UC Davis, English 155B

Winter Quarter, 2002

Dr. Mary Waters

The 19th Century Aesthetic Movement

Group Members: Esmeralda Lessire, Linh Nguyen, and Kate Pastoor

Introduction and Overview

by Linh Nguyen

The Arts and Crafts Movement is the main line of reform design in the 19th century that defines the period of its greatest development, roughly between 1875-1920. The Aesthetic Movement and Art Nouveau, whose roots were in the reaction to the Industrial Revolution in England in the middle of the 19th century, are the two major stylistic developments of this Movement’s philosophy (A Thing of Beauty 9).

The term "Aesthetic Movement" refers to the introduction of principles that emphasized art in the production of furniture, metalwork, ceramics, stained glass, textiles, wallpapers, and books. The catalyst for its widespread popularity was the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. There, in numerous displays, many Americans, artists and craftsmen as well as the general public, were exposed to art objects from a great variety of nations and periods (Bolger Burke et al. 19). Most writers on the Aesthetic Movement agree that its roots lie in the reaction to Industrialization in mid-19th century England The movement incorporated both exotic and historical sources of design generally, the Japanese influence became the strongest and best known. However, not all Aesthetic Movement design is in a Japanese style and vice versa. Today relatively little remains of the highest expressions of Aesthetic Movement design. Never inexpensive and therefore never plentiful, few objects and very few intact interiors, particularly the domestic interior, survive to suggest their richness and beauty (A Thing of Beauty 11-12).

The Aesthetic movement in Britain began as a reform impulse. It was a part of a larger critique of the Industrial Revolution, which had radically altered Britain following the Napoleonic Wars, and it paralleled political events that had firmly established the power of the middle class with the Second Reform Bill of 1867. The costs of these social transformations were the subjects of impassioned debate, in the aesthetic realm as well as elsewhere (Bolger Burke et al. 25). At first English designers and manufacturers followed the pattern of conscious imitation established on the continent. Apart from prints, free use was also made of Japanese cloisonné wear, ivories, bronzes, lacquer and textiles. However it was not long before a distinctly English brand of Japonisme began to appear. English potters in particular were well accustomed to the decorative principles of oriental design and so began almost immediately to turn the pure European form of Japonisme into an essentially decorative up date of 18th century chinoiserie (Klein 10). Thus the speed with which Japanese styles were accepted in England as a result of a well-established decorative oriental tradition blurred the boundaries between Japanese and Chinese arts as styles became quite increasingly oriental. But it remained primarily an expression of British culture.

Out of the Aesthetic Movement came new ideas and shapes that looked towards the 20th century. The study of Japanese principles of design brought varying results; many of the large commercial firms like Wedgwood, Copeland, Worcester and Minton were interested in the foreign influences merely for their fashionable decorative values; they were satisfying the appetites of a mass market, albeit with fine workmanship and design. But Christopher Dresser and Edward Godwin responded to the functional side of oriental design, analyzing it, stripping it to its bare bones, and revealing a new sense of functionality in design that was to set the mood for the 20th century. Godwin’s sketchbooks show that he studied the designs of as many nations as possible, but in his finished products these studies have become incorporated into a completely English style (Klein 10). A leading revolutionary a century ago, Englishman William Morris' work as an artist, designer, printer, and intellectual reflected a search for a new social order. He persuaded many of the necessity for change. He wrote, "I know by my own feelings & desires what these men want, what would have saved them from this lowest depth of savagery; Employment which would foster their self-respect and win the praise and sympathy of their fellows, and dwellings which could come to with pleasure, surroundings which would soothe and elevate them; reasonable labour, reasonable rest. There is only one thing that can give them this, and it is art" (Kaplan viii-ix). Morris urged the need to restore the lost sense of beauty that the dehumanization of industry has forced upon society.

The labor divisions were depriving the craftsman of the pleasure of his work and as work was central to the social life of the individual, this disintegrated and debased English society. Beauty and quality were ignored for profit and quantity. The political philosophy was, naturally, anti-aristocratic and the expression of that idea in terms of design principles was a rejection of the characteristics of design associated with the rich. There was also a religious component, in that the nature of religious beliefs was a great influence in the formation of British values. As it was oriented away from ritual and visual symbols and more towards social and community ideals, it reinforced the social nature of the movement (A Thing of Beauty 9). Thus, although the Movement definitely had its stylistic expressions, it was not simply an art movement but had a rather complex structure of social, political and moral ideas of the British life in during that period.

