Edited Transcripts

Aestheticism! with Rowan Derryth


Viv Trafalgar: Miss Puchkina, Mr. Kiergarten, Miss Dagger, and I are pleased to welcome you to the November Aether Salon, Aestheticism! We sincerely appreciate the support we receive from everyone in the community, and we humbly thank you all. Many fine people have contributed to today’s salon: we are grateful to Miss Ceejay Writer, Miss Breezy Carver, and Canolli Capalini of Capalini Fine Furnishings for the chairs. Finally, I want to personally thank my most amazing and talented co-host, Serafina Puchkina, who has held up the Salon in its entirety in my absence. Thank you also to Miss Book and Doc O for seeing us into our third year with a rather loud bang last month.

Please hold your questions until the end, and as a courtesy to all, please turn off everything that feeds the lag monster: all HUDs, scripts, AOs and so on; Miss Sera will severely be miffed if there is the hint of biting, bombs or weapons. No mullets, please. The Salon has many great things in store for the months to come. Stay tuned! We’re keeping a log of things “overheard at the salon” on aethersalon.blogspot.com just in case you’re looking for a good laugh.

If you would like to join the Aether Salon group and receive notifications of future salon events, click the lower right hand corner of the large brown sign by the entrance. As a reminder, all speaker jar donations go directly to the speakers.

I rarely make this plea, but if anyone wishes to support the salon itself, that would be more than welcome. we would have the urchins sing in your honor. You may do so by means of the ‘support the salon buttons on the posters outside.’ Now, Hang on to your reticules as I welcome my co-host Miss Serafina Puchkina.

Serafina Puchkina: Thank you, Miss Viv. I am honored to introduce this month’s speaker. At just under a year old, Miss Rowan Derryth has a busy second life as a writer and proofreader for Prim Perfect Magazine and the Primgraph. She writes a popular column for the Prim Perfect Magazine Blog called “Ekphrasis,” which profiles virtual artists and their work.

As owner of RoHaus, a small gallery in Avalon which showcases her private collection, Miss Derryth focuses on works she writes about in her Ekphrasis column. Many works are for sale, with all proceeds going directly to the artist. She has also recently joined the company of the revived Radio Riel Players, and is on the Board of Directors for the Frank Lloyd Wright Virtual Museum which is licensed by the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation.

In her physical world, Miss Derryth is an Art & Design Historian, specialized in 19th and early 20th century art, particularly English and Scottish art. She gives many lectures on this subject in both worlds. Please join me in welcoming Miss Rowan Derryth.

Rowan Derryth: Ladies and Gentleman, thank you so very much for inviting me here to speak today. Although I am not a citizen of your fine community, I certainly enjoy my visits, and these enlightening salons are amongst my favourite activities in the Steamlands. I feel the topic that I am speaking about today might seem strange, and perhaps even somewhat outlandish at first, but I have a strong feeling that it will appeal to the unconventional and forward-thinking minds that are gathered here today.

I do understand that there is a deep love of machines in this community. Gadgets and devices abound, and I have seen many which not only delight and astound, but are striking in their very appearance. So creative a people will surely understand that what I seek to explore today is not so much a criticism of your fine devices, but more a warning that the dangers of industry must not go unchecked, and run roughshod over the art and beauty of things which are made from the joy and industry of one’s own hands.

The 19th century artist and designer William Morris said: “If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.” This quote helped to launch the Arts & Crafts Movement in Britain, which strove to move away from the over-decorated styles of mainstream Victorian society, and to return to the more simplified – and hand-crafted – styles of earlier times, particularly the medieval and Renaissance eras. I’ve placed some slides to the left of the stage which show some examples of this influence. Alongside his friend Edward Burne-Jones, Morris met and came under the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti. This is a fascinating group of artists with whom I am sure many of you are familiar. If not, I am always happy to chat about them! But today, we must focus on what happens after these artists meet, and after they form what becomes a critically important design firm: Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company, later simply Morris & Co.

In the true spirit of medieval craftsmanship, they formed their own workshop, almost like a guild, and begin working collaboratively on homes, and interiors, including all the furnishings. This is the critically important point – they begin designing these spaces not just so they match, but as a unified whole. By the 1870s, this idea of unified design had taken over artistic communities, even down to the way people dress. However, the underlying philosophy had moved away from the more Utopian ideals of the Arts & Crafts movement, and towards ideas that were considered by some to be decadent, even bohemian. Rather than making art that was ‘beautiful and useful’, some felt that art should have no use; that is, it should only exist to provide pleasure and delight for the senses: Art for Art’s Sake. This is Aestheticism.

