Herbert Colborne Oakley (1869 - 1944)
The Aesthetic Movement Of 1880
Interesting Lecture At Southampton
School Of Art Roll Of Honour
It was a lecture of very considerable interest to minds concerned with the progress of Art in this country that Mr. H. Colborne Oakley gave at the Southampton School Of Art last Tuesday evening. So much of the fantastic and legendary has gathered about that famous survival of aesthetics during the "eighteen-eighties" that its vital significance and the very real revolution that it accomplished are apt to be overlooked. In choosing as his theme, therefore, "The Aesthetic Movement around 1880 and what we owe to it," Mr. Oakley did what must be regarded as a valuable and at the same time rather courageous thing. It was valuable because it drew attention to the practical importance of artistic movements generally - a matter which, thanks to Continental influences, will probably be more widely recognized in this country at the close of the war than ever before; and it was courageous because the lecturer dealt quite frankly, and at times very amusingly, with those elements of the aesthetic craze which covered it for the time being with the more or less bitter ridicule of the naturally incensed Philistines. But Mr. Oakley's most effective point, after his admirable summary of what the aesthetic movement actually stood for, was his clear and definite statement of some few of the more material improvements that it actually accomplished on the artistic side of our social life, improvements from which we are all benefiting to-day. It is true that the Philistines of the Victorian era may have laughed with some reason at the extravagant aesthete who could lie upon a Persian prayer rug and contemplate "intensely" the perfection of a lily, or a sunflower; but as Mr. Oakley pointed out, people of to-day have to thank the movement in relation to which this strange type of being stood partly as exemplar and partly as parody, for a clean sweep of many monstrosities in the way of house decoration, furniture, and costume, and the substitution of much that is gracious and beautiful. Mr. Oakley is an admirable lecturer, and has thoroughly mastered (if we adapt one of the old aesthetic paradoxes) that most difficult of acquired arts - naturalness. He is well known both as an artist and a lecturer upon art. He is also a Southamptonian, so that it is to be hoped that opportunities will present themselves in the near future for local audiences to hear more of him.
Mr. W. F. G. Spranger, J.P., presided, and expressed pleasure at one of their old townsmen having consented to come there to give a lecture, adding that Mr. Oakley was the son of the late Alderman R. G. Oakley, who was generous and kind towards every good thing in the town, and for his sake they welcomed his son. Mr. Oakley had been headmaster at the School Of Art at Kidderminster, from which he had now retired, and he had come to reside among them again. A portrait of Colonel Bance, an ex-mayor of the town, which hung in the Council Chamber of the Municipal Offices, was painted by Mr. Oakley.
Mr.Oakley, after defining the meaning of Aestheticism and emphasizing the need for the aesthete, explained that there were two ways of confirming to the recognized laws that govern the abstract principles of Beauty, one being unconscious and the other conscious, in the latter case training being added to instinct. The Aesthetic movement in England had its origin in the romantic poetry of Keats and in the pre-Raphaelite movement in painting. The prominent artists of the pre-Raphaelitism were Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Holman Hunt, Arthur Hughes, and others, and the characteristics of the movement, which was to a great extent a protest against the uninspired formalism of much of the art of that time, were a going back to nature, dissatisfaction with conventional formulae as applied to Art, a certain quality of intense sincerity, and great attention to and loving care of details and symbols. Among the men who really made the Aesthetic movement were Morris and Burne-Jones. Both were poets, but they were both capable of descending to the practicalities, and as a result of their combined efforts secured a wonderful revival of artistic interest in such matters as stained glass, tapestry, bookbinding, printing, wallpapers and other arts and crafts. Then there were Rossetti, Burne-Jones, Whistler, and Albert Moore, who as painters represented two classes, the subjective (to which the two former belonged) and the objective (to which the two latter belonged). All these artists exemplified in a powerful degree the especial aims of things beautiful and aesthetic. In addition to them was Oscar Wilde, the personified Aesthete who preached Aesthetics. When the Aesthetes arrived, about 1879, the reception they had and the ridicule poured upon them showed that they must have been brave to avoid being overcome by it. So strong was the feeling against them that it was manifested in a terrible onslaught in the pages of "Punch" and by the opera "Patience". The lecturer quoted several interesting examples of "Punch's" satire upon the movement, of which the following is a characteristic specimen:-
Maudle, the Painter (a contemporary portrait): "I fear the picture is one of my failures!"
Mrs. Cimabue Brown: "On no! Its like Michael Angelo at his best."
Maudle: "Not so bad as that, I hope!"
Ruskin, Mr. Oakley explained, championed the pre-Raphaelites and Oscar Wilde interpreted the Aesthetic movement. Whistler was opposed to the movement rather because he objected to Art having any interpreters beyond the artists themselves than because he disapproved of its general aims. It was however, necessary that there should be intermediaries capable of bringing technical artistic matters within the comprehension of the public, and for this reason the popular exponents of the Aesthetic movement rendered the cause a valuable service. It was only possible to appreciate all that the Aesthetic movement had done when we compared the state of the things existing before the movement came into being, and the state of things now. It did way, for instance, with a good deal of pretence, painted landscapes on plates and dishes, much of bad taste in dress, wax fruits and stuffed animals, wedding cake ornaments in glass cases, the doubtful edification of wax-work shows, imitativeness in wallpapers, the commonplace prettiness of chintzes, cold marble mantelpieces, Dresden china shepherds and shepherdesses, the fulsome fetish of lace curtains, carpets of unexampled vulgarity, crinolines and vulgar earrings, coiffeurs a la chignon, jewelry with art, Paisley shawls, smoking caps, etc. What a debt of gratitude therefore, the lecturer concluded, do we owe to the courage of the painters, poets - and the poseurs even - of the past!
Mr. G. W. Sandell, hon. secretary to the School of Art, proposed a hearty vote of thanks to Mr. Oakley for his interesting lecture, remarking that the School of Art, which had a good record, was now somewhat under a cloud; but he hoped after the war was over it would be resuscitated.
The proposition was carried by acclamation.
Mr. Oakley, in acknowledging the compliment, said he was happy to be associated with the School of Art, and pleased to be identified with any kind of movement making for progress in the town.
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