“Art for art’s sake”, a phrase coined by Theophile Gautier in 1835, became the slogan for the Aesthetic Movement – a movement that set forth to promote the cult of pure beauty in the arts.
In the middle of the 19th Century, fine art was heavy with historicism, sentimentality and morality – the archetypal Victorian style that we think of today. With the rampant spread of industrialisation and materialism in the second half of the century, there was a movement amongst a group of liberal artists, philosophers, poets and designers to rid art of deeper historical meaning or moralising and celebrate visual beauty – literally promoting art for art’s sake. Furthermore, these free thinkers hoped to spread art and beauty into everyday life, to make it available to the masses and not just the elite.
Beginning in Fine Art with the like of Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Edward Burne-Jones and George Frederick Watts, the Aesthetic Movement was dream-like, wistful, full of vivid jewel-like colours and embellished with rich textural details. Inspiration was drawn from the Middle-East and particularly from Japan, from where trade routes had opened after 1850.
Soon the movement spread into design and the decorative arts, with the likes of Christopher Dresser and Edward William Godwin producing furniture, textiles, wallpaper, ceramics and more. Of all the domestic artistic movements of the late 19th and early 20th century, it was the first to be commercially successful, epitomised by the vast array of furnishings available in Liberty’s in London. No branch of the arts was exempt and silver, too, saw designers apply the principles of the movement to their wares.
Aesthetic Movement silver is focussed on decorative surface detail. The overall shape of pieces was borrowed from an earlier stylistic era, but these forms were now covered in a riot of flowers, plants and birds, with decorative elements from Japan coming to the fore. Today, Aesthetic Movement silver attracts a keen following at auction. Decorative and pretty, pieces fetch a premium in the saleroom, with recent examples selling well over estimate. One such lot sold recently was a three-piece silver tea service made by Joseph and Horace Savory of Goldsmith Alliance & Co. in London in 1890. Of oval form, the service was engraved with cranes, bamboo, birds, butterflies and reed, and sold for £700 against an estimate of £250-350. Appearing fairly infrequently at auction, good pieces of Aesthetic Movement silver are sure to cause a stir amongst collectors.