A Sampling of Aesthetic Movement Furniture

Mahogany chest, England, circa 1870.

Mahogany chest, England, circa 1870.

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.

Carved sunflower panel and brass drawer pulls.

Carved sunflower panel and brass drawer pulls.

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.

Side chairs, American, 1880-85.

Side chairs, American, 1880-85.

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.

Rosewood chair, American, 1870-80.

Rosewood chair, American, 1870-80.

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.

Detail of the rosewood chair Crestrail.

Detail of the rosewood chair crestrail.

A magazine rack from the 1860s is elevated with ebonized wood and a Japanese crest on the lowest rack.

Magazine rack, 1860s.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.

Side table, America, 1880.

Side table, America, 1880.

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.

Liberty & Co. side table, 1895.

Liberty & Co. side table, 1895.

Minton brought Japanese artists to England to paint decorative tiles and ceramics. The tiles for this mantle depict birds, lakes and islands of bamboo.

Walnut mantle, England, 1880s.

Walnut mantle, England, 1880s with inset of tile detail.

A small cabinet with sides and front of glass shows the influence of Japanese architecture.

Japanese-inspired cabinet, 1875.

Japanese-inspired cabinet, 1875.

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.

Suzanne Ellison

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10 Responses to A Sampling of Aesthetic Movement Furniture

  1. Yet another fascinating article. I am a dedicated follower of the Arts and Crafts movement Yet I didn’t know that it was preceded by the Aesthetic Movement. Was the furniture made by hand or was it machine made in factories.

    I would be interested in a detailed description of this movement and how it led on to the Arts and Crafts movement.

    Sometimes I get a little annoyed at the sheer quantity of material from LAP but its very much worth it when I get such an interesting post.

    • saucyindexer says:

      Bernard, the Aesthetic Movement was the transition between Victorian and Arts and Crafts. The Victoria and Albert Museum on your side of the pond has some very good articles about the movement in furniture and the decorative arts.

  2. paul6000000 says:

    Great post. I’ve been thinking of maybe making one of those crazy litttle wall shelves with doors and spindle galleries and such. I hadn’t realized that ebonizing was so popular on this stuff.

  3. vadoucette says:

    le plus sa change…


  4. Kansas John says:

    Suzanne we are going to have to start calling you Babe Ruth if you keep knocking them out of the park like this.

  5. Jeremy says:

    Great post, we need more info on style periods throughout history. Some are well served, others are hard to find out more about. Its amazing how diverse and polarizing pieces within this style appears, many are incredibly appealing to me and other completely off putting.

  6. bsrlee says:

    You might want to check the provenance of that Theban stool, Tutankhamun’s tomb was not discovered until 1922, which was getting well towards the end of the Arts and Crafts era. Of course there were several outbreaks of Egyptomania in the 19th Century, starting with the return of Napoleon’s Egyptian Expedition and the publication of the various illuminated reports by the accompanying scientists.

    • saucyindexer says:

      The provenence of the bamboo stool is correct but my reference was not. The gallery is updated with a Thebes stool aquired by the British Museum in 1835, and as you said, it was part of another Egyptian-revival. Thanks for pointing out the mismatch. As far as I can find the bamboo version is not from Liberty & Co. They patented a design for a Thebes stool in 1884 that falls into the Arts and Crafts Movement.

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