February 18 2011
On the night How To Spend It commandeered the V&A’s William Morris Room for a fashion shoot inspired by the museum’s upcoming exhibition The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900, curator Stephen Calloway (pictured) was on hand to offer counsel and comment. Opening on April 2 and running to July 17, the show is the most comprehensive collection of Aesthetic masterpieces to be shown together: on display will be paintings, textiles, furniture, jewellery and fashion by the likes of Rossetti and Burne-Jones, Leighton and Alma-Tadema, Morris, Dresser and Wilde.
“[What’s extraordinary about this] is that in spite of all the cameras, laptops, spotlights and miles of cable, this scene is utterly redolent of the atmosphere of 19th-century artists’ studios,” Calloway remarked. He himself cuts a singular and striking figure, thanks to his extravagant whiskers and pageboy, and a wardrobe meticulously crafted to a late-19th-century sartorial brief (courtesy of his long-time tailor Steve Bell) – exemplifying the Aesthetic ideal of personal style, elevated to an art form.
The actress Bonnie Wright brought the season’s inspired dresses to life – themselves minor works of art, intricately pleated, gathered and ruched so as to move and drape sensually and easily. Such liberated effortlessness was a precept of the movement, which saw a dissolution of the traditional boundaries between art forms – poets became painters, paintings were inspired by poetry – with at its centre the singular pursuit of beauty. Supporting roles were played by opulent floral arrangements by artist Hayley Newstead, and period furniture and textiles lent by the Liberty & Co archives – and, of course, by the Morris Room’s own painstakingly restored wall panels and woodwork.