he was earnest in his fear for the mental and physical wellbeing of his countrymen and women.
An obsession with wallpapers and carpets could lead to degeneration. Worst still, it could lead a man to use his drawing room - that shrine to respectability and moral correctness which should only see visitors on high days and holidays - for actually living in.
There were all manner of exchanges (including heated ones) in print between those in favour of the new movement and those highly opposed to it. The writers at Punch took every opportunity to poke fun at the movement and its adherents.* Poems were written about it, comic operas were produced about it and songs were sung about it. The image above is the cover for a songsheet for The High Art Maiden, designed by Alfred Concanen (1835-1886), an illustrator for the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News. Mrs Aesthete, thoroughly in love with her decorative china and most likely neglecting her duties as wife and mother in order to stand near it all day long in a heady swoon, is portrayed alongside her Japanese fans, Japanesque furniture, lilies, sunflowers and peacock feathers - all typically aesthetic attributes. The cover to the left, also designed by Concanen, satirises not just the aesthetic interior, with its blue-and-white china, sunflowers and Japanese-style patterning on the wallpaper, but also the aesthete's dress, with his velvet jacket and fashionable cravat.
The aesthetes choice of language when speaking - his preference for using the words supreme, consummate, utter, quite too preciously sublime, etc. - was also satirised. No area of the aesthetes life escaped ridicule; his every whim was targeted without mercy. In the Knicknacks section of Fun, the following appeared in December 1884: 'At the earnest entreaties of their friends, several of the most utterly utter young men extant have sworn off lemon squash for the season; and have taken boldly to goat's milk hot with just two lumps of sugar and a table-spoonful of eau-de-cologne to the tumbler'.
I shall come back to the aesthetes in future, but for the moment I shall leave you with the following verse, which appeared in the Novel Review, in June 1882:
by Henry S. Leigh
When the terrible tale of my troubles you hear,
I can claim your compassion and pity.
My income is only two hundred a year,
Which I earn as a clerk in the City.
The sum should be ample, of course, you may say,
To secure me my bread and my butter;
But somehow aesthetics have got in the way,
And my wife has gone 'utterly utter.'
In a sensible manner my thoughts I express
On the state of the stocks or the weather;
When Taste's on the tapis, I frankly confess
That I'm out of my swim altogether.
I'm snubbed like a schoolboy at every word
That I blushingly stammer and stutter;
In fact, my position's becoming absurd,
Since my wife has gone 'utterly utter.'
A professional beauty could hardly be worse
In the shape and the cost of her dresses;
I gaze with alarm at the runs on my purse,
From her varied artistic excesses.
She means to accomplish my ruin, 'tis clear;
I believe I shall die in a gutter,
Or end by some desperate act my career,
Now my wife has gone 'utterly utter'
There's a fellow that sups at our house now and then,
Who is known as a Poet of Culture;
The jealousy common to most married men
Pecks away at my heart like a vulture.
On Aubrey de Laine, and his verses insane,
Very deep are the curses I mutter;
'Tis all through the study of trash so inane
That my wife has gone 'utterly utter.'
My china, my furniture, both are intense,
And my visitors half-idiotic;
You can't find a corner for plain common sense
Where the monarch High Art is despotic.
So day after day I go sulking away,
In a fume and a fret and a flutter;
But what can I do, sir, and what can I say,
If my wife has gone 'utterly utter'?
* Walter Hamilton goes into (very entertaining) detail about the various attacks launched by Punch in his book The Aesthetic Movement in England, published in 1882. The original is rather rare, but a reprint is available in paperback format or as an ebook for the Kindle.