[I’d like to interject that I’ve been a very bad art historian and chose not to caption many of the following images as the text is difficult to see here at times, so I took up the space with images. Please IM me after if you’d like to know more about anything unclear.]

Now let’s take a brief look at some notable Aesthetes. First, we must look at the architect and designer E.W. Godwin as an important arbiter of Aesthetic taste. After establishing a thriving practice in Bristol, he moved to London in 1865, setting up shop at 23 Baker Street (not far from where Mister Sherlock Holmes would reside 30 years later!). Godwin wrote a great deal on art and design, calling for a unification of the ‘Sister Arts’; meaning that painting and sculpture should not be viewed as ‘higher’ than architecture, interior design, decorative art, or dress. Morris felt similarly, but it was Godwin who truly pressed this influential point.

An avid collector of Japanese prints, Godwin was among the first to bring Eastern style into the home. His own home in Tite Street, Chelsea – which he shared with his mistress of 7 years, the celebrated actress Ellen Terry – was well known for displaying these prints. The interior tones he employed, yellows and greens, become hallmarks of the Aesthetic Movement, which is perhaps why the Sunflower becomes one of its most notable symbols – alongside the peacock and the lily.

Although perhaps short, Godwin’s relationship with Ellen Terry was an important one, for he began to design sets and costumes for the theatre. He delighted in doing historical research to accurately construct visually authentic scenes. He received much critical acclaim for these, and even wrote books on how to properly stage Shakespearean plays. We can see for example the dress he designed for Ellen Terry here, which inspired the young Oscar Wilde to write some verse when he attended the opening night: For in the gorgeous dress of beaten gold,/ Which is more golden than the golden sun/ No woman Veronese looked upon/ Was half so fair as thou whom I behold…

Godwin ultimately created a line of ‘Anglo-Japanese’ furnishings which became very popular (his later ‘Anglo-Egyptian’ and ‘Anglo-Greek’ lines also did well.) He was very good at combining the look of more traditional English furniture (like Chippendale) with more exotic styles, something which can be seen very clearly in this piece he made with his close friend, the artist James McNeil Whistler, in 1877-78. The construction fuses an 18th century English cabinet with a pagoda, and Whistler then covered it with loosely painted gold butterflies – the butterfly being his own famous signature. He called it “Harmony in Yellow and Gold: The Butterfly Cabinet”. It also shows influence from the rather extraordinary project he had just finished…

‘The Peacock Room’, from 1876-77. This very entertaining story of its creation is often repeated across the Aethernets, but the version I relate to you here is condensed from the Freer Gallery of Art, where the room is now on display, and which describes this incident most clearly…(call that a citation) smiles… “The Peacock Room was once the dining room in the London home of Frederick R. Leyland, a wealthy shipowner from Liverpool, England. It was originally designed by a gifted interior architect named Thomas Jeckyll. To display Leyland’s prized collection of Chinese porcelain to best advantage, Jeckyll constructed a lattice of intricately carved shelving and hung antique gilded leather on the walls.” [The collecting of blue and white china by this date was quite the craze!]

[Whistler’s painting] “‘La Princesse du pays de la porcelaine’ — or ‘The Princess from the Land of Porcelain’ — occupied a place of honor above the fireplace. Jeckyll had nearly completed his commission when he consulted Whistler — who was then working on decorations for the entrance hall of Leyland’s house — about the color to paint the dining room shutters and doors… Whistler volunteered to retouch the walls with traces of yellow. Leyland permitted Whistler to make that minor alteration… Assuming the decoration of the room to be virtually complete, Leyland went back to his business in Liverpool.” [I am also showing you here famous portraits of Leyland and his wife, who were avid patrons of Whistler until the Peacock Room incident. Read on…]

“In his patron’s absence, Whistler was inspired to make bolder revisions. He covered the ceiling with Dutch metal, or imitation gold leaf, over which he painted a lush pattern of peacock feathers. He then gilded Jeckyll’s walnut shelving and embellished the wooden shutters with four magnificently plumed peacocks. Whistler wrote to Leyland that the dining room was ‘really alive with beauty — brilliant and gorgeous while at the same time delicate and refined to the last degree,’ boasting that the changes he had made were past imagining… He urged Leyland not to return to London yet, since he did not want the room to be seen before every detail was perfect.” [So basically, Whistler just went and decorated what he wanted, painting all over everything including Jeckyll’s work AND the antique gilded leather, without the permission of the owner. Imagine it!]