Works Cited

A Thing of Beauty (Catalog of an exhibition at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta,

Georgia, February 1-April 6, 1980). Atlanta: The High Museum of Art. 1980.

Bolger Burke, et al. In Pursuit of Beauty. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Kaplan, Wendy. The Art That Is Life: The Arts & Crafts Movement in America, 1875-

1920. New York: Little, Brown and Company. 1987.

Klein, Dan. Aspects of the Aesthetic Movement. London: Gordon House/Hillingdon

Press. 1978.

Victorian Architecture

by Esmeralda Lessire

During the Victorian period, there was a revival of classical (Greek and Roman), Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architecture. Romantic architects replicated Greek and Roman buildings, which were revered as the ultimate examples of beauty (Sporre 487; Tansey 932). Increased nationalism in England also sparked a revival of Gothic architecture. After the Houses of Parliament burnt down in London (1834), the task of redesign the new building was assigned to Charles A. Barry and Augustus W. N. Pugin. Their Gothic design of the new Houses of Parliament make it a prime example of Victorian architecture today (Tansey 955) (see figure 1, below).

It is important to recognize that Romantic architecture was not only a return to the past. Modern technologies and materials, as well as non-European influences, also played a role. (Sporre 495-98; Tansey 956). One example is the Crystal Palace designed by Sir Joseph Paxton for the Great Exhibition in London (1851). Made of iron and glass, it was designed to be rapidly put together and taken apart. Another noted architectural example of this period was John Nash’s Royal Pavilion in Brighton (1815-18). The design of this palace was greatly influenced by Islamic and Eastern architecture (Flynn; Sporre 495-98; Tansey 956, 1014).

Victorian architecture was both a rediscovery of the past and the precursor of Modern architecture. Some buildings embodied both of these characteristics. The Houses of Parliament and the Crystal Palace’s outside architecture had little to do with their functions and internal design. Their architects were revolutionizing the world of architecture and ushering in the Modern era (Sporre 495-98).

Fig. 1

Top: Barry and Pugin, Houses of Parliament, London. Designed 1835

Bottom: Nash, Royal Pavilion, England. 1815-1818.

(Tansey and Kleiner 956)


Victorian Painting

by Esmeralda Lessire

Victorian painting was made up of several schools including the Romantics, the Realists and the Pre-Raphaelites. Recurring topics included fallen women, fairies, family scenes, historical scenes, landscapes and portraits (Sporre 509-511; Victorian Web).

Romantic painters focused on escaping the rules of classical composition and opening up painting to imagination and individual drama. It was not meant to be objective. The Romantics also discovered the power and importance of color as opposed to shape and form (Sporre 489-90). Two well-known British Romantic painters whose works fit this ideal were Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851) and John Constable (1776-1837). Turner’s most famous work is The Slave Ship (1840), based on the real event of a sea captain throwing out sick slaves into the sea so that he could collect the insurance money (fig.2). In this painting, color clearly dominates over form and the sea, sky and sun seem to merge. There are no clear delineations between the elements. (Flynn; Sporre 493; Tansey 950-51). Landscape paintings were also very popular in this era, and Constable was one of the most noted landscape painters. He was interested in color, but tried to reproduce the scenes he painted scientifically onto the canvas. This focus made his paintings very realistic (Sporre 511; Tansey 952-53).

The Realists and the Pre-Raphaelites were the other two important movements in Victorian painting. Both paid extreme attention to details (Sporre 510). John Evrett Millais' (1829-1896) Ophelia (1852) is a good example of Realism (fig. 3). Even if his subject is from a play, his attention to detail draws strongly from the Realist techniques (Flynn; Tansey 975-76). Dante Gabriel Rossetti is probably the most well known Pre-Raphaelite painter. His paintings almost always represented women. An acclaimed example of his work can be found his paintings for Goblin Market (1862), a poem written and published by his sister, Christina Rossetti (1830-1894).

The Victorian era had numerous painters that produced a multitude of works. Its variety of styles and topics were precursors to the movements of Impressionism and Abstract painting which were to follow (Sporre 511).

Fig. 2: Turner's The Slave Ship, 1840.

