london

Napoleon Sarony, Oscar Wilde, 1882, albumen panel print, 12 x 7 1/4". From “The Cult of Beauty.”

“The Cult of Beauty”

Victoria and Albert Museum

Napoleon Sarony, Oscar Wilde, 1882, albumen panel print, 12 x 7 1/4". From “The Cult of Beauty.”

Paintings of velvet-swaddled damsels, with fiery hair and mournful pouts, fraternized with blue-and-white china, japonaiserie costumes, and gilt-edged tomes of illustrated fairy tales in “The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860–1900.” Plush rooms (decorated with projections of peacock feathers and wispy, floral patterns) traced the movement’s various phases. The esoteric quest of a few in the 1860s, it was given a boost by the Grosvenor Gallery’s patronage in the 1870s, exultantly exalted as a lifestyle choice in the 1880s (with the flourishing of the “house beautiful” aesthetic), and was arguably on the decline by the 1890s, when it morphed into its “decadent” phase, exemplified by the dandified musings of Oscar Wilde. Visitors’ meanderings through the late nineteenth century were punctuated with reminders (in the form of wall text) of the centrality of the South Kensington

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