“Yet Whistler entertained visitors and amused the press in the lavishly decorated room, never thinking to ask permission of the owner of the house. His audacious behavior, coupled with a dispute over payment for the project, provoked a bitter quarrel between the painter and his patron. Leyland would not consent to pay the two thousand guineas that Whistler wanted: ‘I do not think you should have involved me in such a large expenditure without previously telling me of it,’ he wrote to the artist.”

“Eventually Leyland agreed to half that amount, but he further insulted Whistler by writing his check in pounds, the currency of trade, when payment to artists and professionals was customarily made in guineas. A pound is worth twenty shillings and a guinea twenty-one, so the already offensive sum was also smaller than expected.”

“Perhaps in retaliation, Whistler took the liberty of coating Leyland’s valuable leather with Prussian-blue paint and depicting a pair of peacocks aggressively confronting each other on the wall opposite The Princess. He used two shades of gold for the design and highlighted telling details in silver. Scattered at the feet of the angry bird are the coins (silver shillings) that Leyland refused to pay; the silver feathers on the peacock’s throat allude to the ruffled shirts that Leyland always wore. The poor and affronted peacock has a silver crest feather that resembles the lock of white hair that curled above Whistler’s forehead. To make sure that Leyland understood his point, Whistler called the mural of the fighting peacocks ‘Art and Money; or, The Story of the Room.’”

Amazingly, Leyland kept the room, but Whistler never saw it again. It was eventually dismantled and sold to Charles Lang Freer, which is why it is now in America. However, the incident was famous, and Whistler’s room – and peacock motif – certainly had it’s impact on Aesthetic design. Although he did so out of his own famously pompous will, Whistler was moved to make a unified design whole of the room by this philosophy of Aestheticism. There is so much to say on this fascinating subject, I beg just a bit more of your time to highlight briefly just a couple more examples, for we have not yet discusses a very critical subject when understanding Aestheticism – that of costume.

In fact, debates over dress were a very hot topic in the press. There was much arguing over the corset, that it was unnatural, even dangerous for women. Aesthetes argued that they wanted to see a natural silhouette, not one cinched by a corset and ballooned by crinolines or, later, a bustle. While this debate didn’t extend to the wider public until the 1870s, the artistic community was already practicing alternative forms of dress in the 1850s. Much is thought to have been influenced by the art of the Pre-Raphaelites…

But there were other important society figures – elite bohemians – who were well positioned to influence fashion. Ellen Terry’s first husband was the painter G.F. Watts, who she married at the tender age of 16 (he was in his 40s!). Watts painted this portrait of Terry, called ‘Choosing’, in her brown wedding dress that was designed by the Pre-Raphaelite William Holman Hunt. If only we could see the whole dress! Their union only lasted a year, but in that time she lived with the painter at Little Holland House, South Kensingson, amongst the set we now call the Holland Park Circle.

At the center of this circle were the Pattle sisters, a wealthy Anglo-Indian family who were great patrons of the arts. In fact, many of you know of one of the sisters from the wonderful talk given here by Mister PJ Trenton – the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. Her sister, Sara Pattle Prinsep was the hostess at this famous aesthetic haven, which also included her sisters Lady Sophia Dalrymple, Virginia Pattle, and Maria Jackson, who would become the grandmother of Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell.

The Prinseps were great artistic patrons, particularly to G.F. Watts, who went to stay with them when he fell ill in 1850, then remained there with them for another 25 years! The sisters, largely raised near Calcutta, were described to have ‘adopted a graceful and beautiful style of dress that seemed inspired by the Italian Renaissance… with flowing robes… made of rare Indian stuffs.’ They were described as ‘unconventional’ and as ‘making bohemian respectable.’

Of particular interest is an anecdote which described their social and sartorial interactions:
‘Amongst themselves the sisters talked in Hindustani, and when they met together at one or other of their houses they generally sat up all night in an orgie [sic] of dressmaking, pulling their robes to bits and sewing them up in a new way, or designing and cutting out new clothes, chattering all the time in Hindustani, that seemed to an outsider the language best suited to express their superabundant vitality.’

As early as 1851, Watts painted Sophia Dalrymple, in a flowing white robe, loosely tied about the waist with no corset or petticoats. This was more than a decade before other famous paintings of women in white, such as Whistler’s Little White Girl of 1864, or Rossetti’s Lady Lilith of 1868, and yet this group has not been given consideration in literature on the origins of Aesthetic Dress. We begin to see the models developing for this style of dress: loose and refined lines, made from high quality decorative fabrics in natural tones, embellished, but not necessarily overdone.

