Aesthetic Movement furniture can give you whiplash. On one hand it can be delicately rendered, on the other hand it can hit you over the head with goofiness. The Aesthetic movement was a reaction to the heavy and suffocating Victorian styles. It was akin to the counter-culture of the 1960s when the restraints and conformity of previous decades were thrown off. The Aesthetic Movement began in England and was also embraced by America. It started around 1860 and extended to the 1890s when it gave way to the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Furniture and decorative items from this movement eschewed any deep meaning and emphasized beauty over any political or social statements. The term “art for art’s sake” is used to sum up the movement. There are several common themes in the Aesthetic Movement: the use of natural motifs, especially flowers, birds and insects; ebonized wood with incised gilt lines; Asian, particularly Japanese, influences; strong blue, green and yellow colors; blue and white ceramics.
The sunflower is one of the most common flowers carved in furniture, while gilt and brass are used for their yellow color. In the mahogany chest pictured at the top the red of the wood contrasts nicely with the gilt sunflower panels and the brass drawer pulls and locks.
These side chairs are of ebonized wood with incised gilt lines. The crestrail has delicate panels of inlay leaves in satinwood and brass.
A more robust corner, or roundabout, chair is made of rosewood and rosewood veneer.
The crestrail is in three parts and is carved with sunflowers, foliage and two butterflies. The arms end in a scrolled sunflower. The back rails are carved with foliage and flowers.
A closer look and you can see the lace wings of the butterfly, its carrot-shaped body, jaunty antenae and gimlet eye.
A magazine rack from the 1860s is elevated with ebonized wood and a Japanese crest on the lowest rack.
Even the smallest pieces of Aesthetic Movement furniture have layers of detail. A small side table of ebonized wood has a top made of mahogany bordered with ebony and brass. A gallery gives the lower shelf the appearance of a balcony.
The table top has two inlays of exotic woods: an Egyptian scarab and a bee:
Liberty & Co. in London made their own line of furniture and this is a typical side table in mahogany with an unadorned top. But on the right side you can see the detail given to this table in the pierced gallery of the lower shelf and the pierced sections of the legs.
Minton brought Japanese artists to England to paint decorative tiles and ceramics. The tiles for this mantle depict birds, lakes and islands of bamboo.
A small cabinet with sides and front of glass shows the influence of Japanese architecture.
The glazed red back panel sings against the ebonized wood.
In the gallery are several pieces that fall into the catagory of “ornamentation for ornamentation’s” sake. Two pieces are by the American avant-garde designer George Hunzinger.