Towards the end of The Cult of Beauty, the V&A’s tremendous survey of the Aesthetic Movement in England (until 17 July), you gradually become aware of low voices issuing from a speaker on the gallery ceiling. ‘They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,/Love and desire and hate,’ says one; and the other:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Albert Moore, ‘Reading Aloud’ (1883-84)

Albert Moore, ‘Reading Aloud’ (1883-84)

The set-up is manipulative verging on corny; but the poems are read very well, in a kind of faltering whisper, and I found myself moved by them, and then wondered why so little of the visual material in the show had had the same effect. The Yeats and Dowson struck me as deeper, more naive things, in their worked-up despondency, than almost all the spellbound young men and dream-wrapped young ladies, trying, sculpturally or pictorially, for much the same wine-and-roses effect. The poems, in a word, were more beautiful. (And this immediate judgment of taste on my part linked up, as I thought about it, with the question of whether there was anyone from the 1890s troop of painters and illustrators who could be imagined taking the Yeats trajectory into the next century: never abandoning the dream-spreading, weeping-and-laughing view of poetry, that is, but finding a means to have it admit its tragic, ridiculous disjunction from the life of a ‘smiling public man’.) More beautiful, but why?

Perhaps because, formally, the two poems recognise – they enact, in their rhythm and diction – the weakness and factitiousness of their cult of beauty. The cult and its reach-me-down imagery are what the poems have at their disposal, and moping about and begging for mercy, they think, are preferable to most other activities on offer in the culture – the assorted non-dreamworlds that grown-ups are supposed to believe are real life. But readers of early Yeats are constantly reminded, by the verse itself, that the poet’s activities amounted to a cult – a lamentable expedient. And isn’t this Aestheticism’s subject: a situation in which the pursuit of beauty was – had to be – cultic? Or maybe we should say: a situation in which the cult of images – that most ordinary of human pursuits – seemed inevitably to take on a strained, defensive, vaguely spurious look, as if what mattered most about it was its sheer helplessness in the face of means-ends rationality. ‘I hope sincerely it will be all the age does not want’ (this is Burne-Jones writing about the glorious Kelmscott Chaucer): ‘I have omitted nothing I could think of to obstruct the onward march of the world … I have done all I can to impede progress … having put my hand to the plough I invariably look back.’ Or: ‘Every Sunday morning you may think of Morris and me together – he reads a book to me and I make drawings for a big Virgil he is writing – it is to be wonderful and put an end to printing.’ In the V&A you can stand looking at a gold page from the Aeneid with Dowson directly as soundtrack.

Burne-Jones’s self-mockery is very winning; and a quality parallel to self-mockery – a peculiar oscillation between excess and etiolation at the level of form, a threading together of dream-thinness and overcrowding – is what makes Burne-Jones’s painting and stained glass (for me) the only visual Aesthetic achievement to stand comparison with Yeats. Self-mockery is in very short supply at the V&A, even when it seems most called for – as yet another big-hair Astarte puffs her lips and stretches her serpent-in-the-garden neck, young ladies adjust their frocks to fit Mr Moore’s chequerboard, tigers with roses purr beneath polystyrene skies. It is (and rightly) no longer the done thing to sneer at Lord Leighton and Rossetti. (I reserve the right to snort occasionally.) But the case is complicated. There was always an impatience, a sense of insufficiency, haunting the Aesthetic Movement from within. Henry James coming out of the Grosvenor Gallery in 1877 (before Ruskin’s ‘pot of paint’ had set the lines of battle): ‘It may be a narrow point of view, but to be interesting it seems to me that a picture should have some relation to life as well as to painting. Mr Whistler’s experiments have no relation whatever to life; they only have a relation to painting.’ William Morris two years later:

It would be a pity to waste many words on the prospect of such a school of art as this, which … has as its watchword a piece of slang that does not mean the harmless thing it seems to mean – art for art’s sake. Its fore-doomed end must be, that art at last will seem too delicate a thing for even the hands of the initiated to touch; and the initiated must at last sit still and do nothing – to the grief of no one.

The case, to repeat, is hard to represent fairly. Morris’s inimitable energy and delicacy are always in dialogue with Burne-Jones’s choked arabesques. The two arts are ‘interlaced’, to borrow a word from William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones: Interlacings, Caroline Arscott’s astonishing recent study of their relationship (Yale, £40, 2008). For every Rossetti formula femme fatale there is the true cloying proximity – stuffed with the smug reek of sex – of his Bocca Baciata or Fair Rosamund. For every G.F. Watts a Kate Greenaway. For every squawking Peacock Room (be thankful that the exhibition’s digital approximation spares you the room’s real-life pomp) a Beguiling of Merlin.

