For Art’s Sake: Oscar Wilde at Liberty
The story behind Liberty’s iconic Aesthetic Movement designs, as beloved by one of its most famous fansRead more
A famous fan of Liberty as “the chosen resort of the artistic shopper”, Oscar Wilde was the living embodiment of the Aesthetic Movement – an enduring celebration of beauty on its own terms, still closely associated with iconic Liberty designs.
From the mirrored tendrils of Art Nouveau to the ditsy florals of the 1930s, the geometrics of the ‘70s and the photorealism of the 21st century, Liberty has been at the forefront of print design for nearly 150 years. Several of the archive’s most iconic and enduring print designs date from the early years of the store’s opening – when Liberty design was at the forefront of the emerging Aesthetic Movement, bolstered by famous and influential fans including the Irish playwright and wit Oscar Wilde.
One should either be a work of art, or wear a work of art.
Aestheticism was based on a philosophy of “art for art’s sake” – emphasising the pleasure to be found in beautiful things through their visual and sensual qualities, in a rejection of Victorian establishment morality. Heavily influenced by the Classical period and by Japanese decorative and fine arts, the movement was shaped by the offerings of Arthur Lasenby Liberty and his store – with its beautiful homewares imported from Asia and the Middle East and elegantly draped costumery, Liberty was a must-visit destination for those obsessed with the Aesthetic “cult of beauty” in all its forms.
Under Wilde’s editorship, an article in The Woman’s World magazine was published in 1889 that described Liberty as “the chosen resort of the artistic shopper” – a resonant phrase that sketched a witty and affectionate caricature of the typical follower of Aestheticism, who could be found “fingering the art stuffs and fade silks shown her with a certain amount of reverence expressive of the artistic yearnings of her soul. We may be tolerably certain that such an one has her drawing-room arranged in […] yellow terracotta and ivory, or the new red-brown with the faintest, palest of olive-greens; the floor in parqueterie, with rich Eastern rugs laid down on it, furniture in dark wood, Moorish style.”
Prints and patterns offered another way to show one’s dedication to the movement – as motifs such as the peacock feather, the sunflower and the lily came to embody the spirit of Aestheticism, capturing its driving forces of bohemian romanticism and unapologetically avant-garde style. Wilde was charmed by the stylised forms of the sunflower and the lily, memorably describing them as: “the two most perfect models of design, the most naturally adapted for decorative art – the gaudy leonine beauty of the one and the precious loveliness of the other, giving to the artist the most entire and perfect joy.”
One of the most infamous Aesthetic designs of all time, the peacock feather print Hera endures to this day at Liberty. Named after the Grecian goddess whose sacred animal was the peacock, this iconic print exudes the elegance and decadence that also inspired Aubrey Beardsley’s Salome illustrations and Whistler’s Peacock Room. Hera has adorned Liberty designs since the mid-1890s, and remains a firm favourite of Liberty’s in-house design studio team. Still found every season adorning contemporary sleepwear, home furnishings and silk scarves, its continued popularity carries a fragment of the Aesthetic ideal into the homes and wardrobes of the 21st century – echoing Wilde’s aphorism that “What is beautiful is a joy for all seasons and a possession for all eternity.”
What is beautiful is a joy for all seasons and a possession for all eternity.