Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Oscar Wilde / Patience / Aesthetic Teapot

So, lately I've been reading a lot about the late Victorian philosophical and cultural movement of Aestheticism. The definition of the movement, according to the Philosophy Dictionary is the "doctrine associated with late 19th-century writers and artists, including Walter Pater, James McNeill Whistler, and especially Oscar Wilde. It holds that the appreciation of art and beauty is the highest aim of human life, and especially that the pursuit of such experience is not constrained by ordinary moral considerations. Art itself serves no ulterior moral or political purpose. The ‘Aesthetic Movement’ was a useful reaction against the didactic religious and moral art of the time and helped artists and critics to concentrate upon the formal and internal qualities of works of art."

Although not all of the Pre-Raphaelites were Aesthetes, their art was rather central to the movement. Rossetti's penchant for purchasing blue and white china started a collecting craze, and in Burne-Jones' biography written by his wife, he lamented that sunflowers had become such a "trend" (they were a symbol of Aestheticism) and emphasized that his love for sunflowers predated the movement. The work of William Morris (and the creation of Red House) is often mentioned in articles on Aestheticism as well.

Anyway, Aestheticism and the Pre-Raphaelites were quite closely related, so this week I wanted to do a few posts on Aestheticism.

First I had to feature this famous teapot. The Oscar Wilde / Patience / Aesthetic teapot (can be found using all three search terms, but it's mostly known simply as the Aesthetic teapot) was made as a reaction to the bold and unique fashion and personality of Oscar Wilde, the Aesthetic Movement's "poster child." Any counter-cultural movement will encounter its critics and its parodies, and one form of parody was this teapot, made to resemble an Aesthetic dandy. One major criticism of Aestheticism was that it was demasculinizing, and the statement made with this teapot certainly would be viewed today as more than a little intolerant. But I have to admit, I find the man depicted on it utterly charming.

"Probably the most famous figural teapot is the "Aesthetic" teapot made in 1882. The clever, two-sided pot depicts a man on one side, a woman on the other. It was inspired by the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta "Patience."

The teapot, made by the Royal Worcester pottery in England, is difficult to clean. The handle and spout made pouring tea difficult. The head was the removable cover, and the tea was poured from a hole in the figure's hand."

Written on the bottom of the teapot is the words "Fearful consequences through the laws of Natural Selection and Evolution of living up to one's Teapot."

Note the sunflower on the man's side of the teapot, and the lily on the woman's. All sorts of parodies featured the doe-eyed gazing at these flowers on the part of Aesthetes. Also note the gorgeous smocking on the woman's gown, which was often featured on Aesthetic gowns.

When I read that this teapot was not one-of-a-kind, but mass produced, I thought to myself "well perhaps I can save up and someday purchase one of them." Silly me. After some searching, I discovered a listing on Christies for a teapot that sold at auction in 2001. The final hammer price? $11,163. That would buy a lot of tea.


Von said...

Charming and delightful post, thank you for it!

Hermes said...

This movement increasingly fascinates me too. You could call it the cult of beauty and theres not much wrong with that.

Sphinxvictorian said...

Lovely post, Grace! I have actually seen the teapot at the Royal Worcester China museum, and it is a delightful piece. Although as a latter-day Aesthete myself, I do sometimes balk at the treatment meted out to my predecessors. Though I do much enjoy Patience, I do find myself wishing they didn't have to poke fun at my dearly-held philosophy!

I do find that many of the modern-day books about the movement seem unable to take it seriously, which I find very sad. Lionel Lambourne's book on the Movement, while beautifully illustrated, is really quite brutal in its nonchalant attitude about the ideals and philosophies of both Wilde and the other Aesthetes.

So all this to say, thank you for taking a more balanced approach and I look forward to reading more of your blog posts on the subject! :)

Grace said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Grace said...

I've noticed just what you mean, Sphinxvictorian! So many of the books seem to focus on the parody response of the general public to the social movement, instead of the brilliance of the movement itself.

Angela Elsey said...

Thank you for the info! I just saw one of these teapots at the Cult of Beauty exhibit at the San Francisco Legion of Honor (and thought like you that it would be interesting to find one, which led me to your blog!). Went in costume with a group of friends who play the roles of various pre-Raphaelites at the Dickens fair in SF each year. You would enjoy the exhibit if you will be in SF in the next few months!

Grace said...

Hi Angela! I would love to make it to the Cult of Beauty exhibition...sadly I'm saving up for a trip to England next year, so this year it will have to wait. I did a post on the group of reenactors at the event a week ago. So lovely to meet you!

Unknown said...

I actually have one of these! When I got it it had several small chips & nicks, but was intact. Then tragedy struck: My cat knocked it of the mantle and the heads smashed to smithereens. I would love to find someone skillful and patient enough to restore it. If anyone knows of someone who might be able to restore it, please let me know. Thanks so much.