Edward Burne-Jones, ‘The Beguiling of Merlin’ (1872-77), part of the Lady Lever Art Gallery collection at Port Sunlight, Wirral.

Edward Burne-Jones, ‘The Beguiling of Merlin’ (1872-77), part of the Lady Lever Art Gallery collection at Port Sunlight, Wirral.

The great strength of the V&A’s survey exhibitions, it goes without saying, is that fine and decorative arts are given equal play, with the latter dominant in terms of numbers. And here again, as with the great Arts and Crafts and Modernism shows of recent years, one shakes one’s head in disbelief at what the curators can bring out of the storerooms. Many, maybe most, of The Cult of Beauty’s high moments are ‘decorative’: Aitchison’s wallpaper for Berkeley Square, Rossetti’s swarming frontispiece for Goblin Market, Godwin’s side table, Silver’s printed cottons, fabulous book bindings, fragments (too few) of stained glass. And of course, powering all, the relentless modest microcosms of Morris and Co.

This is, to agree with Burne-Jones, wonderful. Two questions seem to me to follow. First, I found myself in the exhibition repeatedly trying to decide how seriously the fine artists of the Aesthetic Movement looked at the achievements of their applied art comrades; or, if the painter and designer were the same person, how the discipline of the decorative fed – in practice, ‘aesthetically’ – into the subsequent oil painting or bronze. Here is where the comparison with things French remains crushing. All through the show I could not escape the implacable shade of Puvis de Chavannes; he acted as a kind of anti-Lord Leighton for me (with Bonnard as anti-Albert Moore). And the lesson I learn from France is this. A great ‘decorative’ artist – a Puvis, a Hodler, a Matisse – always manages to convince us that the orderliness or simplicity that a body takes on in a painting, maybe in obedience to surface pattern, is an order and artifice that the body has in it. Albert Moore, by contrast, whom the V&A makes much of, seems to me to do the opposite. (Quite deliberately and brilliantly, no doubt, but brilliance and meticulousness have nothing to do with beauty.) In Moore’s Reading Aloud, for instance – a perfect foil for Burne-Jones’s Merlin – the tension between the felt muscular stretching-and-holding of the woman on the right and the figure’s adjustment to a two-dimensional scheme seems to me minimal to the point of vanishing. The one does nothing to the other. The ‘geometry’ is not affected by its being that of a body, and the body does not ‘disclose new aspects’ – aspects of itself – by being fitted into a formal order. My notion of beauty is stuck with the idea that form – the point of form – is the disclosure of new aspects. I guess that is what Henry James is saying. But already in 1877, you will notice, he is having to apologise for his realist common sense. (Let us agree that a late James sentence would not have been possible without Aestheticism. But its hold on the particulars of thought, of feeling, is all that Aestheticism is not.)

My second question is enormous – I just throw it out. Again, the exhibition provokes it. If there was to be a new, embattled cult of beauty in the later 19th century, then what would be its matrix? For reasons that Kant sets out persuasively, this question will almost inevitably turn on a further one about the kind of beauty to be borrowed, or transmuted, or somehow internalised, from the natural world. What kind, then? What notion of nature? The French answer (always resisted and evaded, but over time quietly dominant) was landscape: landscape’s mere extension and immediacy, its happening to the eye, with the mind imagined in abeyance. The drying-up of strong landscape practice of this kind, or any other to speak of, in late Victorian England is one key to Aestheticism’s limits. No doubt Ruskin was cruel when he wrote to Burne-Jones about Merlin: ‘Nothing puzzles me more than the delight that painters have in drawing mere folds of drapery, and their carelessness about the folds of water and clouds, or hills, or branches. Why should the tuckings in and out of muslin be eternally interesting?’ Cruel, and obtuse about Burne-Jones; but accurate – indeed, the very voice of modernism – about Albert Moore and Flaming June.

There is, however, an English counter-proposal on this very question of nature and beauty, and Arscott’s book has opened our eyes to it. If for some reason the eternal untouchable middle distance of landscape-in-the-eye is foreign to us on our island, or unattainable, then let there be horrible, stifling closeness in its stead – the hawthorn bearing down on poor Merlin like a leprous second skin. Nature as overgrownness: a vision of things, with Darwin in the background, in which the forked human animal, gathering its muslins about it, is overtaken – supported but invaded, animated but as if by a puppeteer – by the sheer dry power of biological replication, convolution, horror vacui. (Rossetti’s interiors are not dissimilar.) Beauty exists in this world, but oxygen for it is always in short supply. The forest is enchanted, but the magic is black. Every free space is a niche with predators. Women are terrifying. Nature is mechanism. Tread softly because you tread on my dreams. Never softly enough, it transpires.

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