From Beardsley To Liberty: The British Art Nouveau Movement

With it's industry and Empire quickly expanding, Britain came to embrace a new way of thinking and creating.
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With it's industry and Empire quickly expanding, Britain came to embrace a new way of thinking and creating.


Art Nouveau or the new art emerged at the end of the 19th Century just as the Western world embraced the teachings of Freud, Darwin and Marx and entertained the concept of suffrage. We were in a new industrial age, had seen the demise of traditional craftsmanship and the rise of the factory and all its attendant evils. In response, designers met artists and created a new fresh style that threw whimsy, colour and elegant line into our filthy smog congested inner cities, breathing life into these wheezing decrepit old behemoths.

During the 18th and 19th Centuries the British Empire grew eastwards. Travellers returned with foreign artifacts that boasted a sensual, decidedly non-British liberation personified by the likes of Lord Byron and the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood. In 1854 Japanese goods flooded Europe inspiring a new conceit that painters, James McNeill Whistler, Edward Burne Jones and William Morris, took to their bosom inspiring the likes of the magnificent Leighton House in London. Accordingly, The Aesthetic Movement was born whose motto, ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ declared that one’s taste in all things is paramount. Led by Whistler and Oscar Wilde the movement, and its racy ‘continental’ ways, scandalised Victorian society, and garnered myriad devotees.  One such was the 19-year-old Aubrey Beardsley whose illustrations for Wilde’s Salome allowed entrance into the pack.


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Beardsley, pre-eminently influenced by Byrne Jones and Whistler – drew in pen and ink and used a ‘whiplash’  line and block colour, which marked him as the first exponent of art nouveau. He died of tuberculosis aged 25 in 1898.

The young genius had also taken a leaf out of the Arts and Craft movement, which led by socialist William Morris, looked back at the country’s medieval past and folklore and, in an attempt to create a beautiful utopian ideal, merged such with the flowing lines of Eastern art. All the rage in the late 19th Century, any posh bohemian home wasn’t complete without Morris wallpaper or textiles.

In Glasgow the notion was advanced to its glorious conclusion by unsung nouveau visionary, Margaret Macdonald. She had met with nouveau pioneer, Viennese painter Gustav Klimt, who’d been influenced by the frieze she exhibited at the 8th Viennese Secession in 1900. Derided by the press, the pair created one of the most amazing interiors at their Glasgow town house to showcase their talents. Now preserved at the Hunterian Museum, it is a shrine to pristine calm and restrained understatement. Macdonald died in 1933 leaving £88. In 2008 her work The Red Rose and the White Rose (1902) was auctioned for £1.7 million.

Art Nouveau, invented by Beardsley, perfected by Alphonse Mucha and made audible by Debussy and Satie was the first truly international art movement that, not only took influence from every corner of the globe, but also was subsequently adopted by architects and designers in every major city in the world. Lyrical, ephemeral and altogether illusory, it vanished just as World War One kicked in.

Many of the sites mentioned above still stand.