Art History with Anne

The Wilde Years: 1870-1900

A series of three lectures added to the archive library of lectures

Max Beerbohm, “Caricature of Aubrey Beardsley.” The Savoy, vol. 2, April 1896

On 21st August 2022 academics and enthusiasts, including myself, gathered to wish Aubrey Beardsley Happy Birthday.  Celebrating 150 years since his birth, it is sad to recall that Beardsley died aged only twenty-five from tuberculosis.  Yet he seemed to pack a whole lifetime into a career that spanned some six years. Inspired by this event, and eagerly anticipating the re-opening of Lord Leighton’s Studio-House, Kensington, in October, I will be offering a series of three lectures on my favourite topic the Aesthetic Movement. Having studied this era for many years, I often joke that I know more about the 1870s and 1880s than my own epoch. For my perfect dinner party, I would invite Oscar Wilde and Jemmy Whistler and allow them to do all the talking!

That was an awfully good joke you made last night. I wish I had made it. / ‘You will [underlined] my boy. You will [underlined]. 1894. Art Institute of Chicago. Reproduced in Phil May’s Sketch-book, first issued in 1895. 

Given my association with Leighton House, its reopening after being closed for some two years will be my highlight this autumn. In 2009-2010, I worked on Closer to Home: The Restoration of Leighton House, an exhibition marking the ambition to return the studio-house to its former glory.  With Victorian art and culture out of fashion for many decades, Leighton House had been rather neglected. Much of the original contents, paintings by Leighton and his circle of friends, furniture and ceramics, had been sold after Leighton’s death.  While it was impossible to recover all the lost works of art, the auction catalogue provided the basis for a reconstruction. The massive dresser in the dining room, designed by Leighton’s architect George Atchison, has been reconstructed.  The glory of the house remains the Arab Hall a unique blend of Western and Eastern art with genuine Islamic tiles, a mosaic by Walter Crane and carvings by Randolph Caldicott. A visit to Leighton’s ‘Palace of Art’ will transport you back to a time when artists lived like princes.

Leighton House, the Arab Hall

I have been a fan of OW for many years publishing several papers in The Wildean, a Journal of Oscar Wilde Studies. So, my trilogy of lectures will begin with Oscar, the High Priest of the Aestheticism!

Oscar Wilde and the Cult of Beauty

Sheet Music Cover for ‘The High Art Maiden’ c. 1881/82

While still a student at Oxford, Oscar declared ‘Somehow or other I’ll be famous, and if not famous, I’ll be notorious.’ How prophetic! As the self-appointed High Priest of Aestheticism, Wilde achieved notoriety early in his career. Oscar made his debut as an art critic with a review of the Grosvenor Gallery, which opened its doors as an alternative exhibition space to the Royal Academy in 1877.  He already preferred Burne-Jones to Millais but did not yet appreciate Whistler’s nocturns and symphonies! Posing as an art critic, Oscar’s pretensions and affectations, especially finding it hard to ‘live up’ to his Old Blue china, brought accusations of being a sham.  Apparently, Wilde had no real love for art, he merely courted fame. Ridiculing the Aesthetes proved easy and lucrative for George Du Maurier, cartoonist for Punch, and Gilbert and Sullivan, whose comic opera Patience popularised Aestheticism; in 1882 Oscar was despatched to America to bolster the success of Patience and pontificate on how to achieve the ‘House Beautiful’.   On his return he made money lecturing on his experiences in America; he married and settled in Tite Street, Chelsea, creating his own ideal home.  He had yet to write anything of real significance; the late 1880s saw him editing The Woman’s World.  But the 1890s witnessed the publication of his only novel, Dorian Gray, and the stage plays that have secured his posthumous fame as a writer. But just as success was in his grasp, nemesis appeared in the form of the Marquis of Queensbury.

The famous cartoon by George Du Maurier published in Punch (1880)
Patience was first staged in April 1881.

Lord Leighton’s Palace of Art: Artist’s Studio-Houses in London

For some 16 years, until his death in 1896, Lord Leighton ruled the roost as President of the Royal Academy.  He headed an elite group of Victorian painters who colonised Holland Park- George Frederick Watts, William Holman Hunt, Luke Fildes, Marcus Stone, William Burges, Hamo Thorneycroft and Valentine Prinsep.  On the fringe of this clique lived Linley Sambourne, the Punch cartoonist, who did his best to keep up with the ‘Burne-Joneses’!  How was all this finery paid for? Leighton and his rivals were working in a boom period for British art.  The newly moneyed wanted contemporary art to hang on their walls- trophies confirming their entrepreneurial and social success. Leighton was ranked among the so-called Olympian painters also numbering G.F. Watts and Alma Tadema. They opted for Classical subjects drawing on both ancient history and mythology.  Leighton and Watts were rather high-minded; Alma Tadema less so, opting instead for ‘Victorians in Togas’. They all established their status as ‘gentlemen of the brush’ by creating prestigious studio-houses, veritable Palaces of Art.

Mosaic by Walter Crane in the Arab Hall, Leighton House

Aubrey Beardsley: Enfant Terrible of the 1890s

The Beardsley style is now synonymous with the so-called decadence of the 1890s, when poets and painters appeared to find beauty in morbid, deviant and degenerate subjects. His first major publication, illustrating Sir Thomas Malory‘s Le Morte d’Arthur appeared in 1893. His early style draws very heavily on the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones. However, for Oscar Wilde’s Salome (1894) he shifted to emulating Japanese wood block prints as well as paying homage to James Whistler’s infamous ‘Peacock Room’ (1877), the archetypal aesthetic movement interior.  The launch of the quarterly magazine the Yellow Book (1894) provided Beardsley with a platform for both his drawings and his literary ambitions. But at the height of this success disaster struck with the conviction of Oscar Wilde for ‘gross indecency’. The decadents were forced ‘underground’, with Leonard Smithers backing the Savoy magazine which ran for only one year, from January to December 1896. The Lysistrata of Aristophanes was also privately printed and issued by Smithers, with Beardsley’s style now aping Greek vase painting. One can only wonder how Beardsley’s style would have evolved had he lived but he was such a child of the Nineties it seems fitting that his flame was extinguished in 1898.

Frontis to Salome, with Oscar the Man in the Moon
‘The Climax’, from Salome

Now available to purchase from the archived library of lectures. You will be sent a direct link to my You Tube Channel Anne Anderson Art and Design History Channel.
You can pay by cheque or BACS (details will be supplied). Cheques should be made payable to ‘Anne Anderson’.

Or you can pay by PayPal


One lecture Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde and the Cult of Beauty


One lecture Leighton House

Lord Leighton’s Palace of Art: Artist’s Studio-Houses in London


One lecture Aubrey Beardsley

Aubrey Beardsley: Enfant Terrible of the 1890s.


Three lectures

Oscar Wilde and the Cult of Beauty Lord Leighton’s Palace of Art: Artist’s Studio-Houses in London Aubrey Beardsley: Enfant Terrible of the 1890s


Please join me to discover the mysteries of the Aesthetic Movement!

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