Oil on canvas, 35 3/4" x 48 1/4"

(Tansey and Kleiner 951)

Fig. 3: Millais' Ophelia, 1852. Oil on canvas, 30" x 44"

(Tansey and Kleiner 976)


Works Cited

Flynn, Suzanne Johnson. "Victorian Aesthetics." Gettysburg University. 1998. 23 Jan. 2002 <http://www.gettysburg.edu/~sflynn/teaching/ aesthetics>.

Rossetti, Christina. Goblin Market: A Tale of Two Sisters. Hong Kong: Chronicle Books, 1997.

Sporre, Dennis J. The Creative Impulse: An Introduction to The Arts. 4th ed. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall. 478-511.

Tansey, Richard G., and Fred S. Kleiner. Gardner’s Art Through The Ages. 10th ed. Orlando: Harcourt Brace, 1996. 926-1017.

The Victorian Web. University Scholars Program, National University of Singapore. 23 Jan. 2002 <http://65.107.206/victorian/victov.html>



by Kate Pastoor

The story of 19th century photography, and its impact on arts in England and over the world, is not as clear-cut as it might seem. Although photography was officially announced as having been discovered in 1839, its roots can be traced back for centuries. Leonardo Da Vinci's speculations in the 16th century about a "camera obscura," (Victorian Web) later evolved into an actual artist's tool. The camera obscura, a box with a lens that projects the image, allowed artists to hand-draw the projected image onto paper (like tracing). Artists used this photographic tool to help with accuracy and proper perspective. This was especially important to British photography pioneer John Herschel. For Herschel, documenting the landscape was a necessity on his geological expeditions (going out into nature was an important part of life for many who lived in the increasingly crowded and dirty cites). He invented the lighter-weight, more compact camera lucida. He was also a friend and inspiration to fellow Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot, who was unknowingly in a race with L.J.M. Daguerre for being the discoverer of photography. Both Fox Talbot and Daguerre were trying to find a way of permanently fixing an image created by light alone (without the need for drawing) to accurately capture the world. The importance of art being accurate to the "real world" pre-photography can be seen in 19th century literature like Jane Eyre, where Jane is frequently praised for how accurately her portraits depict subjects. With such importance placed on realism in art, even as depicted in literature, the idea of a photograph became even more enticing.

Talbot and Daguerre approached their common goal in different ways: Although daguerreotypes were popular for a time, they could not be reproduced (they had no negatives). Talbot's discovery of permanently fixing an image onto paper, by using a paper negative, was the more enduring approach. Talbot's use of an easily reproducible negative allowed photographs to be seen in books by fellow artists, scientists, and eventually, by the public. Figure 4, below, is a "close variant of the published version" of one of Talbot's most famous photographs (Out of the Shadows, 139).

Cyanotypes (or photograms) were another kind of photographic process, invented by Herschel and mastered by Anna Atkins. She used cyanotypes (paper coated with UV-light-sensitive chemicals that would record the outlines of objects laid on top) to document the most minute details of plants. This kind of precision would be otherwise impossible to replicate through drawing. Atkin's interest in photograms was fueled by her interest in botany, one of the few accepted scientific disciplines for a woman at the time. Her photograms allowed her to work in the realm of science (fig. 5). She was the first person to "print and publish a photographically illustrated book" (Schaaf 7), one filled with meticulous documentation of British algae while also being beautiful to look at.

The early photographers documented objects on paper as accurately as possible by using real light, a feat never before accomplished. Yet "Talbot and his contemporaries had worked in an exploratory way for no greater audience than…artists and scientists" (Real Thing 9). The increasingly important middle-class changed the look of photography by its taste in photographs. This caused debate about the new art's place in society, and even whether it was an "art" at all. Pictures of exotic places like Egypt were tremendously popular for British homes (Real Thing 9), even though art critics disliked the commercialization of the new art form. Some felt that photography should serve as an "educational medium," reflecting conservative Victorian values. Another complaint quoted in The Real Thing states that photos of "sentimental 'Weddings' [and] 'Christenings'…[are] enough to disgust anyone of refined taste" (14). Themes of the sentimental novel seem to cross over into photography's subjects. By the 1860's, the new art was already being accused of "selling out" to the masses, relying on their emotions rather than "substance" of style.

Clearly, photography's place in British life was undetermined, and still is to an extent in modern society. Photography influenced the course of other artistic disciplines, such as painting, a tradition hundreds of years older than itself. The all-important "realism" in drawing and painting was suddenly rendered futile when the camera came along. It appealed to artists, scientists, and everyday people (although drawing criticism all the way from those who distrusted the new medium). The appeal of photography increased for the majority of the Victorians, and its discovery continues to impact the way that we see our world today.

