- Design, Decoration, & Aestheticism
An early passage in Charlotte Gere's Artistic Circles recalls the Duchess of Cleveland's response upon learning that a young man to whom she has been introduced over dinner is in fact an artist: "What strange people you do ask to meet us." By the last third of the century, the Duchess's disdain was becoming something of a relic in aristocratic circles. Indeed, in 1882, John Everett Millais encountering another duchess's hesitancy to visit his "rooms" coolly invited her to visit him at Palace Gate, where his splendid studio house testified to his social standing and superior taste. This exchange emblematizes a wider shift in social relations that both enabled British aestheticism and established it as a vibrant lived culture. Artistic Circles charts a network of [End Page 400] artists, architects, patrons, and dealers, all connected through formal club memberships, exhibitions, design projects, salons, marriages, and friendships, and all involved in the production and celebration of domestic aesthetic spaces.
Chapter one demonstrates how prominent artists defied traditional class paradigms and claimed social legitimacy among upper-class patrons by commissioning and decorating grand homes for themselves. Only a few painters such as Frederick Leighton, Edward Poynter, G. F. Watts, and Edward Millais were ever offered peerages; but they and others ascended socially through "show homes" designed by architects Norman Shaw, George Aitcheson, and Philip Webb in new artistic neighborhoods. Studio houses were both proof of commercial success and a means towards it. Through the ritual of "open days," their interiors served not only as backdrops for paintings that would be on view at the Royal Academy; given their proximity to the homes of fashionable patrons, such show homes also bridged the gap between bohemia and high society. Studio houses further facilitated a glamorous representation of the artist as a gentleman-celebrity, one that magazines confirmed through interviews and photographs of him at home. Certain houses received repeated attention in the press and in artistic travelogues such as Mary Eliza Joy Haweis's Beautiful Houses (1882). As Gere argues, such artists' aspirations toward acceptance by the upper class would be obsolete by the early twentieth century.
Gere documents the social heterogeneity among aesthetic-identified artists. For instance, although William Morris's Red House in Kent may be said to be the first intentionally designed middle-class Palace of Art, neither Morris nor D. G. Rossetti purchased Kensington mansions. Such opulence would have been offensive to Morris's socialism, and both men clung to a bohemianism that Leighton would have scorned. Clearly, not all artists who met professionally befriended one another. The image of Morris, with his indigo-dyed hands, gaining aesthetic authority over the haute monde testifies to a society in some flux. For all that, artists' social mobility was not guaranteed. Leighton could crack into the patrician class because of his financial success, his easy cosmopolitanism, and his bachelor status (for marriage to a working-class or even a middle-class girl had its costs). An artist's past might also require diligent pruning so that the public never encountered scandals of divorce, infidelity, and illegitimacy; yet again there were no fixed rules: some, like Rossetti and James McNeill Whistler, gained a following because of their reputations for rebellion. [End Page 401]
Chapter two focuses on the late-Victorian artistic home, with its aim of an integrated aesthetic whose parts combined harmoniously, its conceptualizing of the garden as an open room, and its nostalgia for an imagined idyllic past. Artists from Morris to Charles Rennie Macintosh perceived the home as a work of art and a practical space: a studio home's need for light directed the choice of the house's orientation on its lot. Whether or not aesthetes could afford elite architects, they relied on commercial manufacturers of art-textiles and art-furniture, such as the Art Furnishers' Alliance. As Frank Burnand knew in staging The Colonel, it only took a few sharp signifiers—a dado, Morris papers, Japanese fans, peacock feathers—to convey an aesthetic home to an audience already...