We see this style at its height in William Powell Frith’s painting ‘A Private View at the Royal Academy’ (1881). The Victorian Dress at center is contrasted with the tea gowns worn by Aesthetic Ladies at left and right. Some of you may even recognize the tall fellow in the stove pipe hat with the lily in his lapel, surrounded by the Aesthetic ladies. Can you tell me who that is? Here is a hint: he reportedly said “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable, we have to change it every six months.”

Manx Wharton: wilde

Aisling Sinclair: Mr Wilde?

Rowan Derryth: Indeed. And if you can make out the lady just to the right of him in the brown flowered dress, that is again Ellen Terry. Wilde was of course a critical figure in the Aesthetic Movement, even going to America to give lectures on Aestheticism. This was actually funded by the producers of Gilbert & Sullivan’s aesthetic parody ‘Patience’ – in which he character of Bunthorne was said to be modelled after Wilde – as they wanted American audiences to understand the humour. Wilde was met with many mixed reactions, particularly in places like Boston! A gentleman going about in brocaded coats, breeches, silk hose, long loose hair, and sporting a lily certainly raised the eyebrows of those prickly nor’easters!

For those who are fans of Dorian Grey, I encourage you to give the story another read after understanding a bit more about Aestheticism. It is full of sensuous references of which the Aesthetes were fond – flowers, fine fabrics, theatre, and of course, the painting that captures the soul! Also, the preface – which was written AFTER the original serialized version in The Strand Magazine was met with shock – is a wonderful manifesto on Wilde’s views on art. He cautions us to ‘look beneath the surface at our peril’, and ends with that wonderful famous phrase: ‘All art is quite useless.’ This line is often misconstrued to be a slight upon art, but Wilde explained it himself in a subsequent letter: “Art is useless because its aim is to simply create a mood. It is not meant to instruct, or to influence action in any way.” How Aesthetic! These ideas, it must be said, were taken directly from the writings and lectures of Godwin, Whistler, and other notable aestheticians of the day.

Finally, I would like to close today with some examples of Aesthetic Dress from our virtual world. I apologize to the gentlemen that I am focusing on ladies dress so much here, but I shall leave these images of Mr Wilde up for you, and I can answer questions on this at the end. I hope most of you will not mind closely examining the natural beauty of the female figure meanwhile. If I may ask Miss Aferdita to join me on the stage? I will not dissemble: it was a challenge to find a proper Aesthetic Dress. There are many wonderful examples of Victorian dresses out there – in fact I see several examples today! But dresses which adhere to the tenets put forth by the Aesthetes were difficult to find, and in the end I was only able to cobble together two dresses from the separates section of the wonderful Pixel Dolls line.

Miss Tricia Aferdita is wearing would I might call an earlier version of Aesthetic Dress, one inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites. It is inspired by medieval costume, but it still close fitting and in a single piece (in appearance), much like the dress in Millais’ painting of Mariana, seen here – a dress which Millais designed and had his mother construct. Many of the dresses in Pre-Raphaelite paintings are the combination of historical study and Victorian imagination. Mariana is in the Pre-Raphaelite slide to the left

My dress is modelled after the Aesthetic Teagowns of the 1880s. A teagown was of course, originally, a more informal gown which one wore at home, when she was receiving intimate friends for tea. However Aesthetic ladies wore them in public – usually to events like art gallery ‘private shows’. This was of course shocking at first, but as it was done my ladies of status, it was of course accepted, and ultimately adopted by many social climbers.

You may note that both these gowns hug the figure, showing the natural line of the body. The sleeves on my gown are snug, but should not be overly tight to allow comfort and freedom of movement. Puffs of fabric were often utilized to help with this, such as on m lower sleeve. Also important were the choice of sensuous fabrics. Miss Aferdita and I are both in velvet, and my dress also uses a light silk chiffon. Our colour choices of fawn and moss are also more natural than the garish, chemical aniline dyes that many Victorian dresses exhibited.

There are other wonderful designers, though, who seem inspired by the spirit of Aestheticism and alternative modes of Victorian dress. For example, Miss Viv Trafalgar’s Wollstonecraft gown is not only very serviceable, but is named after a wonderful radical reformer, and for this it meets my approval! Also, Miss Terry Lightfoot makes a wonderful dress that is directly taken from the pattern of the designer Walter Crane. However, her versions have been made in a rather gothic black and red, and as well in a ‘Lady Bathory’ – a wonderful white gown spattered in blood. Aesthetic – and dangerous! Miss Trafalgar, are you wearing it? Perhaps you can stand before us too if you are.

This brings me to then end of my talk, and I thank you all for indulging me. I am happy to answer any questions you may have, and hope you have enjoyed yourselves, as well as learned what you might do to make your homes – and lives – ‘Palaces of Art.’ Thank you!