Fig. 4: Talbot's The Open Door, 1844.

Salt print from a calotype negative. 14.4 x 19.5 cm

(Out of the Shadows 139)


Fig. 5: Atkins' Dictyota dichotoma,

in the young state, & in fruit.

Cyanotype, 1848 or 1849.

26 1/2 x 21 cm. (Sun Gardens 33)

Home Design

by Kate Pastoor

Home decorating styles changed dramatically during the middle part of the 1800's, even though design began to refer back to the styles the century had begun with as it came to an end. This difference in popular taste did not just evolve because of the passage of time, however; new technological advancements in furniture production and an increased interest in the arts of Asia influenced home décor. The changing British culture manifested itself in how the middle-class decorated their homes, and how they perceived themselves.

In the earlier part of the 19th century, tastes tended toward lighter looks. According to The Victorian Web online site, "Satinwood was in vogue and a light finish for mahogany was fashionable." Yet with the invention of the coiled spring in 1828 by Samuel Pratt of London, "easy chairs and settees began to put on weight" (Victorian Web). The new cushioned furniture of the 1830's foreshadows the over-the-top richness of the middle part of the century's design.

Soon, the rich, dark colors and fabrics now characteristic of the Victorian era became popular. The middle class embraced the seeming luxury of deep reds and heavy materials covering their homes. Even Jane Eyre is not excluded from the new look of opulence when she redecorates the secluded Moor-House. She thinks the "[dark] handsome new carpets and curtains…looked fresh" (Bronte 490). The crimson color and damask fabrics mentioned frequently in Jane Eyre appealed to the Victorians because of the underlying messages they sent. This "fussy" style signaled "comfort, warmth, and the display of wealth and status" (Victorian Web).

The Industrial Revolution also impacted the way furniture was made, and therefore, the way it looked. Hand crafted pieces were no longer the only option; ironically, the most gaudy, ornate styles were produced in factories, despite their intricate carvings. The Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851 was a landmark because it featured furniture so ornate it became tasteless (see figure 6, left image, below). Stokstad's Art History (Revised Edition) describes the concern over the designs featured in the show by saying, "The elaboration of decorative elements at the expense of function and good taste distressed many, including the event's organizers" (1006). The excess had gone too far; the Victorians needed a change.

William Morris, "convinced that industrialism itself was the problem" (1006), began to design furniture with a medieval, yet more basic, style. He endorsed the benefits of hand crafting pieces, stressing the importance of work by people rather than machines. Not all of the Morris furniture was expensive, either: the chair on the right side of figure 6, below, was a "cheap, simple, and basic…hand crafted alternative to the vulgar excess" of previous years (Stokstad 1007). The social unrest at the time was translated into furniture trends. Near the end of the century, dark, heavy furniture was transformed into lighter looking and lighter-colored again. This was partly due to the increasing interest in the simplicity of Japanese designs; "bamboo, and blue and white china" replaced the ornate knickknacks. At the same time, perhaps as a reaction to the influence of foreign cultures, collecting antique furniture became popular. Again, Jane Eyre is not excluded from this trend: she notes the "carefully selected antique ornaments" she purchased for her redecoration of Moor-House (Bronte 490). In a novel so concerned with the idea of England versus every other country in a battle for cultural superiority, it is no accident Jane considers her interior decorating so carefully. The middle-class' taste in home décor reflects the underlying social concerns and changing standards of the time.

Fig. 6: Left: Bedstead, from The Art Journal Illustrated Catalogue of the Great Exhibition, 1851. Right: Chair, by Norman Shaw, 1876. Oak with rush seat. Both from London. (Stokstad 1007)


Works Cited

Arts Council of Great Britain. The Real Thing: An Anthology of British Photographers 1840-1950. Netherlands: Arts Council of Great Britain. 1975.

Bronte, Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Ontario, Canada: Broadview. 1998.

Schaaf, Larry J. Out of the Shadows: Herschel, Talbot & the Invention of Photography. New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 1992.

Schaaf, Larry J. Sun Gardens: Victorian Photograms by Anna Atkins. New York: Aperture Books/Viking Penguin. 1985.

Stokstad, Marilyn. Art History (Revised Edition). New York: Prentice Hall. 1999.

The Victorian Web. University Scholars Program, National University of Singapore. 9 Feb. 2002,