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  • Walter Pater’s House Beautiful and the Psychology of Self-Culture
  • Maureen Moran

In A Writer's Recollections the novelist Mary Ward records her memories of North Oxford in the 1870s, offering gossipy insight into the domestic arrangements of young dons and their families as well as into the dynamics of intellectual and artistic life centred on the university. Her description of the drawing room of her neighbours, Walter, Hester and Clara Pater, is of particular interest to students of late-Victorian artistic culture, for it seems to encapsulate the quintessential, mannered modernity of the Aesthetic movement:

… a Morris paper; spindle-legged tables and chairs; a sparing allowance of blue plates and pots, bought, I think, in Holland … framed embroidery of the most delicate design and colour … engravings, if I remember right, from Botticelli or Luini, or Mantegna; a few mirrors, and a very few flowers, chosen and arranged with a simple yet conscious art.1

The elegant minimalism of this setting is one way in which it proclaims a rebellious challenge to the pompous, "overstuffed" values of mid-Victorian interior design. The room seems to announce a new art of discrimination in its eclecticism. The natural and the artificial come together in the careful juxtaposition of cut flowers and stylised Morris wallpaper; opposing periods are accommodated in the neo-mediaeval furniture and Renaissance prints; homely handicrafts and mass-produced artefacts are equally valued as objets d'art. For Ward, this studied arrangement of harmonious discord exemplifies a general trend among the new generation of Oxford intellectuals. Scorning the vulgarity of Mayfair drawing rooms that reeked of conspicuous consumption in quantity and lavish display, her coterie announces its cultural superiority through decorative principles adapted from more bohemian and controversial sources: Pre-Raphaelite paintings and the revolutionary designs of Morris and Burne-Jones. [End Page 291]

Dubbed the "House Beautiful" by the likes of Oscar Wilde, these new "aesthetic" interiors evoke the refined taste of the avant-garde, cultivated connoisseur. Indeed, for cognoscenti who could read it aright, this environment promises an artistic experience in itself, stimulating delightful sensation and uplifting emotions. This assumption is apparent in Mary Eliza Haweis's crescendo of enthusiasm when describing William Burges's aesthetic home in 1882:

Our first impression on entering is one of brightness, joyfulness, strength. The door entry and hall are quiet in tone; but as we proceed, more and more colour and light gleam out, until the climax breaks upon us in gold and vermilion. The whole scheme is mediaeval, the work is mainly modern. The combinations of the old with the new world are quaint, often humorous, but not incongruous.2

Assiduously copied and mercilessly parodied, the new House Beautiful quickly achieved iconic status as the expression of an advanced sensibility and a psychological solace to all who entered it. The Victorian House Beautiful visually readjusts priorities. Rather than indicating social position through fashionable conformity, it projects interest in the inner, creative self by appealing to feelings and perceptions normally associated with artistic expression. As a style of home decoration, its relative spareness and concern for composition encourage the observer to reflect on and savour each artefact, taking pleasure from its form. The material surroundings of the home are no longer simply a backdrop to indicate status, but a significant element in the psychological experiences that comprise the individual mind. In his 1882 lecture tour to America, Wilde promoted serious interest in the decorative arts and the House Beautiful because, like any art form, they had a "spiritual ministry."3 As he further elaborates in "The Soul of Man Under Socialism," the aesthetically crafted interior with its beautiful objets improves its inhabitants by bringing them into contact with "beautiful patterns from the artist's brain." More than redefining modern taste, the creation of "lovely surroundings" through "the use of beautiful things" is both a mark and a method of civilization and personal growth.4

This article considers how Pater incorporates this fashionable trend as part of a narrative of self-culture and of "brain-building." In his stories of youthful formation—"The Child in the House," the early chapters of Marius the Epicurean and Gaston de Latour, and "Emerald Uthwart...


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pp. 291-312
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