Viv Trafalgar: Thank you Miss Derryth for a very enlightening talk! Thank you Miss Aferdita! If there are questions, please say so and we’ll moderate

Rowan Derryth: Again, I realize I didn’t say much about gentleman’s dress, and can do if people have questions on that.

Viv Trafalgar: Darlingmonster, do you have a question? Please ask it

Darlingmonster Ember: Thank you. Wonderful presentation. The picture of victorians and aethetics mixing. Were the two very at odds socially? Or did they mix a lot?

Rowan Derryth: Well, they are all Victorians… with different styles of dress really. Those who were of an artistic bent, either as practitioners or patrons, might dress in these fashions.

Rowan Derryth: Mister Lacombe?

Linus Lacombe: The gowns you and Ms Afterdita are wearing…they seem reminicent some how gowns I have seen depicted in photos from the 1910s. Is there any validity in my observation?

Rowan Derryth: Hmmm. You mean Edwardian gowns?

Linus Lacombe: I suppose Edwardian…does the period run that late in time?

Rowan Derryth: Well, it is difficult, as the dresses here are of course inspired by several ages… Yes, Edwardian is post-Victorian.. They are somewhat similar, but there is a return to an Empire waist for a time…But you are correct in the line of the dress, and the lack of bustle

Viv Trafalgar: Yes, M. Omegamu?

Mahakala Omegamu: I was wondering if you can explain bohemianism a bit, how the victorians viewed it? how their influence was spread differently than the victorians ( who I’m imagining were just the upper crust of society? )

Rowan Derryth: Ah, good question. Well of course I didn’t ahve time to discuss France, but…like anything, if those of a certain class did it, then.. well you could sort of look away. But…though Queen Victoria and Prince ALbert were great patrons of the arts and design… She warned her daughter, Princess Louise… who was a sculptress, and who GOdwin built a studio for… to be careful of those artistic types. You could be bohemian, but you had to be careful how far you took it, like anything. Aestheticism was about the ‘Cult of Beauty’, but it could certainly lead to decadence. Again, everyone should go read DOrian Grey again or Du Maurier’s Trilby

If you are interested in this, the V&A will be doing a major exhibit on Aestheticism in April, and no doubt there will be much at their website. Maybe even an iPhone app… to be modern about it

Darlingmonster Ember: V&A means?

Rowan Derryth: sorry

Viv Trafalgar: Victoria and Albert Museum

Rowan Derryth: You can look up any of the people I’ve talked about today. There have much in their collection

Viv Trafalgar: Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you to this magnificent crowd for coming today! Please feel free to stay and talk, and sample the comestibles. Mr. Kiergarten would you put out the craft? We’ve collaborated on a lilly wearable…

Rowan Derryth: Thank you again, this was great fun!

Viv Trafalgar: I hope everyone marks their calendar for next month – the third sunday in December. Thank you one and all who have supported our fantastic speaker this month, and also to those who support the salon!

Serafina Puchkina: Thank you, Miss Derryth, for speaking with us today. Thank you, beloved patrons, for your attendance

Viv Trafalgar: Jasper, will you pick up the speakers fund in a moment and award the contents to miss Derryth?

TAMU Oh: http://www.vam.ac.uk/collections/fashion/index.html

Rowan Derryth: I’m going to provide the Salonistas with a short bibliography and links for when they post the transcript

Serafina Puchkina: If you wish, join the Aether Salon group. The sign is by the door. You may also contribute to the tier if you would like.

KlausWulfenbach Outlander: It’s the left-hand button on the poster bottom.

Viv Trafalgar: bless you Baron and Sera. I am afraid I’ll be abroad next month but the salon will be well and in good hands

Serafina Puchkina: I will post edited and unedited transcripts at http://aethersalon.blogspot.com You can also find pictures of today’s salon at the above site

For further info:
Peacock Room at the Freer Gallery of Art: http://www.asia.si.edu/exhibitions/online/peacock/default.htm
Cult of Beauty, upcoming exhibit at the V&A: http://www.vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/future_exhibs/aestheticism/index.html
Whistler: http://www.mr-whistlers-art.info/
E.W. Godwin at the Victorian Web (a great source overall): http://www.victorianweb.org/art/design/godwin/index.html
The Picture of Dorian Gray at Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/174

Books:
Charlotte Gere, “Artistic Circles: Design and Decoration in the Aesthetic Movement” (2010)
Elizabeth Prettejohn, “Art for Art’s Sake: Aestheticism in Victorian Painting” (2008)

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